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Article: Nathan Leaves Rarefied Air

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#1 Ted Schwerzler

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Posted 01 September 2017 - 01:37 AM

After just shy of 1,000 major league innings spanning 16 years, 42-year-old Joe Nathan is ready to put a bow on it. Today he steps away from the game that has been a large part of his adulthood, and he does so in front of a Twins fan base that celebrates along with him. As Nathan walks away however, it's worth contextualizing just what the game is losing.A sixth-round draft pick way back in 1995, Nathan broke into the big leagues as a starting pitcher. Making it with the organization that drafted him, Joe started 29 games through his first two big league seasons. He allowed more than his fair share of runs, strikeouts were hard to come by, and the free pass was all to frequent. There ended the starting career of Joe Nathan. What took place next could not have been predicted.

The Giants called on Nathan for just over three innings in 2002, and while he pitched 79 in 2003, none of them were in a role that he would eventually come to know as home. San Francisco had tabbed Tim Worrell as their closer, and 38 of his 71 career saves came in that season. It wasn't until Nathan's path brought him to Minnesota that he got his chance.

125 games, and 270 innings into his major league career, Joe Nathan got his first save opportunity. He entered a 3-0 game against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field and shut down the Tribe. He completed that same feat 376 more times over the next 666 games in his career.

From 2004-2011, Nathan recorded 260 of his saves with the Minnesota Twins. As the closer for Minnesota, he went to four All-Star Games, while receiving both MVP and Cy Young votes on two separate occasions. Despite big names like Rick Aguilera and Jeff Reardon before him, it's Nathan who owns the all-time Twins saves record. Being 140 clear of the next active player (Glen Perkins), that doesn't appear to be in jeopardy any time soon.

Used in the most traditional sense of the role, Ron Gardenhire routinely ran Nathan out for the ninth inning knowing he had someone who could shut the opponent down. While he touched mid-to-upper 90's plenty, it was also a devastating slider that kept him one step ahead of opposing batters. Not the triple-digit threat a handful of today's closers have become, Nathan was as much overpowering as he was intuitive.

Officially closing the door on his active career, Nathan leaves the game with the eighth most saves all time. His 377 are sandwiched between Dennis Eckersley and Jonathan Papelbon. Francisco Rodriguez, and his 437 saves are the only active tally higher than the Twins great's, and his 377 is more than 50 saves clear of the next competitor in Huston Street (324). When trying to find active players who could push for Nathan's numbers, you have to go all the way down to Craig Kimbrel (287) or Kenley Jansen (224).

In knowing how they are used, closers will perhaps never get their due. While Mariano Rivera will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, Trevor Hoffman was not. Lee Smith will likely need the help of a future committee, and guys like K-Rod or Billy Wagner will likely always be on the outside looking in. As the game has evolved, the importance placed on the final three outs has changed. Leverage and situational usage of your best relievers has shifted, and the save has become a stat looked upon with a level of disdain.

What's not possible however is to discredit what Joe Nathan did in a Twins uniform, or as a major leaguer in general. For just shy of a decade, Nathan was a premier reliever in all of baseball. He was as lockdown as they come, and he played a key role on some of the most fondly remembered Twins teams in franchise history. It's too bad he never got to play in a Championship Series, let alone a World Series, but he can hardly look back and not smile at what was accomplished.

As Joe Nathan takes his first step off the diamond today as a retired baseball player, he will have nothing to look back on with regret. If most people hope for their one opportunity, Nathan lived multiple lifetime's full of them. We're watching one of the greatest in the history of the sport walk away, and for Twins fans, he'll get to do in it the greatest territory of them all, Twins Territory.

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- Ted Schwerzler
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#2 Tommygun921

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Posted 01 September 2017 - 07:32 AM

Had a beer and a Washington apples shot with him at a bar in St Louis during a 3 games series yrs ago. He also signed a few autographs for me and some friends. I can't pinpoint the game but I fondly remember him telling someone to (from reading his lips) "get the f@#$ back in there!" After throwing an inside fastball in the heat of the playoff race. One of my favorite players!
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#3 Sam Morley

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Posted 01 September 2017 - 07:46 AM

Here's my favorite Joe Nathan memory:

My younger brother Paul and his buddy Matt (who at the time were relief pitchers on the bethel college team) and I went to a late season game at the dome. The twins were in the thick of a division race which they eventually won, and that nights game was close enough that Joe came in for the save and got it. The done was blowing up and we were pumped.

We decided to go hang out in the parking lot where the players came out. There was already a large gathering of fans when we got there, in a long line stretching from the door. We found a spot to stand and cheered whenever one of the guys came out or drove by. We weren't thinking of meeting anyone (though I think a few guys stopped to sign a few autographs at the front of the line) we just wanted to keep the energy going from the game. Most of the guys would wave and give a fist pump or something. Carlos Silvia had been the starter and had a great outing so the crowd roared for him.

Joe must've been one of the last guys to come out (fitting for a closer- and one who couldn't walk away til age 42). Anyway, Joe starts signing autographs and shaking hands. But he doesn't stop at the front of the line, and just keeps coming, saying hello to everyone. Paul and Matt and (guys in our early/mid 20s) start asking each other, "is he gonna go down the whole line?")

I guess we had some time to think of what to say before he got to us, but it didn't occur to me to say anything other than 'way to go, Joe' and shake his hand. Matt, however, popped off one of the strangest questions, given the context, of all time.

"Hey Joe, what kind of oil do you use on your glove? It's so shiny." He says, and I couldn't tell if he was being sincere or a little goofy. But it got Joe to break his 'meet the fans' character for like a second. He makes this wtf face, quickly recovers his smile and says,

"I don't know, somebody else does that. I have a couple gloves, one I play catch with and a game glove."

I was laughing, but Paul's wit succeeded him, and as Joe moved on to the next fans in line, he called over to him,

"Hey Joe, what kind of shampoo do you use on your hair? It's so shiny!"

Paul didn't get an answer but he did get a quality laugh out of Joe, who was on his way to shaking hands with every fan in line.

Great pitcher, great Twin, great guy; happy trails, Joe.
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#4 Thrylos

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Posted 01 September 2017 - 08:59 AM

Used in the most traditional sense of the role, Tony Kelly routinely ran Nathan out for the ninth inning

 

Guess I am not the only one with PTSD regarding Molitor's predecessor ;)

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#5 Ted Schwerzler

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Posted 01 September 2017 - 09:48 AM

 

Guess I am not the only one with PTSD regarding Molitor's predecessor ;)

 

Meant Gardenhire. 3:30am isn't always kind.

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