There’s an old saying in baseball, one heard most frequently in these parts from former Twins manager Tom Kelly:
“Get the boys off the field.”
Meaning: The pitcher’s job is to work quickly, and get his teammates up to bat.
Joe Nathan mastered that as the best closer in Twins history, and he said he will try to employ that skill Saturday when the team inducts him into its Hall of Fame. “My first line will be something along those lines,” Nathan said. “I’m hoping it’s an ice breaker.”
As a public service to newish Twins fans who might not remember Nathan, let me introduce you:
From 2004 through 2009, Nathan was the Midwest’s Mariano.
Because of longevity combined with dominance and a celebrated role with championships teams, the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera is justifiably revered. From the time the Twins traded for Nathan before the 2004 season through Nathan’s Tommy John surgery in 2010, Nathan was Rivera’s equal.
During that span, Rivera compiled a 1.90 ERA, a 28-23 record, 243 saves, 440⅓ innings and a .936 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).
During that span, Nathan compiled a 1.87 ERA, a 22-12 record, 246 saves, 418⅔ innings pitched and a .934 WHIP.
Nathan holds the team record for saves, ranks eighth on baseball’s career list in the category, and ranks fourth, just behind Rivera, in save percentage at .891.
If baseball analysts and Hall of Fame voters more greatly valued relief pitchers, Nathan might be preparing a speech for Cooperstown, N.Y.
Having pitched for non-World Series champions in Minnesota, does he feel underappreciated? “Oh, absolutely not,” he said. “Shoot, my career, if you were to tell me at the beginning of this thing that it would have went as well as it did as long as it did, I would have taken it in a heartbeat, would have felt very fortunate and probably would not have believed it would have gone on that long.
“Challenges always arise, and having the right people in my corner who supported me and helped me battle back from injuries — and all the people that were there for me and kept me going as long as we could. There are no words to tell them how much I appreciated everything. There is no shortlist of people I want to thank.”
He lives in Knoxville, Tenn. Current job: “Unpaid Uber driver for my kids,” he said. Future job: “When the time is right and the kids are older, I’d love to get back to work with the Twins.”
He arrived in former General Manager Terry Ryan’s greatest trade. Joe Mauer was ready for the big leagues in 2004, so Ryan sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for the unproven Nathan, Class A pitcher Francisco Liriano and pitching prospect Boof Bonser.
Pierzynski alienated the Giants, signing with the White Sox after San Francisco refused to tender a contract offer after one season.
“The biggest thing that made that trade lopsided was Liriano going from a single-A pitcher with the Giants and coming over here and shocking the world against Roger Clemens and taking off,” Nathan said. “And while it didn’t work out for the Giants, it worked pretty well for the White Sox. A.J. helped them win a World Series.”
The 2000s Twins offered the most compelling group of athletes I’ve ever covered, and Nathan was as accessible and accountable as any of his many charismatic teammates. He loved talking baseball before games, and was willing to talk after even on the rare occasion of a blown save.
Saturday, Nathan will walk toward the mound and try to make it quick. As was the case in big-league games, that might be a challenge.
“I want to keep it short,” he said. “But I have so many people to thank.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org