Joe Nathan made it about 20 seconds into his retirement speech before he broke down.
The former Twins closer signed a one-day contract to finish his career with the team for which he is the all-time saves leader, put on a jersey, sat down at a Target Field news conference Friday and started to talk.
“My family, friends for coming out and supporting me, I for all the sacrifices that you guys have made … I’m not supposed to cry right now, I knew I wasn’t gonna, but here we go …”
Nathan, 42, paused to adjust his sleeves before continuing. “You guys are the reason I have done everything I have. Your sacrifices and your support has gotten me here.’’
The six-time All-Star had 260 of his 377 career saves with the Twins. He was with the team from 2004-11, missing 2010 because of Tommy John surgery. Nathan signed with the Rangers in 2012 and made two All-Star teams in Texas. He later pitched for the Tigers, Giants and Cubs, earning a World Series ring last year despite throwing just two innings for Chicago. His final comeback attempt, with the Nationals, ended this spring.
“He made a huge impact in the community and in the clubhouse as well,” said Twins General Manager Thad Levine, who was an assistant GM in Texas when Nathan pitched for the Rangers.
“You try to build a team around championship caliber people, and Joe is exactly that. He has the heart of a lion.”
Nathan started his career as a shortstop before the Giants converted him to a pitcher. He became a closer in 2004 after the Twins — making Joe Mauer the team’s full-time catcher — traded catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for pitchers Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano and Nathan.
“That trade really vaulted this franchise forward, and redefined what was going to be an era of excellence,” Levine said.
Nathan and his agent, Dave Pepe, were on a cruise when the trade happened, and Pepe knocked on Nathan’s door to give him “good news or bad news.”
Turned out to be good. Nathan’s fondest memory with the Twins was the one-game playoff at the end of the 2009 season when Detroit and the Twins tied for the American League Central title. The Twins won 6-5 in 12 innings in the final regular season game played in the Metrodome.
“We had to wait to play Game 163 because [the Vikings] had Monday Night Football against Green Bay,” Nathan said. “The fans were going crazy, for a week straight with us trying to get into a tiebreak game, and then having Monday Night Football and then having Game 163 and then having Game 163 going down like it did … it seemed like the tying or go-ahead or winning run was in scoring position every inning, the crowd was electric, it seemed like from around the sixth inning all the way through the 12th, it was deafening in there.”
Nathan said he was happy to end his career with the Twins, hinting that it also would have been fun to get a chance to pitch for the team this season. He was to throw out the first pitch before Friday’s game against the Royals.
“From the time I can remember, before I can remember, before I could even walk, this game has meant so much to me,” he said. “Even though I won’t be playing this game at the highest level and competing, I know it will still be a part of my life through my kids and following this great game of baseball and hopefully doing some things with the Twins, help some young guys coming out or whatever it is. I know I will follow this game for the rest of my life. It’s a game I loved and will continue to love even though I’m not playing it.
“This is where I wanted to finish my career whether it was pitching this year or signing a one-day contract. It was a special place and a special team.”