KNOXVILLE, TENN. – Joe Nathan had suits and ties piled on a table Wednesday not far from the main entrance of his suburban home. Boxes were scattered around the bedroom closet. Last-minute wash piled up in the laundry room.
"He’s supposed to be packing," his wife, Lisa, said skeptically.
Nathan was filling his truck before it was shipped to Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training, which begins this week. his packing included a large blue equipment bag from his basement. one pocket contained a plastic bag that held two handfuls of dirt.
"here it is," Nathan said, pulling out what has become a personal symbol of his nearly complete return from Tommy John surgery last March.
Nathan scooped up the dirt from the Metrodome mound following the Twins’ Game 3 season-ending loss to the Yankees in the 2009 AL Division Series — the final Twins game at the indoor stadium. The Dome is where Nathan went from being untested to collecting 246 saves in six seasons and becoming one of the best closers in baseball.
His plan was to sprinkle some of the dirt on the mound at Target Field, bringing a little bit of the Dome magic with him. That’s been on hold since his surgery.
As he threw his 20th pitch against the Boston Red Sox during a March 6, 2010, spring game, Nathan felt searing pain in his right arm. He subsequently learned that he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament, the vital part of the elbow that has felled many pitchers and ruined some careers.
Nathan, speaking to reporters after learning of the diagnosis, fought to remain composed. but he made it clear how he would approach his recovery.
"as in life, you gotta take what comes and try to make things better," he said.
Eleven months later, after hundreds of workouts, dozens of throwing sessions and a few recent trips to the mound to face hitters, Nathan is ready to report to spring training and try to regain his closer’s job.
Nathan has suffered no setbacks. He said he’s noticed his pitches getting sharper in recent bullpen sessions. He feels he’s ready to go.
And that bag of Dome dirt is ready to go with him.
"My whole plan from Day one — I knew what my goal was, to get to this point when we’re about to head down to Florida and I know that I have done everything, every minute of every day, that I can do to put myself in the best spot to come back as strong as I can," he said. "If I go there and I’m not ready, it just wasn’t meant to be."
His kind of town
Nathan grew up in New York. Lisa is from New Jersey. they met in Arizona in 1997, married in 2002 and now live in … Tennessee?
Lisa’s brother, mark Lemoncelli, attended the University of Tennessee and remains in the area, running a successful restaurant business. The siblings also have relatives in Nashville. The Nathans visited a few times and liked the area. during a trip to Vegas in 2005 with mark and other relatives, Nathan was convinced he should take advantage of the Knoxville real estate market. He called Lisa and told her they were moving from Arizona to Tennessee.
The Nathans’ home sits on four acres, plenty of room for son Cole, 6, and daughter Riley, 3. There’s a pool and a screened patio in the back yard, which layers to a wooded area. The home contains a theater, poker room and bar in the basement. it also has a large clubhouse-style stall built into a wall that contains uniforms, autographed baseballs and cleats Nathan has worn in each of his four All-Star Games. He has giant bobbleheads of himself and Johan Santana.
He’s 15 minutes from the University of Tennessee and 20 minutes from the airport. It’s not a fast-paced town, but it’s the right setting for him to keep a routine. While the Twins suggested he spend some time at Fort Myers working out, Knoxville has the facilities he needs and a trainer he believes in. And he can pick up Cole from school every day.
"this place is similar to where I grew up, but there is more to do," Nathan said. "There’s not a lot of people running around stressed out. I go to New York for a three-day trip and I feel like I lost a couple years of my life."
Nathan dropped back to the 25-yard line one morning last week and fired a bullet to Herman Demmink, a former Philadelphia Phillies farmhand who now operates 3D Sports Training Academy. Demmink, who has worked with Nathan for a year and a half, caught the ball in the back of the end zone.
Not for a touchdown, though. Nathan was in the middle of long toss drills on the Volunteers’ football practice facility, where Nathan has worked out in recent years.
The Neyland-Thompson Center is at the intersection of Johnny Majors Drive and Lake Loudoun Road. there also is a Phillip Fulmer way and a Chamique Holdsclaw Drive nearby — the Vols don’t forget their great players and coaches.
Nathan lifts either in the massive football weight room or in the baseball weight room — which is as large as, if not larger than, the one the Twins have at their Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers.
He also works out at the aquatic center, which has an Olympic-sized pool.
Nathan is one of several major leaguers who work out at Tennessee during the offseason. others include San Diego’s Chase Headley, Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar and former Twin Mike Lincoln. Nathan, who didn’t play at Tennessee like the others, was joined by Headley and New York Mets draft pick Blake Forsythe last week.
"We look at him as like the standard," Headley said of Nathan, "because he’s where we all want to get to in this game. Being an All-Star, being a guy who is one of the best — if not the best in the game — he’s a good role model for us."
Headley spoke after a lengthy pool session on Tuesday, during which they used a variety of strokes and kickboards. they finished up by swimming one length without coming up for air — and the pool work came after Nathan long-tossed and did some weight work.
Nathan said that during his surgery, Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ team physician, discovered that his ulnar ligament had a clean tear with no fraying. during most Tommy John surgeries, a tendon is removed from the wrist or hamstring and used to rebuild the ligament.
Altchek did the same for Nathan, but he also reattached the original ulnar ligament since it was in good shape, which is rare.
"they think it will make it even stronger," Nathan said.
On Thursday, Nathan offered a glimpse of his progress during an indoor bullpen session at Lindsey Nelson Stadium — at the intersection of Todd Helton Drive and Pat Head Summitt Street.
Headley and Forsythe took turns standing in against Nathan, who threw all his pitches — fastball, sinker, slider, curve and changeup. The hitters connected for a few grounders. A curveball broke Forsythe’s bat. Nathan later autographed it for him.
"That was the best he’s thrown, as far as BP goes," Headley said.
Nathan, 36, was drafted as a shortstop by San Francisco in 1995 but was converted to a pitcher in 1997. always the optimist, he thinks his relatively late start as a pitcher, coupled with the surgery, will extend his career.
"I’m going to play until I can’t play this game," he said. "That’s one of the blessings from this surgery."
Lisa overheard that comment.
"Just don’t be a Jamie Moyer," she said, referring to the 47-year-old lefty who pitched in his 24th season in 2010.
"well," Nathan replied. "We’re trying to."
Nathan vs. Capps?
The Twins traded top catching prospect Wilson Ramos to Washington for Matt Capps last July. one reason was to have a backup plan for 2011 if Nathan wasn’t ready. The Twins avoided arbitration with Capps with a one-year, $7.1 million deal.
Capps is being paid like a closer — but Nathan could make him a very expensive setup man.
"We haven’t talked a lot, but we have had discussions," Nathan said. "really good discussions last year, and he was really excited for this year to come. He seemed very genuine and said he hoped I get back to where I was before the surgery.
"it kinda gives me a sense of relief that if I do need a day after going a couple days straight, it’s nice to know he’s had tremendous success in this game."
Both Nathan and Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said that the days of Nathan throwing in four or even five consecutive games probably are over. during a winning streak, if Nathan saves two games in a row, he might have to watch Capps close out the next one.
"It’s going to be dictated in spring by what we see and how he feels," Anderson said. "how he recovers when he does throw an inning. We’ll treat him real cautious."
Nathan said he appreciates Anderson’s concern but is quick to add that he doesn’t "want to be babied if I don’t need to."
He feels he’s pushed himself too hard to be held back. He’s on a mission to return as closer, on a mission to landscape the mound at Target Field with a little Dome dirt.
"You’ve got to be dying to pitch in Target Field," Lisa said to him during dinner.
Nathan raised an eyebrow and said: "I’m dying to pitch in Fort Myers."
New year, new Nathan