“He was one smart dude,” recalled Tom Walraven, his baseball coach at Pine Bush (New York) High School, describing Nathan as a “thin little kid who batted .230” while playing shortstop his senior year.1
“I definitely wasn’t a good high school athlete,” said Nathan, who didn’t throw a single pitch in high school, and was primarily a shortstop in college.2 He was drafted in 1995 by the San Francisco Giants, who a year later asked him to give up on his dream of becoming a major league shortstop and pitch instead. But instead of switching positions, Nathan temporarily retired at the age of 21 after one minor league season and returned to school to finish his degree. When he was finally willing to pitch, he had to write a letter to the skeptical Giants convincing them that he was truly ready to give pitching a shot.
Only then was the stage set for Nathan to start his improbable journey to becoming one of the top closers of his era. The end result: a 16-year career (1999-2016) for five different teams that included six All-Star selections and culminated with his being nominated for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. When his name appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in November 2021, Nathan ranked eighth in career saves with 377 and had the highest save percentage (89.1) of any pitcher with at least 250 saves. However, he only received 4.3 percent of the votes cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America, falling two votes short of being able to remain on the ballot for another year. Nathan enjoyed his greatest success with the Minnesota Twins, averaging 41 saves per season during a six-year stretch (2004-09) when his 246 saves were the most in the majors. He also pitched for San Francisco, Texas, Detroit, and the Chicago Cubs.3
Joseph Michael Nathan was born in Houston on November 22, 1974, to Mary and Rodney Nathan. Joe’s maternal grandfather, Bob Brock, was the center fielder for the University of Texas baseball team that won national titles in 1949 and 1950. Brock was signed by the Boston Red Sox before an injury ended his career.4 Joe had an older sister, Michelle; a younger half-brother, Damian Lugo; and four step-siblings. Joe’s parents moved north shortly after Joe was born to be closer to his father’s side of the family. When his parents divorced, Joe and his mother settled in Circleville, New York, a Hudson Valley town near Pine Bush, located approximately 85 miles north of New York City That came after his mother married Walter Feuerstack and started working in the office of his trucking business.5
In high school, Nathan played baseball and basketball, ran cross country, and did indoor track one winter when he was cut from the basketball team.6 As a weak-hitting middle infielder, Nathan didn’t draw much interest from colleges. But Walraven got a form letter from SUNY Stony Brook, a then-middling Division III program on Long Island, with a handwritten note from Stony Brook coach Matt Senk saying, “Please say hello to my college roommate Jeff Maisonett.” Senk had roomed with Maisonett, Walraven’s assistant, while they were baseball teammates at the State University of New York College at Cortland. Walraven recalled, “I said, ‘What about Joey for Stony Brook?’ That’s how he got there.”7
At Stony Brook, Nathan had only 30 at-bats as a freshman, but he shot up to 6-foot-4, added 30 pounds before his sophomore year, and became the starting shortstop. Over the next two seasons, Nathan hit .389 and .394 with good power, helping Stony Brook to a two-year record of 56-17. In his junior year, he led the Patriots to their first appearance in the NCAA Division III Regionals. He also recorded two saves in his junior year as his fastball was clocked in the 90- mph range. Senk arranged for Nathan to show off his pitching arm in an intrasquad game for major league scouts, only to have the skies open, forcing Nathan to show off his arm from an indoor mound instead.8
As the 1995 draft neared, Nathan, a two-time Academic All-American, made it clear that he viewed himself as a shortstop, not a pitcher. “This was always a tough thing for me,” he said. “A lot of the teams wanted me as a pitcher even though I didn’t really pitch, but they’d seen my frame, seen my body throwing across the diamond. I was trying to hold strong that I wanted to go as a shortstop into the draft.”9
On draft day, the Giants made him their sixth-round pick. “I probably gave up three or four rounds by not going as a pitcher,” Nathan said. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t have mentally been where I needed to be in order to start pitching. In my heart, I was a shortstop.”10
Nathan, only the second Stony Brook player to be drafted, was sent to Washington to play for the Bellingham Giants in the Class A short season Northwest League. He hit just .232 for Bellingham but was hitting well in spring training in 1996 when the Giants told him they wanted him to remain in extended spring training and learn to pitch. “They said, ‘This is where you’re going to succeed,’” Nathan said. “I said, ‘You may be right, but I’m not ready.’”11
“It kind of shocked us all,” said Bobby Evans, the Giants’ director of minor league administration at the time. “We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again.”12
Instead, Nathan returned to Stony Brook, where he finished his degree in business management. During his senior year, he also worked as a bar-back and at a golf course, then spent a week making cold calls for a classmate who was working on Wall Street. “I did that ([Street] for a week and said, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” Nathan said. “I quickly found out this is something I don’t want to do. Those kinds of things motivate you and make you want to do something you’re passionate about.”13
Nathan reached out to the Giants that spring, writing the letter they had requested, and reported to extended spring training two days after graduation. He spent the summer of 1997 back in the Northwest League, this time as a pitcher for the Salem-Keizer (Oregon) Volcanoes, where he had a 2.47 ERA in 62 innings. In 1998, he began the season with the Class A San Jose Giants in the High-A California League. Pitching as a starter, he was 8-6 with a 3.32 ERA, helping his team win the league title. That earned Nathan a late-season promotion to the Shreveport (Louisiana) Captains of the Class AA Texas League.
In 1999, Nathan started the year in Shreveport. He pitched just two games there before he was fast-tracked to the majors when the Giants had a roster spot open after placing Barry Bonds on the disabled list and losing pitcher Mark Gardner to injury. He made his MLB debut on April 21 against the Florida Marlins, picking up the win with seven shutout innings of four-hit ball in a 4-0 victory. “In the first inning, my knees were shaking,” Nathan said. “My first hitter was Luis Castillo. I struck him out and got two comebackers. That settled me down right away.”14
Nathan followed that by giving up just two runs in seven innings to pick up another win in a 4-3 victory over Montreal. Giants pitching coach Ron Perranoski called it the best debut he’d seen since Fernando Valenzuela.15 (Perranoski was the Dodgers’ pitching coach when Valenzuela took the baseball world by storm in 1981.) Used primarily as a starter with the Giants, Nathan got his first save on May 16 against Houston. At the end of May, he was sent down to the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League before being called back up to the Giants at the beginning of August. In all, he pitched in 19 games for the Giants, making 14 starts and earning one save, going 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA.
The Giants were loaded in 2000, when they finished with the best record in the league, winning the NL West title 11 games ahead of the Dodgers. Nathan made the starting rotation out of spring training, and got off to a solid start, highlighted by a start on May 5 when he shut out Colorado on two hits over seven innings. But a week later, this time pitching at Coors Field, he gave up 12 runs in 2⅔ innings. Around that time, he felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder while playing catch. He spent the rest of the season on and off the DL, trying to pitch his way through the pain. “I could not get this thing to get better,” said Nathan.16 He had a few impressive eight-inning outings, including one on June 12, when he also hit the first of his two big-league homers (the other came that June 29). However, he struggled with his control, issuing 63 walks in 93 1/3 innings. Nathan ended the year 5-2 with a 5.21 ERA; he was not on the Giants’ postseason roster. Instead, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his rotator cuff and labrum.17
Nathan struggled to regain his fastball velocity in 2001. The low point came early in the season when, throwing 83 mph fastballs for Fresno, he gave up home runs to four consecutive batters, raising his ERA to 7.77. He spent the rest of the season in Shreveport, where his ERA was 6.93, while pitching coach Bert Bradley got him back on track with a regimen of arm-strengthening drills. “I remember just getting crushed every day, but there was never in my mind a thought I was going to quit,” Nathan said, calling Bradley “my savior.” 18
Nathan spent most of 2002 at Fresno, as his arm strength slowly returned. He was mostly a reliever, which made it easier for him to work on pre-game drills to build up his arm strength without taking away from his effectiveness in that day’s game. Despite a 5.60 ERA, Nathan was rewarded with a September call-up, making four scoreless appearances. “The Giants never gave up on me,” he said.19
Another bright spot for Nathan that year was his marriage to Lisa Lemoncelli, whom he had met five years earlier when he was in the Arizona Instructional League.20
Everything came together for both Nathan and the Giants in 2003. The Giants won 100 games and ran away with the NL West, winning the division by 15½ games. Nathan was 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA while pitching 79 innings as a set-up man. He started the year with 23 scoreless innings and from July 18 to August 20 had a streak of 15 consecutive shutout appearances. His 12 wins in relief led the league. His opponents’ batting average of .186 was the fifth lowest in the NL.21
The Giants’ and Nathan’s success, though, didn’t carry over to the NLDS, where the wild card Marlins upset the Giants in four games. Nathan made his postseason debut in the sixth inning of Game Two, called on to hold a 5-4 lead. But after striking out Miguel Cabrera, he gave up a game-tying homer to Juan Encarnación and then three straight singles to load the bases. Two of those runners scored after he was pulled, and Nathan ended up being charged with a blown save and a loss in a 9-5 Marlins victory which turned the series around. It was the first of many postseason frustrations.
A month later, Nathan was on a cruise when the Giants traded him, along with pitchers Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano, to the Twins for catcher A.J. Pierzynski and cash. “I was probably one of the last people to know,” Nathan said. “Luckily for me, my agent [David Pepe] was on the cruise and his secretary was able to get a message to the ship. My first reaction was, ‘Wow!’”22 The trade enabled the Twins to work Joe Mauer, the reigning minor-league player of the year, into their lineup at catcher, while the Giants now had a catcher to replace free agent Benito Santiago. Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, who had been impressed with Nathan while seeing him working his way back from his arm injury in the minors, had pushed for the trade.23 “We feel good about Nathan coming back,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “He’s a major league guy who has been tested and who is talented.”24
The Twins’ closer job was wide open in the spring of 2004, as they had failed to re-sign both Eddie Guardado, who’d had 86 saves over the past two seasons, and set-up man LaTroy Hawkins. In spring training, Nathan won the closer’s job over J.C. Romero and Jesse Crain, and was rewarded with a three-year deal. The Twins were concerned, though, by Nathan’s lack of velocity that spring. They unsuccessfully tried to trade for Cincinnati’s Chris Reitsma, who was dealt to Atlanta instead.25
It didn’t take long for Nathan to put the Twins’ fears to rest. From April 15 through June 4, he had a streak of 20 consecutive scoreless appearances and was the team’s lone All-Star. Nathan had two more lengthy scoreless streaks in the second half of the season, finishing with 44 saves in 47 opportunities and a 1.62 ERA. Minnesota won the AL Central and faced the Yankees in the ALDS. Nathan earned his first and only postseason save with a perfect ninth inning in a 2-0 win in Game One. In Game Two, he shut out the Yankees in the 10th and 11th innings and took the mound in the bottom of the 12th with a 6-5 lead. But he couldn’t nail it down, giving up a game-tying double to Alex Rodriguez and taking the loss when Hideki Matsui hit a sacrifice fly off Romero. The Yankees won the best-of-five series in four games. Nathan finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting and 12th in the MVP vote.
The Twins missed the playoffs in 2005, but it was a banner season for Nathan, who signed a new two-year contract during spring training. He had 43 saves in 48 opportunities and was again an All-Star.
Nathan began 2006 by making three scoreless appearances for Team USA in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. It was another good season for him and the Twins, who won the division on the final day of the regular season. Nathan had 36 saves in 38 chances and held opponents to a career-best .158 batting average. He was the first Twin to earn at least 35 saves in three consecutive seasons. With a 7-0 record and 1.58 ERA, Nathan finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. The Twins once again suffered postseason disappointment, being swept by Oakland in the ALDS. Nathan only pitched once and didn’t have a save opportunity.
The year ended on a high note for Nathan. When he returned to Stony Brook that December to be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame and to receive the school’s highest honor – the University Medal – he was surprised by having his uniform number (22) retired, the first time Stony Brook retired an athlete’s number. Nathan’s two-year-old son Cole was also offered a National Letter of Intent to play baseball at Stony Book in 2022.26
The Twins missed the playoffs in 2007, but it was another excellent season for Nathan, who converted 37 of 41 save chances with an ERA of 1.88. Heading into his walk year, Nathan, whose 160 saves over the previous four seasons tied Mariano Rivera for the most in the AL, was due to make $6 million, well below the market rate for top closers.27 In March 2008, though, the Twins re-signed him to a four-year contract worth $47 million. Nathan rewarded them by converting his first 13 save chances, finishing with 39 saves and a career-best 1.33 ERA, although he did blow a career-high six save opportunities. He also earned another All-Star selection.
In August 2008 Nathan, through the Joe Nathan Charitable Foundation, donated $500,000 to Stony Brook to construct a new baseball facility. Three years later, the finished stadium was named Joe Nathan Field. The first Stony Brook player to reach the majors, he was motivated to make the donation when he learned of Stony Brook’s impending move to Division I. He recalled how when Stony Brook made the NCAA Tournament his junior year, it couldn’t host the regionals even though it was the top seed. The reason: its subpar home field. “I feel like myself and Stony Brook kind of grew together,” Nathan said. “It was a school known more for academics, a smaller school that really wasn’t on the map. It was a perfect fit for me.”28
The Twins returned to the postseason in 2009, as Nathan saved a team-record 47 games in 50 opportunities with a 2.10 ERA and earned another All-Star selection. The Twins and Tigers ended the season tied for first, forcing a one-game playoff which the Twins won, 6-5, in 12 innings, with Nathan pitching 1⅔ scoreless innings. However, his postseason frustrations continued in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees, when he failed to hold a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth, giving up a game-tying two-run homer to Rodriguez. It was the first home run Nathan had given up all season with a man on base. The Yankees went on to win the game in the 11th inning and sweep the series. “There’s probably more than one [pitch] I’d like to have back,” Nathan said. “It’s a job [where] you can’t ever ever second-guess.”29 The Twins played their last game in the Metrodome that series, and Nathan scooped up a container of dirt from the pitcher’s mound as a keepsake.30
Nathan’s string of standout seasons was snapped by a torn ulnar collateral ligament he suffered in spring training in 2010, leading to Tommy John surgery which forced him to miss the entire year. “It was brutal,” Nathan said. “Leading up to when I felt it, my arm was in a perfect place. I’d just finished throwing a bullpen [session] in front of all of our legends – (Tony) Oliva, (Rod) Carew), (Harmon) Killebrew. I remember feeling, ‘My god, this feels so good.’ Then I went out against the Red Sox the next day and I was feeling something. It’s a tough deal. You know it’s going to be a long road.”31
While many pitchers who have Tommy John surgery miss a good part of two seasons, Nathan was back on the mound for the Twins in the spring of 2011. He picked up his first save at Target Field on April 8. Before pitching that day, he emptied the container of dirt he had taken from the Metrodome onto the mound at the new field.32 But after blowing two of his first five save opportunities, Nathan was replaced as closer by Matt Capps. Nathan went on the DL on May 28 with a right flexor muscle strain and struggled upon his return. In 48 games, he had a 4.84 ERA with 14 saves. A highlight came on August 10, when he picked up a save against Boston to become Minnesota’s all-time save leader with 255, passing Rick Aguilera. “Something I’m not good at is waiting,” said Nathan, admitting that he had rushed his return from surgery. “I had my struggles for sure, but I learned a lot. In the second half of 2011 I really started getting better. I was getting smarter as a pitcher.”33
The Twins, though, were ready to move on. They declined Nathan’s $12.5 million club option for 2012 and exercised a $2 million buyout. Nathan hit the free agent market. He found a suitor in Texas, a team coming off a World Series appearance. The Rangers had a closer, Neftali Feliz, who had recorded 72 saves over the previous two seasons. But they wanted to make Feliz a starter. They signed Nathan on November 21, 2011, to a two-year contract worth $14.5 million.
Nathan pitched well during his first season in Texas, saving 37 games and earning his fifth All-Star selection. He earned another All-Star selection in 2013, and picked up his 300th career save on April 8 on a controversial game-ending called strike by home plate umpire Marty Foster, who later admitted he blew the call.34 Nathan, throwing fewer fastballs and more curveballs and off-speed pitches, had another fine season, saving 43 games with an ERA of 1.39.35 It was his fourth and final 40-save season.
Now 39, Nathan declined a $9 million one-year player option to stay in Texas for another season. Instead, he went looking for a two-year deal. The Tigers, who had seen Nathan go a perfect 36-for-36 in save chances against them, decided the best way to beat their late-inning nemesis was to sign him, giving him a two-year, $20 million contract. Detroit, coming off three straight appearances in the ALCS, needed a closer to replace Joaquin Benoit. “On paper, that was the best team I ever played for,” Nathan said. “I was so excited to go over there.”36
As it turned out, Nathan had a rocky relationship with the Detroit fans. Although he saved 35 games in 2014, he had a career-high seven blown saves, most of which came early in the season, and a 4.81 ERA. The low point came on August 13, when he walked the first two Pittsburgh batters to start the ninth inning with the Tigers ahead, 8-4. The Comerica Park fans showered Nathan with boos, and he flicked them off with his fingers. Nathan went on to close out the game; he issued a public apology the next day.37
“My frustrations boiled over,” Nathan said. “I’m getting booed off the field even though we’re in first place and we’ve just won a game. It was unfair, the expectations that they had. Our being in first place wasn’t enough.” Even so, Nathan admitted he was wrong. “Should I have done it? No.”38
The Tigers clinched the division title on the final day of the regular season, with Nathan getting the save in a 3-0 victory over his former team, the Twins. But the Tigers were then swept by the underdog Orioles in the ALDS. “That was a complete shocker,” said Nathan, who made one scoreless appearance in the series.39
Nathan’s second season in Detroit lasted just four pitches. After getting one out to close out the Tigers’ 2015 opening day 4-0 win over Minnesota, Nathan was unable to play catch the next day. He was diagnosed with a strained right elbow. He came off the DL and was making a rehab appearance in the minors when he reinjured his elbow after only 10 pitches. Nathan had to undergo Tommy John surgery for a second time. He was determined, though, not to let it end his career, even if the Tigers understandably declined their $10 million club option for 2016.
No one signed Nathan until May 2016, when the Cubs did so. He made his debut for the Cubs on July 24, but after pitching in only three games, was designated for assignment. The Giants signed him to a minor-league contract and called him up when the rosters expanded in September. He pitched in seven games for them. “I pitched well that year, I just didn’t pitch enough,” Nathan said. “With the Cubs, it was a business decision. The Giants were in a pennant race. At some point, careers come to an end.”40
Nathan finally got a World Series ring, though, as the Cubs awarded him one after ending their championship drought of 108 years. Nathan pitched in the postseason six times with four different teams, never getting past the first round. He downplayed his postseason pitching line, which totaled 14 hits and nine walks in 10 innings for an ERA of 8.10, with one save and two blown saves. “It’s just a small sample size,” he said. “I never get caught up in those. Everyone wants to make it out of that first round. It’s one of those things. It’s a lot of things going your way, and it never did.”41
The Washington Nationals signed Nathan to a minor-league deal in 2017, but he never got to the majors with them before being released on May 31. On September 3, he signed a one-day deal with Minnesota, holding a news conference to announce his retirement at age 41. He threw out the first pitch at that night’s game. In 2019, Nathan was inducted into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame.
At the end of 2021, Nathan was living in Knoxville, where – besides playing golf and working out – he was coaching his son Cole’s baseball team and watching his daughter Reily play volleyball and basketball. Nathan divorced his first wife, Lisa, in 2014, and married Cristy Jones in 2018.42
While he was disappointed with the results of the 2022 Hall of Fame vote, calling it “a tough one to take,” Nathan had no complaints. “This is above and beyond what I dreamt about,” he said. “My dreams were, ‘I’d love to play in the big leagues some day.’ To be on this ballot is an honor in itself. That’s baseball heaven.”43
Last revised: March 3, 2022
Special thanks to Joe Nathan (interview with David Bilmes, December 1, 2021)
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and fact-checked by members of the SABR fact checking committee.
1 Tom Walraven, telephone interview with David Bilmes, December 2, 2021 (hereafter referred to as Walraven interview).
2 Joe Nathan, telephone interview with David Bilmes, December 1, 2021 (hereafter referred to as Nathan interview).
3 Associated Press, “Nathan has torn elbow ligament,” ESPN.com, March 9, 2010.
4 In Memoriam: Bob Brock. https://texassports.com/news/2020/8/21/baseball-in-memoriam-bob-brock.aspx
, accessed December 9, 2021.
5 Nathan interview.
6 Nathan interview.
7 Walraven interview.
8 Mark Simon, “Beyond Tonight,” ESPN.com, https://web.archive.org/web/20070311201641/http://goseawolves.cstv.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/051205aaa.html, Accessed December 20, 2021.
9 Nathan interview.
10 Nathan interview.
11 Nathan interview.
12 Gordon Wittenmyer, “Persistence pays off,” Pioneer Press, July 11, 2004.
13 Nathan interview.
14 Nathan interview.
15 Rod Beaton, “Rookie pitchers give Giants, Tigers lift,” USA Today, April 30, 1999
16 Nathan interview.
17 Steve Aschburner, “Twins closer Nathan is unsung – and that’s just the way he likes it,” Sports Illustrated, May 1, 2009.
18 Nathan interview.
19 Aschburner, “Twins closer Nathan is unsung – and that’s just the way he likes it.”
20 Nathan interview.
21 Le Velle E. Neal III, “Twins trade A.J. Pierzynski to Giants for three pitchers,” Startribune.com, November 5, 2003.
22 Nathan interview.
23 Aschburner, “Twins closer Nathan is unsung – and that’s just the way he likes it.”
24 Neal III, “Twins trade A.J. Pierzynski to Giants for three pitchers.”
25 Jim Souhan, “Doubts about Nathan just a springtime thing,” Star Tribune, March 29, 2005.
26 “Stony Brook retires Minnesota Twins’ closer Joe Nathan’s number,” https://stonybrookathletics.com/news/2006/12/6/stony_brook_retires_minnesota_twins_closer_joe_nathan_s_number.aspx, Accessed December 16, 2021.
27 Associated Press, “After 37 saves in 3007, Nathan agrees to new four-year contract with the Twins,” ESPN.com, March 24, 2008.
28 Nathan interview.
29 Nathan interview.
30 Kelsie Smith, “Joe Nathan empties his dirtbag to get his first save at Target Field,” Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com/2011/04/08/joe-nathan-empties-his-dirtbag-to-get-his-first-save-at-target-field/, Accessed last December 21, 2021
31 Nathan interview.
32 Kelsie Smith, “Joe Nathan empties his dirtbag to get his first save at Target Field.”
33 Nathan interview.
34 Gabe Lacques, “Ump’s blown call enables Joe Nathan to notch 300th save,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/rangers/2013/04/09/joe-nathan-texas-rangers-blown-call-strike-three-ben-zobrist-marty-foster-gif/2065979/, Accessed last December 21, 2021.
35 Howard Megdal, “How Joe Nathan reinvented himself,” Sportsonearth.com, June 28, 2013.
36 Nathan interview.
37 Anthony French, “Joe Nathan apologizes to Detroit Tigers fans for gesture: ‘I will be better,’” Detroit Free Press, August 14, 2014.
38 Nathan interview.
39 Nathan interview.
40 Nathan interview.
41 Nathan interview.
42 Nathan interview.
43 Nathan interview.