Joe Nathan (Trading Card DB)

April 21, 1999: Joe Nathan’s Famous: Converted shortstop brings the mustard in impressive Giants debut

This article was written by Larry DeFillipo

Joe Nathan (Trading Card DB)When San Francisco Giants leviathan Barry Bonds went on the disabled list for a torn triceps muscle in the third week of the 1999 season,1 he had some unexpected company. That same day Baltimore Orioles’ Iron Man Cal Ripken Jr. landed on the disabled list for the first time in his then-19-year career.2

Bonds’ spot on the Giants’ 25-man roster was also filled by someone unforeseen: Double-A hurler Joe Nathan, the Giants number-6 prospect. Brought up as a fill-in starter for injured veteran Mark Gardner,4 the 6-foot-4, flame-throwing 24-year-old overwhelmed the Florida Marlins in his debut.

Nathan, a two-time Academic All-American who led the Division III State University of New York at Stony Brook to its first-ever NCAA tournament bid, was selected by the Giants in the sixth round of baseball’s June 1995 amateur draft as a shortstop, his primary position in college.5 After Nathan hit a pedestrian .232 over 56 games with the short-season Single-A Bellingham Giants, San Francisco director of player development Jack Hiatt told Joe that he’d be moving to the mound.6 Though he’d been a pitcher for just a few innings while at Stony Brook, and never in high school,7 the Giants had drafted Nathan expecting one day to convert him into one.8

Uncomfortable with the prospect of no longer being an everyday player, Nathan sat out the 1996 season to finish his degree and “clear his head.”9 Once he “knew he wanted to give [pitching] a shot,” Nathan rejoined the Giants organization in 1997.10 Back in the Northwest League with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, he crafted a 2.47 ERA in 13 games that included five starts and two saves. The following year, Nathan began turning heads by finishing 9-9 with a 3.93 ERA, 1.29 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) and 128 strikeouts in 137⅓ innings as a full-time starter with Single-A San Jose and Double-A Shreveport.

Invited to spring training in 1999 as a member of the Giants’ 40-man roster, Nathan impressed teammates and management alike with his attitude and his stuff. “Have you seen how hard he throws?” marveled second-year Giant (and Nathan’s teammate in rookie ball) Russ Ortiz.11 General manager Brian Sabean said, “He’s surprised all of us where he’s at with his limited pitching experience.”12 Manager Dusty Baker especially liked “Nathan’s determination and his ability to throw a variety of pitches.”13 In the mix for the fifth spot in the Giants rotation, Nathan was among the last players cut from the squad, assigned back to Shreveport at the end of March.14 He started twice for them before getting the call to join the Giants.

Nathan debuted in the rubber game of a three-game home series with the Florida Marlins. The Giants, playing their final season at 3Com Park (formerly Candlestick Park) before moving to downtown San Francisco, were leading the National League West Division by a game. Florida occupied the cellar in the NL East.

Nathan admitted to some nerves when he arrived in the Bay Area the day before his debut. When asked if Nathan’s emotions had anything to do with making the jump from Double A, Baker, who made his own major-league debut in 1968 without playing above Double A, insisted “It didn’t matter. … Butterflies have no letters behind them.”15

Nathan’s debut attracted a crowd of 10,249 on a gusty Wednesday afternoon, with temperatures in the upper 50s. Opposing Nathan was Dennis Springer, looking for his first win with Florida, his third team in four seasons. One of two knuckleballers on the Marlins staff,16 he’d had the misfortune of going up against Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling in his two starts so far in the season, both of which he lost.

Dusty Baker rolled out a lineup sprinkled with irregulars. Supersub Stan Javier was in left field for Bonds. Ramon Martinez was at third base in place of Charlie Hayes, serving a four-game suspension for starting a brawl the week before.17 Armando Rios, making his first major-league start, occupied Bonds’ third spot in the batting order and Ellis Burks’ station in right field.

Burks had been in the Giants lineup the previous night, a game that began shortly after an unspeakable tragedy took place close to home. Ten miles from where Burks lived with his family, in Englewood, Colorado, a pair of heavily armed teens went on a murderous rampage inside Columbine High School, killing 12 students and a teacher and seriously wounding two dozen more, before killing themselves. Burks’ children were in school that day at a nearby elementary school.18 Bay Area newspapers didn’t explain why Baker held Burks out, but regardless, the day off provided him some space to deal with the aftermath of that terrible day.19

Nathan’s first inning couldn’t have gone much better. He struck out leadoff batter Luis Castillo and got comebackers from the next two hitters. The Giants gave Nathan a lead in the bottom of the inning, on a home run pulled down the right-field line by Rios, his first of the season.

Nathan surrendered his first hit in the second inning, a leadoff single by Derrek Lee,20 then retired the next three batters, including catching Preston Wilson looking at a full-count curveball for the second out.21

Springer set the Giants down in order in the second and third innings, including retiring Nathan on a fly ball to right field in his first major-league at-bat. In the next inning, the Giants got to Springer for three runs. After a pair of one-out singles by Rios and Jeff Kent, Javier and Martinez delivered back-to-back two-out RBI doubles. The double by Martinez, just the second of his career, brought home Kent and Javier, giving Nathan a 4-0 lead.

Javier’s double was a typical Candlestick wind-aided hit. Florida Today described it as “a routine fly ball that a ferocious wind turned into an adventure for left fielder Preston Wilson.”22 Wilson backed up at first, then circled back, only to have the ball glance off the tip of his glove. “The wind changes from pitch to pitch out there,” a frustrated Wilson said.23 The winds of Candlestick had claimed another victim.

Nathan lost some of his control in the fifth, as he walked Dave Berg and allowed him to take second on a wild pitch, then surrendered a two-out walk to Castillo. Both runners moved up on a passed ball by catcher Scott Servais before Alex Gonzalez, the Marlins’ lone representative at the 1999 All-Star Game, grounded out to end the threat.

Braden Looper replaced Springer in the fifth and didn’t allow a baserunner over the next three innings. Nathan worked a perfect sixth, but ran into trouble in the seventh. With one out, Berg tripled into the right-field corner. On Nathan’s next pitch, Redmond hit a fly ball to short right-center field, with Berg tagging at third. Rios made the catch and threw a one-hop strike to the plate, nailing Berg for the final out of the inning.

With Nathan having thrown 108 pitches, Baker handed the game over to his bullpen. John Johnstone worked around a two-out double in the eighth and All-Star closer Robb Nen set the Marlins down in order in the ninth, striking out Lee looking for the first out and Wilson swinging for the last one.

Nathan – who never shook off a sign from Servais and touched 97 MPH with his fastball in dominating the Marlins lineup – became the first Giants pitcher to debut with seven or more scoreless innings since Mike Remlinger in June 1991.25

“Today was a day for our young guys,” Baker offered. “Joe had an electric fastball today. When he really matures, he’s going to be a horse.”26 Pitching coach Ron Perranoski offered the highest of praise: “The last guy I saw do that well in his first start was Fernando Valenzuela.”27 Servais, who was behind the plate for Kerry Wood’s debut as a Chicago Cub a year earlier, said “[Joe’s] not quite at [NL single-game-strikeout record-holder Wood’s28] level yet, but if there’s a close notch below, he’s right there.” Marlins manager John Boles joined the chorus, impressed with how Nathan had handcuffed his squad with fastballs and “slurve[s].”30

After a successful rookie season (7-3, 4.09 ERA and .239 opponent batting average in 14 starts, plus one save in five relief appearances, wrapped around two months at Triple-A Fresno), Nathan transitioned to the bullpen, and became the Giants’ closer in 2004. Following in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, who also started out as a Rookie League shortstop,31 Nathan accumulated 377 saves in his career. Along the way, Nathan donated $500,000 to Stony Brook University toward construction of a new baseball facility. Dedicated in 2011, it bears his name: Joe Nathan Field.32


Author’s Note

More than a decade before Joe Nathan began his collegiate career with the Stony Brook Seawolves, I earned a spot in the bullpen for the then-Stony Brook Patriots, briefly toiling on the same diamond later replaced through the generosity of the six-time All-Star.



This article was fact-checked by Mike Huber and copy-edited by Len Levin.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted David Bilmes’ SABR biography of Joe Nathan. The,,, and websites also provided pertinent material, as did the box scores noted here:



1 It was during spring training in 1999 that Bonds first exhibited the significant growth in muscle mass that was later attributed to performance-enhancing steroids. Steve West, Barry Bonds SABR bio,

2 A bad back put Ripken on the DL. His record 2,632-consecutive-game streak had ended the previous September. Ben Walker, “Giants Win, Lose Bonds to Surgery,” Tyrone (Pennsylvania) Herald, April 20, 1999: 5.

3 Nathan was reportedly rated as the Giants’ number 6 prospect by Baseball America. No Giant farmhand was included in Baseball America’s list of top 100 MLB prospects. Scott Ferrell,” Captains Report to Camp,” Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, March 12, 1999: 5C; Alan Hahn, “Bonds on DL; Ex-Seawolf Up,” Newsday (Nassau County, Long Island, New York), April 21, 1999: A77.

4 Gardner landed on the 15-day disabled list a few days earlier with shoulder discomfort following three dreadful outings and an 11.77 ERA. Outfielder Armando Rios was brought up from Triple-A Fresno when Gardner was disabled, as the Giants didn’t need a replacement starter for several days and they planned to hold Bonds out from their April 18 game with the Arizona Diamondbacks due to a tight elbow that put him on the disabled list two days later. “Giants Beat,” San Francisco Examiner, April 18, 1999: B6; “1999 Baseball America MLB Prospect Rankings,” The Baseball Cube website,, accessed October 26, 2022.

5 Nathan hit .426 in his junior season heading into the NCAA tournament and established a new Stony Brook single-season record home-run record, which he held for two years. “Div. III Bid for Seawolves,” Newsday (Nassau County, Long Island, New York), May 17, 1995: A60. “Local Colleges,” Newsday (Suffolk County, Long Island, New York), May 2, 1997: A65.

6 Hiatt knew something about pitching excellence, having caught Giants legend Juan Marichal in his prime. John Shea, “A Red-Hot Debut for Giants’ Nathan,” San Francisco Examiner, April 22, 1999: C1; “The Howl: Summer Legends Series, Ep. 3 – Joe Nathan,” July 20, 2021 podcast, The Howl website,, accessed October 25, 2022.

7 Newsday reported that Nathan pitched 1⅔ innings for Stony Brook. David Bilmes, in Nathan’s SABR biography, states that Nathan earned two saves in his limited college mound experience. Nick Peters, “A Natural on the Mound?” Sacramento Bee, March 22, 1999: E1; Alan Hahn, “Bonds on DL; Ex-Seawolf Up,” Newsday, April 21, 1999: A77; David Bilmes, Joe Nathan SABR bio,

8 The Giants had first imagined making Nathan a pitcher after a pair of their scouts saw him in the spring of 1995 deliver 93-MPH fastballs, with movement, after entering the late innings of a Florida contest as an emergency reliever. Mark Saxon, “In Nathan, Giants Found Pitcher Playing at Short,” Oakland Tribune, April 27, 1999: 37.

9 Nathan was deeply disappointed with the Giants’ decision when he was first told, at the end of spring training in 1996. He felt he’d had a strong camp and he expected that his Stony Brook experience of performing significantly better in his second and third seasons as compared to his first would carry over into professional ball. As he shared in a podcast well after he’d retired, Nathan also “had no idea if I was able to do this [pitch].” Nathan earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Management during his year away from baseball. Saxon, “In Nathan, Giants Found Pitcher Playing at Short.” “The Howl: Summer Legends Series, Ep. 3 – Joe Nathan”; “Joe Nathan ’97,” Stony Brook University website,, accessed October 25, 2022.

10 “The Howl: Summer Legends Series, Ep. 3 – Joe Nathan.”

11 “Grapefruit/Cactus Leagues,” South Florida Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), February 26, 1999: 11.

12 “Cactus League,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), March 19, 1999: C10.

13 “California Notebook,” Palm Springs (California) Desert Sun, March 18, 1999: C9.

14 As news broke that the promising righty was being sent back to the minors, GM Sabean noted that Nathan had attracted “more attention [in trade talks] from other teams, more than veteran outfielder Stan Javier or superstar Barry Bonds.” Nick Peters, “Bad News for A’s: Rogers Isn’t Ready,” Sacramento Bee, March 30, 1999: D6.

15 “Giants Beat,” San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1999: C-7.

16 The other was southpaw Kirt Ojala. Rob Neyer, Dennis Springer SABR Bio,

17 “Giants’ Youthful Players Come Up Big Against the Marlins,” Florida Today (Cocoa), April 22, 1999: 1C.

18 “Burks Ponders Tragedy,” San Francisco Examiner, April 22, 1999: C7.

19 The Colorado Rockies, for whom Burks played when he settled in Englewood, canceled their scheduled games on April 20 and 21 with the Montreal Expos as the Denver metropolitan area came to grips with the senseless violence that had taken place at Columbine High School.

20 Lee, the Marlins’ cleanup batter, was hitting an anemic .133 with a .487 OPS heading into the Giants series but had gone 3-for-7 in the first two games.

21 Nick Peters, “Nathan’s Giants Debut Is Dazzling,” Sacramento Bee, April 22, 1999: C1.

22 “Giants’ Youthful Players Come Up Big Against the Marlins.”

23 This was just Wilson’s third game playing the outfield at 3Com Park. He attributed his relative inexperience playing left field as also contributing to his inability to corral Javier’s pop fly. Clark Spencer, “Rookie Beats Marlins,” Miami Herald, April 22, 1999: 1D.

24 According to Nick Peters of the Sacramento Bee, Rios was prouder of his assist on the play than he was of his go-ahead home run in the first inning. Mark Saxon, “Youth Is Served in Giants Win,” Oakland Tribune, April 22, 1999: Sports-1; Peters, “Nathan’s Giants Debut Is Dazzling.”

25 “Nathan’s Giants Debut Is Dazzling”; Shea, “A Red-Hot Debut for Giants’ Nathan.”

26 “Nathan’s Giants Debut Is Dazzling.”

27 Perranoski was Valenzuela’s pitching coach in his 1981 rookie season, when he became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the same season. The Giants pitching coach also had firsthand knowledge of several other pitching legends, having been a closer on teams that included future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Jim Kaat, and Bert Blyleven. Perranoski capped off his 13-year career with three appearances in relief of Nolan Ryan in 1973, the year in which Ryan threw the first two of his record seven no-hitters. “Nathan’s Giants Debut Is Dazzling.”

28 Woods broke the National League single-game record (and tied Roger Clemens’ major-league record) by fanning 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major-league start on May 6, 1998.

29 “Youth Is Served in Giants Win.”

30 “Nathan Stars in Debut with Giants,” Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, April 22, 1999: 2.

31 Max Mannis, Trevor Hoffman, SABR bio,

32 In making his donation, Nathan sought to upgrade a Seawolves home field that was so lacking the 1995 team he led to a number-1 regional seeding was denied the opportunity to host their NCAA Regional Championship game. Forced to play at lower seed Cortland State’s ballpark. the Seawolves lost. “The Howl: Summer Legends Series, Ep. 3 – Joe Nathan”; “Joe Nathan Field Dedicated on October 29,” October 31, 2011, Stony Brook University website,, accessed October 25, 2022.

Additional Stats

San Francisco Giants 4
Florida Marlins 0

3Com Park
San Francisco, CA


Box Score + PBP:

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