There are times that I feel old. Granted, my soul has always been of the ancient variety, but lately my body and mind seem to be fighting each other in an attempt to supplant my soul as the oldest. I started working full-time when I was 18 years old, and spent the next several years being the youngest person in every occupational setting I found myself in. The challenges that someone has entering the professional world at that age are actually pretty staggering; if you don’t think ageism exists in many workplace forms—including professional sports—try going back and getting into the workforce right out of high school.
Suddenly, last year, everything changed. Before I recognized what was happening, I wasn’t the youngest anymore, not even close. I had several direct reports that were younger than me. Engineers fresh out of college and much younger than me were traveling around the globe by my side, trying their hardest to make a positive impact. Even here at BP Wrigleyville, our talented editor-in-chief is five years my junior (Editor’s note: I don’t know what he’s talking about.). In the blink of an eye, things had changed.
Despite how I may feel, here’s the reality: I am still only 29 years old. In my current line of work—and other lines of work I am pursuing—I am still considered rather green, more than a decade later. I have decades of deadlines to meet, planes to catch, and presentations still to give.
Sports offers us an entirely different perspective regarding aging. 29 years old is virtually always beyond an athlete’s prime, and many non-elite professionals have already called it quits to pursue other ventures by this ripe old age. The body isn’t meant to be pushed as hard as professional sports demands, and by their mid-30’s, most athletes have given up the fight.
This is what was running through my mind as I walked up to speak to 41-year-old Joe Nathan last weekend in Iowa, just seconds before his handshake threatened to fracture every bone in my right hand. Why are you here? How are you feeling? Are you at a point where you can say you’re 100 percent health wise? The questions felt so trite. They demanded to be asked, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they carried the slight risk of sounding demeaning as well. Nathan quickly acknowledged that his health played a big factor in his daily life:
“As we will always say, we’re never 100 percent. Even the guys up there (in the majors), if anyone says they are 100 percent—especially playing everyday—you’re going to have some bumps and bruises here and there, and sore spots. But knowing the difference between that and something you can’t go with is the key, and I think you learn that as you play and go out there, you aren’t always going to feel great, but as long as it doesn’t restrict you and hold you back in any way [you’re good to go].”
There are mental and physical components of rehabbing a serious injury or surgery that many people cannot understand; a reality that is painfully clear for so many pitchers. Returning to a place of being literally healthy is much different than trusting your body to perform at the highest level. For Nathan, this rehab process was the second time he’s attempted to recover from Tommy John surgery, and he told me that this recovery was much more difficult than the first time around:
“In the beginning it was very different. My first Tommy John, I think I waited about four or five months to start my throwing program. This one was between eight and nine months, so it’s a slower process. That’s because of the flexor tendon detaching from the bone, so having both of them, the flexor tendon and the UCL, trying to repair itself and then recover… in the beginning it’s a lot slower process, a lot more patience throughout the beginning stages… My mindset has never really changed when I’ve gone out there. I think going through this rehab process, it is kind of normal in the beginning stages to sit there and ask yourself, “How am I feeling? But the last few times out, it’s kind of transitioned from “How am I feeling” to “How am I going to get this guy out?” So, the competitive side is coming back out, which is what you ultimately want when you’re going back up to the big leagues …I am a little bit older, and probably a few ticks on my fastball less, but other than that, I feel good. I feel like I am locating pitches, I feel my command has been pretty good throughout this process, and I think that’s always been my strength has been being able to throw strikes, with everything I throw out there.”
You’re likely questioning whether Nathan can regain the velocity that helped make him such a dominant reliever for years. It’s a fair question. After his first surgery, his velocity noticeably dropped off by around two miles per hour:
This is not to say he will be unable to get major league hitters out while throwing 92 mph, but it will certainly narrow the margin for error and force him to improve his command and sequencing. However, as I watched him from the press box on Sunday with an eye on the pitch tracking software sitting next to me, Nathan was able to work his fastball up from 92.5 in the early stages, to 94.5 by the last few pitches. This gives me some hope that the longer recovery time may allow him to regain some of the velocity he initially lost. From a pitch mix standpoint, Nathan has traditionally used his slider to a greater extent against righties, and his curveball more against lefties. I asked him whether this trend would continue:
“We tend to [throw the curve] to lefties, we tried to use everything with both. Left-handers we would probably go more curveball early, we use the slider against both righties and lefties. Really the changeup is something I am trying to get comfortable with through this injury process, it’s really a pitch I’ve worked on a lot.”
I followed up by asking whether his desire to use the changeup was because of stress-related concern for his arm:
“I think that, and just trying to make adjustments. The game is full of making adjustments, if I can go up there with another pitch that I am comfortable with, it’s also something that a lot of hitters wont expect me to throw, so if that’s something I can get comfortable with, it’s going to help me out for sure.”
In Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men”, the narrating character expresses doubt about risking greatly for something he doesn’t understand. He says:
“I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”
So, the one remaining question for Nathan, is why would an accomplished 41-year-old reliever endure pitching in Iowa, 14 years older than the average player he’s facing? I asked him just that: “Is this about a ring?” His answer could not have been any more succinct:
“Oh for sure, no doubt. That’s the biggest motivating factor. Other than that, going out on my own terms. You hear that from athletes quite a bit, but when an injury forces you to leave the game a little quicker than planned, there is definitely some motivation in getting back and being able to finish the way you want to.”
Nathan understands that he’s putting his body back in hazard’s way, as McCarthy’s character suggests. He understands the risk he’s facing as he trots out to square off against players 15 years younger than him. It’s quite simply that he’s found a time and a place worthy of pushing all of his chips in one last time. The time is now. The place is Chicago.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Osentoski—USA Today Sports.