AT&T PARK — As Joe Nathan closes out his 16th big league season — pitching in his second stint with his first club — his beard is more gray than brown.
“As strange as it is to come back, it’s still very familiar for me,” Nathan said of returning to the San Francisco Giants, the team that drafted him as a shortstop in 1995.
“To walk in here, it’s definitely a different place — as far as teammates and things like that,” the reliever said.
Standing 6-foot-4, Nathan towers in front of his locker, which is wedged between those of Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain in the AT&T Park clubhouse.
“There’s still a lot of people that I’m familiar with — as far as [current] teammates,” Nathan explained. “Guys that I’ve played with [and] against at times.”
When Nathan debuted for the Giants on a windy April night at 3Com Park in 1999, Jeff Kent was hitting cleanup, and Rich Aurilia was his double-play partner.
General manager Bobby Evans, who was the Director of Minor League Operations at the time, chuckles when he hears those names.
“Who would have been the catcher?” Evans asks, as he leans against the railing of the staircase leading into the Giants’ dugout.
The answer is Scott Servais, who along with Craig Counsell — a pinch-hitter for the then-Florida Marlins — was one of two current big league managers who shared the field with Nathan in his debut.
“I think it’s incredibly special for him and for the organization,” Evans said of seeing Nathan back in orange and black. “What a not only a great ballplayer, but a great man he’s become. His career speaks for itself.”
With 377 saves, Nathan is eighth on the all-time list. All but one of those saves came after one of the most regrettable trades in franchise history, when the Giants sent Nathan to the Minnesota Twins as part of the A.J. Pierzynski deal in November of 2003.
Evans first broached the idea of a reunion last December in Nashville, Tenn., some 12 years later.
“We ran into him at the winter meetings this year and we talked about the fact that he was rehabbing and the fact that we’d like to have him come back,” Evans recalled. “He ended up getting a major league contract with the [Chicago] Cubs, so we kind of got shut out rather quickly.”
After spending the spring — and much of the summer — working his way back from his second Tommy John surgery, Nathan finally made it to Wrigley Field in the final week of July.
His Cubs’ career only last three scoreless appearances, as the winningest team in baseball found itself facing a roster crunch and designated Nathan for assignment on Aug. 5.
While Nathan keep his arm in shape and his agent worked the phones, the Giants came calling, inking the right-hander to a minor league deal on Aug. 16.
“When he came back available, we thought at least we could get him back and it would still be a lot of fun for us — just knowing how much he’s been through,” Evans said. “And [we] thought it would be good for this club.”
After spending a couple of weeks pitching for the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels, Nathan joined the major league team in Chicago on Sept. 3.
As the Giants chase the Los Angeles Dodgers and cling to the top of the wild-card standings, Nathan has not only drawn a handful of high-leverage assignments, but also serves as a veteran sounding board for a bullpen stocked with young and promising arms like Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich and Steven Okert.
While Evans likens the role to the one that Jeremy Affeldt once played, the GM still remembers when Nathan was the star pitcher on the rise.
“It’s just very interesting to me,” Evans said. “It’s almost like a ‘Back to the Future’-type look because he’s pitching to Buster Posey [who] is the modern day centerpiece of this club. There is a lot of irony.”
Nathan said he’s glad to help the team any way he can, but also relishes the opportunity to prove to the rest of the baseball world that he’s healthy and can still get outs — even if he is the fourth-oldest active player in the majors.
Wearing a big smile, Nathan admitted that the closing weeks of 2017 are part of his “last couple of chapters.” Not chapter.
“That’s why I made a point to say it [like that], to have that ‘s’ at the end,” Nathan said.
Nathan will enjoy the stretch drive with the Giants before heading into offseason and the free-agent marketplace feeling 100 percent.
“It’s really been go, go, go since I’ve had that surgery with the rehab. So, it will be nice to get some time off and then come back and feel recharged for the workouts and things and whatnot before spring training,” Nathan said, before adding. “Hopefully [I] get a job next year.”