On one of the first days of practice at Stony Brook, Senk, who was dazzled by Nathan's thunderbolt throws from shortstop to first, auditioned the freshman as a pitcher too. To Nathan's delight, the coach made the following decision: Joe Nathan every day was better than Joe Nathan once or twice per week. That's why, over his three-year career at Stony Brook, Nathan made only three pitching appearances, all as a reliever. Further, as Maisonet had earlier promised, the once-puny nobody became a stud, growing to 6'4" and 195 pounds, batting .394 with eight homers and 39 RBIs as a junior and, also leading the Seawolves to the Division III playoffs in 1995. Nathan was also a two-time Academic All-America. "It's safe to say he's the best player I've ever had here," says Senk. "Every game, we probably had the most talented guy on the field."
That, unfortunately for Nathan, meant little to the scouts employed by major league baseball teams. After Stony Brook games and practices, scouts would pull Nathan aside and ask the same questions: How do you feel about pitching? How much pitching have you done? How's your arm strength? Yadda yadda yadda. "I would tell them my plan was to be a position player," Nathan says, "and they'd lose interest."
Nathan says that only two clubs, the Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies, showed interest in him as a position player. "That's why I was happy the Giants picked me," he says. "They knew me as a shortstop."
As soon as he signed, Nathan reported to Belling-ham, Wash., San Francisco's Rookie League club. Surrounded by players from such Division I schools as UCLA, USC, Fresno State and LSU, Nathan collapsed. He batted .232 with three home runs. The straight 85-mph fastballs he saw at Stony Brook were replaced by snapping heaters and rope-tugged sliders. "I went from being a No. 3 or 4 hitter with some power to a No. 9 hitter with nothing to offer," he recalls. "I was overmatched."
In February '96 Nathan, ready for a fresh start, reported to minor league spring training in Phoenix. He played shortstop and third base, connected ball with wood a little more frequently, stole some bases and then—smack. Jack Hiatt, the Giants' director of player development, called Nathan in for a meeting. "He said, 'We want you to pitch full time,' " says Nathan. "I told him I wasn't ready, that I'd never pitched regularly and that, mentally, I was exhausted."
Nathan retired and reenrolled at Stony Brook, where he earned his bachelor's degree in business management. For the first time since high school, he held regular jobs. He worked behind a bar. He did cleaning and maintenance at a golf course. He spent a week following his roommate to his job at a stock brokerage. "That really did it," Nathan says. "Getting up at five in the morning, working on the phone for nine, 10 hours, that made baseball look pretty good." In December 1996 Nathan called the Giants, asking for a second chance. They took him back—as a pitcher.
Nathan spent 1997 with Class A Salem-Keizer (Ore.), going 2-1 with a 2.47 ERA in 18 games. The next season, with Single A San Jose, he struck out 118 batters in 122 innings. In 1999, boasting a 95-mph fastball, a hunchback curve and a workable changeup, he debuted with San Francisco. Nathan went 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA. "He's raw, but he has a chance to become one of the league's best starters," says Righetti. "Joe has all the tools: a strong arm, a dedication to learning, a desire. He just needs to stay healthy."
Nathan, who in October underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder to clean up the cartilage, says he will report to spring training fully recovered. "It's not a big deal," he says of the surgery. "It just hurt a little."
Who's to argue? If anyone knows the art of the comeback, it's Joe Nathan.