It's hard to fault Joe Nathan, because, really, who among us wouldn't have done the same thing? Imagine: You can either...
a) live the dull, uneventful life of a professional baseball player, or
b) revel in the thrill-a-minute, hotter-than-Baywatch, ass-kicking, babe-hounding, made-for- Hollywood existence that is the lot of—Are you rrready to rrrummmbuuulll?—the beginner stockbroker.
Duh. As if there's even an option. Four years ago, Nathan, a confused 21-year-old at a college on Long Island, looked said dilemma in the eye and, with the confidence of a mailman at a pit bull breeder's, picked neither. And both. "I had no clue, none whatsoever," he says. "I loved baseball. But I thought my life should follow a different course. Who knew?"
Answer: Nobody. Nobody knew that Nathan, onetime standout shortstop for the State University of New York ( SUNY) at Stony Brook, a Division III school, would be selected by the San Francisco Giants in the sixth round of the June 1995 amateur draft, then quit the sport eight months later in search of a nine-to-five business career. Certainly nobody knew he would return to baseball, switch positions and not only make the Giants roster but also become one of the game's up-and-coming right-handed starting pitchers. "His story is pretty improbable," says San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti, "and it shows that the guy's got character."
Character? Hell, if you were Joe Nathan, you'd have character too. How many major leaguers spent half their lives as scrawny wannabe jocks? How many were recruited by no Division I college? How many have their names confused with that of a former New York Jets Hall of Fame quarterback? (Says Nathan: "On the Giants, my nickname's become Broadway.") Mostly, how many times can a man hear, "Where in the world is sunny Stony Brook?"
"I say, 'It's soo-nee—State University of New York,' " says Nathan, who last season went 5-2 with a 5.21 ERA despite two stints on the DL, once with tendinitis and once for inflammation, both in his right shoulder. "It's where I played baseball."
For most of his life, Nathan was an everytown Joe, the hard-nosed, patches-on-the-knees grinder whom any right-minded high school coach would love to have—and any major-college coach would ignore. He starred as a 6'1", 150-pound shortstop at Pine Bush High in Circleville, N.Y., but outside the local newspaper and a couple of family members, nobody cared. Thus Nathan had to serve as his own PR firm, writing Division I baseball programs to fill them in on a very good player you've probably never heard of.
"I was sort of interested in Oklahoma State," says Nathan. "They said I could try out as a walk-on, but they definitely weren't waiting for me to show up. Nobody wanted me." Except Stony Brook. Matt Senk, the Seawolves' coach, knew of Nathan via Jeff Maisonet, an assistant coach at Pine Bush and Senk's college roommate.
"Jeff told me about this shortstop who had no place to play," says Senk, whose program moved to Division I last season. "He said that he was a little small and a little underdeveloped, but that in three years, once he matured physically, Joe would be outstanding."