FORT MYERS, Fla. – For a few years now, Minnesota Twins pitchers have walked about their clubhouse in spring training with white tube socks tied around their heads, like off-brand samurai masters. The Twins' inner sanctum often is the domain of the ridiculous, the place that spawned naked batting practice sessions from Torii Hunter(notes) and Mike Redmond(notes) after bad losses. Anytime players add clothes, it's a bonus.
On most of them, the headband looks "Karate Kid" ridiculous. Only then in walks Joe Nathan(notes), his beard more gray than brown, his walk deliberate, his countenance sage. The image fits. He is the wise and wizened man of the Twins' staff, 13 months older than Carl Pavano(notes) and nearly six years older than the next closest, and he may have learned more the past year than in any of his previous 35.
It's been 11 months since Nathan, usually runner-up to Mariano Rivera(notes) in any debate about baseball's best closer, pitched in a game. His elbow popped during a spring training exhibition against Boston last year. He underwent Tommy John surgery soon thereafter. He's been champing at the bit since. Standard return-from-injury stuff.
Except as Nathan prepares to make his return today against – naturally – the Red Sox, something has changed: The old man doesn't have his job anymore. He doesn't not have it, either. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire simply isn't ready to hand the ninth inning back to Nathan without seeing the zip on his fastball, the bite on his slider and the fade on his new changeup, especially with the Twins placing a $7.15 million hedge on proven closer Matt Capps(notes).
"He's coming in here, thinking he's going to be the closer, and that's the only way he can come in here," Gardenhire said. "I don't make any decisions until the end of spring training. If he comes back and throws like he did two years ago, he'll probably be our closer. I've got a couple closers."
Gardenhire has known Nathan since 2004, when the Twins stole him and Francisco Liriano(notes) in a trade with the Giants for A.J. Pierzynski(notes), and understands what motivates him. There are kids at home now, a dream place in Knoxville, Tenn., and Nathan very easily could've spent the standard year waiting for his elbow to heal. Instead, he pushed himself. He ran. He swam 700, 800 yards – sometimes more. His narrow face thinned out while the rest of his body started to resemble how he looked 15 years ago, when he was a lanky, angular shortstop in the Giants organization.
San Francisco switched Nathan to pitcher as a 22-year-old, "so my arm's young," he said, "and the age thing to me doesn't mean anything anyway. If you're in shape, you're in shape." It's why Nathan doesn't expect to return with added velocity like some other pitchers who undergo Tommy John. His theory: The boost for some pitchers comes from rehabilitation forcing them to do arm-strengthening activities they hadn't previously done. Nathan always prided himself on his dedication to keeping his right arm in tip-top shape.
Of course, that didn't preclude his elbow from exploding. Thankfully, there wasn't any shrapnel. The tear of his ulnar collateral ligament was so clean that surgeon David Altcheck was able to reattach it before adding a new ligament, from his left wrist, to fortify the elbow even more.
"Hopefully," Nathan said, "it's twice as strong."
Because Nathan didn't come back to set up games. He won't say that. He will say everything but. He missed his job. The ninth inning is his Thunderdome. All those miles run, all those laps swam, all the effort to stay at 226 pounds while shedding fat, all the time spent fiddling with changeup grips until he found one that he can use as more than a show-me pitch – he did that to close.
"I've set goals, and I've set my mind to come back and do what I've done," Nathan said. "The organization knows what I've put this time and effort in for. As long as I continue on this path and things keep going according to plan, I see no reason for me not to be there. I mean, if that's what it takes to win games, so be it. But at the same time … "
He's not quite sure how to finish the sentence. He's throwing 90 mph, harder than he did in other seasons this early in spring training. His arm, he said, feels right. So Nathan glances at his scar, the standard curlicue around his elbow, and smiles: "To be 11 months post [-surgery] and not missing a beat – I'm happy."
Nathan reached up to his head, untied the tube sock and tossed it into his locker. He would put it on the next day, and the day after, all leading up to Tuesday's first appearance in a game, his biggest step yet. He wanted to remind everyone in there about the real samurai master of the Twins' staff.
Joe Nathan is wiser than ever. He can only hope he's better, too.