Friday, July 22, 2016

Hey Joe: Why Nathan Will Save the Cubs

Danville, Kentucky -- In 1970s rural Kentucky, a man took what work he could get. Sometimes that meant swallowing one's pride and logging hours performing rote tasks that more affluent men would deem too base or too dirty. My father was one of many American men unafraid of getting dirt under his fingernails, even in the midst of a Jimmy Carter-induced energy crisis and attendant economic recession. When the Ford plant near my childhood Kentucky home packed up and moved overseas thanks to the soaring energy prices of the Carter era, my father didn't wallow in self-pity or ask for government assistance. At age fifty-five, my father re-entered the job market, knowing that the alternative was selling priceless family heirlooms at local pawnshops and cash-for-gold stores to pay our bills and buy groceries. To keep food on the table, my father went to work as a shelf-stocker at a supermarket when luckier men his age might've been retiring to a cushy cabin on Lake Michigan. My dad wasn't proud of it; he found no dignity in hauling heavy crates of watermelons and canned vegetables, unlike his previous job on the Ford assembly line. He'd tell me that he often entertained the idea of sticking up the the store, making off with some cash, and starting a new life out West. But my father wasn't a coward. With his back pressed up against the wall, he'd wipe the sweat from his brow, put his head down, and go to work.

When I look at Joe Nathan, former proven closer for the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers, I see a similar American work ethic and grit. At age forty one, Joe is no spring chicken. Lesser athletes like Calvin Johnson would've hung up the cleats many years ago. In an era of super bullpens -- where flame-throwing pitchers regularly burst onto the MLB scene throwing 96+ miles per hour and then spend years rehabbing because of elbow-blowouts and Tommy John surgery -- Joe Nathan has aged like the bright yellow, melted Wisconsin cheddar on my Steak n Shake Triple Steakburger™. Gracefully, but not effortlessly.

Joe got where he is now -- on the cusp of breaking back in to the majors with the World Series-bound Chicago Cubs -- by the grace of the same hard-working spirit that motivated my own father to get out of bed in the morning to perform menial tasks.

Mr. Nathan is poised to make an invaluable contribution to the Cubbies' seemingly inevitable World Series campaign, as a promotion to the major leagues is now all but imminent following a successful rehab start. No single aspect of the Cubs' roster stands out as an Achilles heel; it is a very well-balanced club, though if I were building it I'd put a few more proven veterans like Ben Zobrist on the roster and a few less green-in-the-gills rookies like Albert Almora. That being said, the bullpen stands out as an obvious area in need of improvement for the Cubs; it's 16th in the MLB in ERA, and gives up a ton of walks. The only ball clubs walking more batters per 9 innings than the Cubs are the Padres, Brewers, Marlins, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Braves, and Reds; not good company for a team with pennant aspirations. Fortunately, Joe is capable of solving the Cubs' veteran leadership deficit and bullpen struggles in one fell swoop.

Joe has 377 career saves; second only to Francisco Rodriguez among active pitchers and 8th all-time. He's also had two Tommy John surgeries. That's a ratio of 188.5 saves per Tommy John surgery, for you nerdy spreadsheet gazers back home. Unlike many of Chicago's current relievers, he's stingy with walks and attacks hitters in the strikezone like Hillary Clinton attacks Libyan dictators and our ambassadors. He throws a darting fastball that sits at 92-93 miles per hour, and a splitter nastier than a truckstop Arby's restroom. He's been through it all: dead-arm, surgery, postseason success and heartbreak. This is the type of cagey, chiseled veteran you want in your bullpen.

Less educated and younger Cubs fan may not be as excited about Joe Nathan's return to baseball as I am. They'll fret over his velocity. They'll label him an old man or nickname him "Sloppy Joe." They'll agonize over trusting late innings to a man old enough to be their father. They'll call him washed up, done, or finito. Fortunately, work ethic and determination never ages. Joe Nathan got where he is by working a lot harder and being a lot smarter, like millions of industrious men across this good nation. Jimmy Carter's horrific energy crisis couldn't extinguish the spirit of my selfless father. Tommy John surgery won't extinguish Joe Nathan's burning drive for glory either. That bodes well for the Chicago Cubs in their attempt to break a century-old curse.