Nathan is Obi-Wan Kenobi for young Tigers relievers
MAY 27, 2014 11:12a ET
Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan broke into the majors as a starter for the San Francisco Giants in 1999 and still appreciates what the veteran pitchers on that staff did for him back then, when he was filled with excitement and the game seemed to be moving so fast.
He mentioned how Giants pitchers Robb Nen, Russ Ortiz, Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter showed him the ropes. A few years later, San Francisco closer Tim Worrell became his mentor. Worrell crystallized things for Nathan and helped set him up for success.
Nathan transitioned to the bullpen and has gone on to accumulate 352 saves -- ranking No. 9 on the all-time list after closing for the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and now Detroit, where he's become Obi-Wan Kenobi for young Tigers relievers Ian Krol, Evan Reed and Corey Knebel.
Nathan is feeding them the knowledge he gained from Worrell and his other mentors, turning the bullpen into a classroom. And Nathan takes pride in his pupils learning important lessons and finding their way.
"It's a great feeling to see Corey Knebel walk into this clubhouse and the energy he brings," said Nathan, 39. "It takes everybody back to his first day in the majors. I want that to soak in for him.
“ It's not about making it. It's about sticking around.”
"It's just so fun to be on this side of it now. Not so long ago, it was my first day in the majors. That was 15 years ago. It might be a long time in baseball, but in a lifetime it's just yesterday."
Nathan wants young pitchers to enjoy their accomplishment but not to become absorbed by reaching the majors.
"I tell them, 'The reason you got here is because you were so hungry,' They feel, 'Aaahhh, I made it!'"
Nathan, standing in front of his locker, leaned back and took a deep breath.
"But it's not about making it," he said. "It's about sticking around."
Nathan credits Worrell -- who saved 38 games in 2003 -- for imparting plenty of wisdom on him in that regard.
"Tim Worrell was the guy I learned the most from," Nathan said. "What stuck with me most was how he stressed not to let the situation dictate who you are. He said, 'Bring what you have to the table and let it work for you.'
"And he talked a lot about the mental side. If you don't think you will fail, you won't be around long. It's not expecting failure, though. It's about not letting it beat you up."
Nathan has carried on Worrell's pay-it-forward approach.
"In the short time that I've been in the majors, Joe has taught me the most of any veteran I've been around," Krol, a rookie last year with the Washington Nationals, said. "And it's been about both baseball and life. He's such a genuine guy.
"The most important thing I've picked up so far is the message that you just have to do your work. If you don't, you won't stay healthy. If you don't, you won't last. And it's the little things that he emphasizes."
Right-handed rookie Reed added, "He teaches you how to go about business every day. The physical and mental routines I see Joe go through are important. Guys who are successful have routines. It's why they're so consistent. That carries over to their pitching.
"You see his pickoff moves, stretching, everything he does. It's the same every day. I'm taking that same approach."
Nathan spends the first half of games in the dugout watching opposing hitters and talking to teammates and coaches.
"Joe comes over to the bullpen in the fifth innings," Krol said. "He'll listen to what we're talking about and correct things baseball-wise.
"Between innings, we'll flip channels on the TV and watch different games. He'll see a game in Baltimore or some place and say, 'I had a 450-foot homer hit off me there in 2000.' He'll always talk the game and have a great story."
Knebel, 22, on Saturday appeared in his first game. The Tigers believe he has a great future, and Nathan began working with him during spring training.
"He's helped me a lot already," Knebel said. "Joe's a great guy and a great dad. I've seen him around his kids and you can just tell."
Nurturing comes naturally for Nathan.
"It's cool to see a guy with such success who is so old," said Krol, 24, who was in second grade when Nathan was a rookie. "And he will still grow as a pitcher and with us, rather than holding onto what he knows and just throwing it away."
A lesson learned and passed along perpetuates knowledge.
It's like Obi-Wan told Skywalker: "Patience. Be the force. Think."