Gage: It just didn’t click for Joe Nathan in Detroit

Joe Nathan's short stint with the Tigers will be known more for its differences than its harmony.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — Joe Nathan was a great closer — elsewhere.

For that, he should be remembered more favorably than he will be as a Tiger.

And for that, he will be.

The news, of course, is this: Nathan is probably done as a pitcher. He suffered two elbow tears during a rehab appearance on Wednesday in Toledo, needs Tommy John surgery, and despite saying all the right things about wanting to pitch again, he has to know he probably won’t.

"It’s going to be a long process," he admitted, "a difficult process. Patience is very important with this."

So is reality.

Nathan will be 41 in November. But he won’t be ready to pitch by next spring. With the complication of a torn flexor tendon, the rehab time could take as long as 18 months.

Connect the dots: 41 years, 18 months, good luck.

Don’t try to connect his future to his past, however. They will remain separated, no matter how much you try.

It’s true that Nathan has bounced back once from Tommy John surgery. But that was after one of his best seasons (in 2009), not after one of his worst.

Joe Nathan's season, perhaps career, finished

He was 35 at the time, not 40.

Plus there was no previous hint his skills had dwindled — as there was last year. If he returns from the surgery he’s now facing, it will be the comeback of all comebacks.

Yes, Mariano Rivera bounced back for a final season at age 43. But that was a knee, not an elbow — a world of difference.

So there: We have framed Nathan’s future as a pitcher in its proper context. But there’s one more thing to make clear. Despite some early suggestions that he could be, he won’t be a Hall of Famer.

Seventh on the all-time list of saves doesn’t get you there.

Why do I say that? Because John Franco finished with 424 saves, the most ever for a left-handed closer. But he never got past the first ballot.

With just 4.6 percent of the vote, when five percent is needed to stay on it, Franco never got a second chance.

That’s how it went for Jeff Reardon, as well. Reardon ended up with 367 saves, just 10 fewer than Nathan has, but he received only 4.8 percent of the vote — his Hall of Fame candidacy instantly ending in the process.

Yet both Franco and Reardon were second on the list of all-time saves when they retired.

The real sadness of Nathan’s time as a Tiger, however, is that it never fully clicked.

He had 35 saves last year, but with a 4.81 ERA and seven blown saves, it wasn’t a successful season for him — and at every step along the way, no matter what his intentions were, he was either at odds with fans or co-existing with them in an uneasy peace.

There was his chin-flick.

There were his awkward comments that the fans didn’t matter to him — and then he later made it sound like what he should have said is what he did say.

The bottom line is, the last two years featured one perceived misinterpretation after another.

So he never came across as the "good guy" he was considered to be elsewhere.

And was elsewhere.

That’s too bad on multiple fronts. The fans were deprived of liking a pitcher they wanted to like.

Nathan, meanwhile, will have to cope with a sense of being misunderstood.

After two outstanding years in Texas following six in Minnesota, it would be unfortunate if this is how it ends between Nathan and Tigers fans — a time that will be known more for its differences than its harmony — but it looks as if that will be the case.

I’ll remember Nathan as a player who seemed surprised that the way he was thought of here wasn’t similar to other places he pitched.

Popular everywhere else, he encountered constant turmoil as a Tiger. Some of it was his fault. Some of it was not.

I remember last year in Oakland, when it sounded like he was blowing off the media after a bad outing, he angrily said, "Talk to someone who contributed," then walked away.

So we talked to someone who was a reason why the Tigers won instead of to Nathan, who was a reason why they nearly didn’t.

After that, the writers weren’t sure if he still wanted to be media-friendly or not. If he didn’t, the ice eventually thawed anyway.

But I asked him weeks later about his comments in Oakland, and came to understand that he was genuinely more upset with himself after that game than with anyone else.

That in a nutshell was the essence of his turbulent time as a Tiger. His comments and actions often required additional interpretation.

That didn’t make him a bad guy — because he wasn’t.

Just a perplexing one at times.

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