The Lonely Road of Nate

He was a pretty good pitcher once. Even his biggest critic would have to give him that. While he was never the biggest guy, the hardest thrower, the craftiest lefty, or even the smartest pitcher on the team, he got the job done. He had a fine ERA on a team that made the World Series. They wouldn’t have gotten there without him, though few remember that. With his silly glasses and his ever-changing facial hair, the guy was always entertaining. No doubt about that. Those were the good old days.

But today, not so much. Those days are long gone, and so seems to be the talent he once possessed. The world that was once in the palm of his hand has been replaced by an ice pack that he has to keep pressed on his always-aching elbow. And he doesn’t need to do this anymore, you know. I mean, when you’ve made over $25 million before hitting your mid-30’s, you can do pretty much anything you want. Travel the world. Buy a boat, sail the seas and fish every day. Maybe just enjoy life and raise a family. So why do this?

Why, when the majority of your chosen profession thinks you don’t have it anymore, would you lower yourself to performing in front of crowds a tenth of the size you used to? I mean, the guy was a Tiger. He was twice a Marlin. He was even a Phillie for a week. But an Iron Pig? A Redbird? And now a Rainier? What the heck’s a Rainier, anyway?

It’s a little less than 1900 miles from Wichita, Kansas to Tacoma, Washington. Now, 1900 miles might not seem like that long a trip. You could drive it in two days, easily. But when it takes twelve years to make said trip, you need to consider the roads taken in between.

Nate Robertson has seen a lot of roads over the years.

Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1977, Nathan Daniel Robinson attended his hometown Wichita State University and was determined to make it to the show as a pitcher. But in 1998, the first of many roadblocks would be put in front of him. His sophomore season at WSU, Robertson had to undergo Tommy John surgery, the kiss of death for many promising young pitchers. It could have been over before it started. But the road wasn’t going to spit him out that easily.

The next year, Florida Marlins General Manager David Dombrowski used a fifth round pick to draft Nate to the organization. And Robertson responded by going 2-0 with the Low-Single-A Utica Blue Sox in 5 starts with a 2.77 ERA. He’d be promoted and go 6-1 with a 2.29 ERA in 8 starts with the Single-A Kane County Cougars the same year. Things were looking up, and when 2000 came around, the 23 year old was ready to resume his promising career and continue where he left off. But suddenly, his enemy the roadblock would rear its ugly head again in the form of tendinitis in his left elbow, keeping him on the DL for most of the season.

But not so fast. Roadblocks can slow you down, no doubt. But if you’re determined to get somewhere, you find a way and get around it. In 2001, Nate Robertson did just that. Florida moved him to the High-A Brevard County Manatees where he went 11-4 with a 2.88 ERA. The fastball was getting better with decent movement. And his signature slider seemed to be improving every day. Even the changeup was developing. Having that kind of success, you know he could see a Marlins uniform in his near future. Stardom couldn’t be that far away. Screw the roadblocks…he was going to plow through them all.

2002 saw another promotion to the AA Portland Sea Dogs of the Eastern League. Many a young player gets lost in the jump from A ball to AA. But Robertson didn’t, putting up a respectable 3.42 ERA in 27 starts. That was good enough for the Marlins. Triple A would not be needed for Nate Robertson. That road would be avoided, as he was headed for the show.

September 7, 2002, he made his MLB debut at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 4 2/3 innings, Robertson would allow 4 runs and take the loss that day. The rest of the season, he’d make five more appearances out of the bullpen for the Fish. Were they losing faith in him? Surely, he’d get another chance to start, right?

Dave Dombrowski, the GM that drafted Nate, was long gone. But he hadn’t forgotten about the young lefty. Now with the Detroit Tigers, Dombrowski traded veteran pitcher Mark Redman and a kid named Jerrod Fuell for Robertson, Gary Knotts, and Rob Henkel in January of 2003. Nate was the prize in the deal and the Tigers had big plans for him. And Nate had plans for them, too. He wasn’t going to waste his next chance at being a big league starter.

After spending most of the season with the AAA Toledo Mud Hens, Nate Robertson was brought back to the majors in August to start against the Texas Rangers. And over 8 1/3 innings, Nate was fantastic in his AL debut, striking out 8 and only giving up only 2 runs. Sadly, as would happen in many of Nate’s Tiger starts, the offense wasn’t up to par and the team would lose in 16 innings that day. Eleven days later, Robertson would get his first MLB victory beating the rival Chicago White Sox 8-4. Things were looking up.

The next three seasons, Nate would start 32 games each season. 2004 wasn’t bad, as he went 12-10 with a 4.90 ERA. 2005 was a step back, as his 7-16 record would indicate. But roadblocks weren’t going to derail the southpaw anymore and he broke through in 2006 with a 13-13 record, but more importantly, a 3.84 ERA. He’d also win a game in the ALCS against Oakland going five scoreless innings.

2006 was the year of the Tiger in Detroit and Nate was in the center of it as the team’s unofficial rally mascot with “Gum Time”. During a June 2006 game with the New York Yankees, Nate was wearing a microphone for television. Robertson began stuffing his mouth with Big League Chew to encourage the Tigers to score, down 5–0. Ivan Rodríguez hit a home run on the subsequent at-bat. Though the Tigers lost the game, the "Gum Time" tradition was born, as fans quickly caught on to the practice and Nate became a local hero in Detroit. They’d lose in the World Series to St. Louis, but Nate Robertson was on top of the world.

He was about to fall off, though.

From 2007-2009, as Nate’s salary increased, so did his ERA. The fastball didn’t move like it once did. The slider wasn’t as crisp. The change was gone. He would go 18-27 over that time and be demoted to the bullpen in late 2007 by manager Jim Leyland. Robertson would tell the Detroit Free Press that it was the lowest point of his career. Sadly, it would only get worse.

The injuries would continue to take their toll on Nate’s body, but he kept coming back. He was on the comeback trail again coming out of 2010’s Spring Training when the Tigers decided they’d seen enough. They ate $9.6 million of Robertson’s $10 million salary and dumped him back on the Marlins for minor league pitcher Jay Voss. It was a stunning move to both Nate Robertson and Tiger fans all over the country. They were paying him to go away. That kind of thing has to cut to a guy's core, don’t you think?

But he didn’t cry. He didn’t complain. He didn’t quit. As the veteran guy on the young Florida pitching staff, Robertson was determined to show the Tigers that they had given up on him too soon. The road back to Florida saw him pick up 6 wins, but the 8 losses and 5.47 ERA in the lighter hitting National League was all the Fish needed to see. In July, he was designated for assignment and released ten days later. Another road leading to a dead end, it seemed.

Robertson signed a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals on August 2, 2010, and was assigned to their Triple-A team in Memphis. Robertson exercised an opt-out clause on August 23, and signed a minor league contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on August 24, 2010, reporting to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, hoping that there was a better chance at getting back to the show while there. He was right, but it didn’t last long. On September 9, 2010, Robertson was designated for assignment by the Phillies, a day after giving up 5 runs in 2/3 innings against the Marlins and nearly blowing a 10 run lead.

But ever the warrior, Robertson came back again in the Spring of 2011, this time trying to make the rotation of the Seattle Mariners as a minor league free agent. And he was doing a heck of a job of it before the elbow started up again. Nate was shut down for three months and made his Triple-A debut with Tacoma this past Thursday. He went 6 innings, gave up 6 hits, and only allowed 3 runs. He even argued with his skipper, wanting to go back out for the 7th, despite pitching for the first time in forever. They didn’t used to call him a bulldog for his looks, you know. But he didn’t get back in the game and Nate Robertson’s first start in many months ended like so many have the past few years…with a loss.

But I ask again…why do this? At 33 years old, with tens of millions in the bank, surely there’s something else he can do. He’s part owner of the Wichita Wingnuts, an independent baseball organization. Isn’t there something he could be doing there and still be close to the game he loves? Does he really have to keep this up, riding buses to odd towns with kids ten years his junior? What does he have left to prove?

No, the voice in his head says. It’s still too early. There’s a few good innings left in the aging, throbbing arm. Damn the thing if it hurts every now and then. There’s still miles left on the road he’s traveling. He knows it. He can feel it.  The show is still within reach.  He can still do it.  The dream is alive as long as he doesn't quit.

But this road he’s traveling on…it never ends. It’s up to him, if and when he wants to get off. There are still MLB baseball teams out there that know what he’s done and what he may still be capable of. Lefties can pitch forever…look at Jamie Moyer or Arthur Rhodes. There’s always someone willing to give them a shot.

And he still has his pride, no matter what catcalls he may receive from the sparse minor league crowds he faces. He is still a professional, no matter what some idiot writes about him on a blog named to mock him.

He’s only 33 years old and is doing what he loves. No one’s going to make him stop until he’s ready. The road is still calling him. Despite the many roadblocks, Nate Robertson’s a lucky man. He’s still living life on his terms and should be saluted for it.

Maybe the road will leave him alone after this year. But I doubt it. And I wish him the best on his continuing journey.

Good luck, Nate.

No hard feelings, brother.

/dick joke