Joe Nathan is 15 years older than anyone on the Tennessee Smokies' roster and 10 months older than Tennessee manager Mark Johnson, but don't let his 41 years of age fool you.
Nathan holds the highest save percentage in MLB history at 89.33 percent, his 377 saves are eighth most in major league history and he has been named an MLB All-Star six times since being drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the sixth-round of the 1995 MLB Draft.
Simply put, the Chicago Cubs went out and signed one of the greatest closers in the history of Major League Baseball, but also one that has undergone two Tommy John surgeries in six years.
Nathan underwent his first Tommy John surgery in March of 2010 with the more recent coming in April of 2015 with his last appearance falling on April 22 of 2015 with Triple-A Toledo, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
"Fortunately and unfortunately I've been through this before and that makes it a little easier, because I now have at least a guideline for myself about how I should feel," Nathan told the media. "I think having that experience to know when to take a day and rest or push through some stuff helps. It's about being positive mentally, but some days you do have to push through some stiffness and stuff like that. You have to keep pushing that line higher and higher without having a setback; that's the trick."
While his age and health are obvious question marks, that didn't shy away the Cubs from signing the veteran to a league minimum contract of $507,500 on May 17. Chicago was in fact the one club that wouldn't stop contacting the veteran and with that his mindset quickly changed about which team he may sign with to continue his career.
"At first it was I'll take anyone that comes my way and it was about just getting back into baseball," Nathan said. "I think I was just fortunate and blessed that the Cubs reached out and kept calling and calling and calling and we kept telling them that we're not ready yet, but they were very persistent. Obviously Joe Maddon is keeping it light now and I'm very highly motivated to get [to Chicago] and I know how fun of a club it is."
While it certainly didn't hurt his signing aspirations with the Cubs being the top team in baseball, him living 30 minutes away from Smokies Stadium in Knoxville didn't hurt the cause either.
"Even before we signed, I just said that I don't want to get too excited, but this could play out really well if I go to Arizona for about a month and when we are ready to start throwing in games it would be nice to come back home, sleep in my own bed and get ready to join the team in Chicago," Nathan said.
Nathan made his first appearance for the Smokies on June 23 with close to 40 family members and friends in the stands and retired Pensacola in order on 17 pitches including two strikeouts with his fastball hitting the 91 and 92 mph mark in his one inning of work. The veteran's second outing wasn't as friendly as he gave up a solo home run to Pensacola on June 25 while also picking up one strikeout in his one inning pitched.
Nathan is expected to make an appearance on Monday night against the Blue Wahoos as the Smokies will be looking to take the five-game series against Pensacola.
Rejuvenating a career so close to home and having loved ones nearby to witness it would be ideal for any player in Nathan's situation, but he has one thing on his mind pushing him to leave East Tennessee as fast as possible and that is a World Championship.
"World Championships. That's the biggest motivator besides my love for baseball," Nathan said. "Baseball has treated me very well and I have tons of respect for this game. For me, if I don't have something to offer and I don't feel like I can compete and help the club out it will be time to hang it up but I feel like I still have something left in the tank. I know I'm 41, but I don't feel it"
Nathan was immediately put on the 60-day disabled list by the Cubs when he signed his contract with July 16 as the date he will be off the disabled list and that July 16 date is when Nathan, if he feels right, wants to join the big club in the Windy City.
"We can play with that date and move things around if need be, but right now we're shooting between sometime between the 16th and 20th to get to Chicago," Nathan stated. "I still know that I have time and things to do before I'm ready and that's the biggest thing, I want to make sure I am ready when I do go up to Chicago."