It hasn’t come easy for Joe Nelson. Inked to a free-agent contract by the Rays in the offseason, the 34-year-old right-hander has been a model of perseverance, overcoming a series of arm injuries while bouncing from team to team, mostly in the minor leagues. Originally drafted by the Braves in 1996, Nelson finally gained a toehold as a big-league pitcher 10 years later, appearing in 43 games out of the bullpen for the Royals. After enduring yet another setback-he missed the entire 2007 campaign recovering from labrum surgery-Nelson had an outstanding 2008 season with the Marlins, coming out of the pen 59 times while logging a 2.00 ERA. Nelson, whose signature pitch has been dubbed “The Vulcan,” talked about his tumultuous career prior to an early-season game.
David Laurila: How would you describe Joe Nelson’s life in baseball?
Joe Nelson: I’ve been a grinder. I took an unconventional path to the big leagues, you could say. I’ve had four arm surgeries-three torn labrums and a Tommy John-and I spent the better part of 10 years in the minors. It’s one of those things where I just love the game; I love playing. I was also fortunate enough to be in a position where my wife is a physician and she supported our family financially, up until the last two years, when I was in the minors not making much money. I would have quit… I thought about it many times, but I would have quit for financial reasons a few years ago if she wouldn’t have said, “Hey, if you want to keep playing, keep grinding it out and hopefully you’ll get back to the big leagues and stay healthy.” So it’s not just me. I’ve had tremendous support the whole way, whether it be from my parents, who actually just flew [to Boston] from Oakland to be here for Opening Day, or my wife and kids, or all my buddies from Little League that I still talk to. They’re the ones that text and call when I have a bad outing. They’re the ones that call and say, “Hey, I saw you on SportsCenter,” and that’s never a good thing when you’re a reliever.
DL: Do you feel that you’ve finally established yourself as a major league pitcher?
JN: No. I told Joe [Maddon] in spring training, I said, “No one is ever given anything, so I’m going to go out and earn it.” I actually had kind of a rough spring training to start, but my last few outings got better, so your confidence flows. It ebbs and tides and everyone has a little bit of a fragile psyche, so bad outings… the best thing I can say is, now that I have kids, it gets put a lot more into perspective. Last year, I got home after a game, and the little chimes on my front door went off when I walked through. I’d had a bad outing, and my daughter ran out and she goes, “Hey dad! Did you see Billy the Marlin?” I was kind of over my outing then, because all she really cared about was that I was home and got to see Billy the Marlin. So having a family puts things into perspective a little more.
DL: Throughout the game, a lot of guys go into the final days of spring training wondering not only if they’re going to make the big-league club, but if they’re going to get released. What is that experience like?
JN: You just try to keep it in perspective as far as… this is my first Opening Day. Ever. It’s the first time I made it after 13 years, and that’s why my parents came, but last year, with the Marlins, I was the last cut. I started the season in Triple-A, and I didn’t find out until the last exhibition game, against the Yankees, that I didn’t make the team. If you let it bother you… it was nothing for me. I wanted to make the team, but at the same time, I had been in the minors before, so I said to myself that I’d just go down and work hard and hopefully get an opportunity. A month into the season I got a chance, and I stayed up there for the rest of the year and put together a good season.
DL: Does being on the bubble become any easier once you’re older and have gone through it?
JN: Yeah, I think so. They’re a little more honest with you. The lines of communication are greater once you’ve put in some time. When you’re 22, you don’t even want to go in and talk to the manager or GM. You don’t necessarily want to hear the answer to where you stand. As you get a little older and more mature… I just want to know where I’m at, and while the answer you get isn’t always what you want to hear, as long as they’re honest and tell you what their thought process is… it’s just out of your control. All you can do is go out there and pitch.
DL: You’ve been with several teams. Has there been much difference in the level of communication from organization to organization?
JN: I’ve been in some great organizations as far as that goes. I came up with Atlanta and was there for eight years, and John Schuerholz is a Hall of Fame GM. A lot of the guys who were under him, like Dayton Moore and Deric Ladnier… they’ve moved on to different teams and become their own GMs or taken other high-profile front-office jobs. I was here in Boston, so I know Theo [Epstein] and Ben Cherington real well. With the Marlins, Larry Beinfest was always honest. I’m thankful for the Marlins. They gave me an opportunity when a lot of people said, ‘Four surgeries, just find a new job.’ I’m very grateful that they took a chance on me. There are a lot of people out there who have stuck their necks out for me, as far as giving me a chance, with all of the injuries I’ve had. You don’t normally want to hang your hat on a guy who has had four arm surgeries, but guys like Jin Wong and Jim Fleming, with the Marlins, have done that. I’m grateful for a lot of people that I’ve met along the way.
DL: The injuries have clearly changed your mental outlook. Have they changed the way you pitch?
JN: Not at all. Again, great doctors have taken care of me: Dr. Yocum, Coco Eaton, Dr. Joyce, the Royals’ doctor. You can’t go out there and pitch scared. If your arm is going to blow out, your arm is going to blow out. You can’t really control that, so once I’ve done all the rehab, I’ve gone out and thrown exactly the same way.
DL: Have you always had the same repertoire?
JN: No, when I first signed, I was a starter, so I threw a curveball and a slider, depending on what day it was. I’ve always thrown my fastball and my changeup. But since I’ve become just a bullpen guy, a seventh and eighth [inning] guy, I basically only throw two pitches, my fastball and my Vulcan changeup. What you see is what you get, so they have a 50/50 chance of guessing right. I’m just playing the odds and trying to out-think the hitter.
DL: You’ve always thrown your Vulcan?
JN: I have, since I’ve been in pro ball. I had it in junior college. Lloyd Simmons, my coach at Seminole [Community College], in Oklahoma, made me throw bullpens and work out with the pitchers. I pitched zero innings in junior college; I was his shortstop and third baseman. He told me the day I left there that I’d be a pitcher in the big leagues, and I was laughing at him, going, “I didn’t even pitch here.” He said, “Yeah, you will. I just didn’t need you to pitch.” So he’s the one who really helped me to develop it. He told me that with my arm action I needed some sort of split-finger pitch, and a conventional sort of forkball didn’t really work for me, so out of necessity, and kind of desperation, I developed a changeup between these fingers-the middle and ring fingers. Me and Spock have something in common now. There’s a new Star Trek movie coming out, so I keep waiting for them to call me.
DL: Are you aware of any other pitchers who use the same grip?
JN: I don’t really know of anyone. Some people told me that this left-handed pitcher named Patterson, who is out of the game now-I think he was with Pittsburgh for a while [Ed. note: That would be Bob Patterson, who had a good run with the Pirates during their last run of relevance in the early ’90s.]-had thrown it. People always ask me to show it to them, and they try throwing it, and they go, “Man, I don’t know how you throw that.” I look at guys like Kazmir and Garza, who throw 95, 96, and I go, “Gee, I don’t know how you throw that.”
DL: Outside of the grip itself, is there anything unique about the way you throw the pitch?
JN: Nothing. I throw it the exact same way as my fastball, and the deception… you know, a good changeup is really a great equalizer. I’m not a big velocity guy-I throw 88 to 90-and my changeup is 78 to 80, so it’s a 10 mph difference. They key ingredient for a changeup is to have the hitter actually think it’s a fastball and start his swing with a fastball approach. Mine has some downward movement to it, but even when I kind of leave it up, they’re still out in front of it a lot.
DL: Is it a pitch than you can make an easy adjustment on if you throw a few that don’t move well?
JN: I use my changeup to find my arm slot for my fastball. With the way I grip it, there’s only one way for me to stay on top of the ball. When I find that I might be lowering my arm angle, or something, because my fastball keeps staying up, I’ll throw my changeup two or three times, and that gets my arm slot right. All of a sudden, my fastball is back to where it needs to be. So there are a lot of adjustments going on while I’m playing, but for the most part I usually have a pretty good idea of where it’s going to go.
DL: Is it always the same pitch, or do you get different movement with it?
JN: I can manipulate it a little bit with my thumb, which way I want it to go. If I have a lefty or a righty up, and I want it to go away from them, I can manipulate my thumb and make it dart a little more, or go straight down. So I throw it the same way every time, but I might put a little different spin on it as far as my thumb.
DL: You’ve been in the big leagues with the Braves, Red Sox, Royals, Marlins, and now the Rays. Name one thing that has made each of those teams unique.
JN: With Atlanta, I got to play with Hall of Famers. They’re not yet, but they will be; I got to play with Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Andruw, and Chipper, and there’s a chance that four out of those five, or maybe even five out of five, will get to the Hall of Fame, and that’s something special. With Boston, I was a member of the team that broke the curse, and I got a World Series ring even though I only threw in three games, in June or July. Again, Ben Cherington took a chance on me, coming off of two torn labrums; he gave me an opportunity, and I’m very grateful. Kansas City was great; another guy, Jin Wong, who I knew from Atlanta, was an assistant GM and he gave me a chance. KC was great, because it was the first time I’d ever had any success in the big leagues; I had nine saves. When I first got there, I was mopping up, but toward the end of the season I was the closer. It was rewarding to get my first big-league win, which was at Fenway against the Red Sox, and my first save was at Comiskey. So I look back at ’06 very fondly. It was the first year I actually threw well, stayed healthy, and put up some numbers. And then, last year with the Marlins was also a great experience. It was the first time in my career that I actually lived in my own house. That was great, because my family could see me. I could drive my kids to school in the morning and then go to the ballpark. I wasn’t just an absentee dad for seven months. All of those experiences have a warm place in my heart. As a kid, all you ever want to do is play in the big leagues, so to get that chance, and actually have some success, is very rewarding. I jokingly say that when I’m out on the mound, there are about 30 people standing on that dirt with me, and that’s my mom, who drove me to practice, my stepdad who, I’d go four for five in high school and he’d go, “What happened in that fifth at bat?” You know, there are things that keep you grounded, and like I said, my Little League buddies are still my friends. I feel like there’s a lot more out on that mound than just me. It’s never, ‘Hey, look at what I just did.’ There are a lot of people who have helped me get to where I’m at.
DL: How about this team, the 2009 Rays?
JN: This team is incredibly talented, which is one of the biggest reasons I talked to Joe [Maddon] and Andrew [Friedman] during the free-agent process. My agent spoke with about 19 or 20 teams, and then Andrew called me, and Joe called me, and I just really enjoyed the conversations and the attitudes that both of them had. To be honest, at this point in my career, to have that many teams interested… I was humbled. And this organization has come full circle. I was in it in ’05, in Triple-A, and the new regime took over after that and have… we’re in a very tough division, with the Red Sox and Yankees, so it’s always been an uphill battle. But this organization has drafted really well and developed some good homegrown talent, and I’m 100 percent confident in saying that this is the most talent I’ve ever been around. Top to bottom, there are just a lot of guys here who are right on the cusp of becoming big-league superstars. Still, we put our cleats on the same way as all these other guys, one leg at a time, and Joe has really created an environment where everybody is pulling for each other, and he keeps the game simple. He says, “Show up on time, play hard, and do things the right way.” Something Joe said in spring training is, “I would much rather have you err on the side of aggressiveness,” which is the opposite of the old adage that you should err on the side of caution. Joe doesn’t believe in that. He wants guys to go out and do everything to the best of their ability and not worry about the consequences.
DL: Is Joe Nelson on the cusp of being a big-league superstar?
JN: No, I don’t think that will ever happen. Or at least I’d never believe it, even if it did come true. I’m happy just to be in the big leagues trying to help my team win. When the phone in the bullpen rings, and they ask for me, I’ll give them everything I’ve got that day. I’m just one piece of the puzzle here. Like I said, I’m just a grinder.