Nathan should take leadership lessons from teammate Victor Martinez

Team leader Victor Martinez never alibis and is always a professional.

Team leader Victor Martinez never alibis and is always a professional.

Victor Martinez has been in the big leagues for 13 years. Joe Nathan first debuted 15 years ago. That’s long enough to know how to be a major leaguer. Yet, one is showing how much he’s learned while the other is showing how much he’s forgotten.

It’s been a rough time for Nathan in his first season with the Detroit Tigers. As the closer, Nathan is in a position unlike any other role in team sports. His performance — good or bad — is the last thing the fans see at most ballgames. If the Tigers win, then he did what he was supposed to do. If they lose because he stinks up the 9th inning, there’s hell to pay. And you know what? That’s why he gets paid big dollars. The guy who pitches the 7th and the fella who pitches the 8th inning, they earn a lot less. Even though statistically they tell us (and they’re right) that most save situations are dead-cinch locks and that the closer role is overrated. Don’t tell that to the fan who just paid more than $100 for his family at the ballpark, and don’t tell it to the manager, who essentially follows a formula in running out Reliever X before Reliever Y.

Unfortunately for Joe Nathan this year, fans have every right to call him “Reliever Why?” He’s been dreadful in the first season of a two-year deal worth millions and millions and millions.

But this little story isn’t about money (it really isn’t). It’s about professionalism and maturity. Apparently Nathan has lost those traits, or maybe he never had them. In his first season in the Old English D, Nathan has shamed it more than once with his me-first behavior. Meanwhile Victor Martinez steps up as he always does to be a team leader, showing class and poise.

It’s no mystery the Tigers have been struggling the last two weeks, playing inconsistent baseball while their offense slumps and their bullpen just seems to get more ugly along the way. Adding injury to that insult, starting pitchers Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez each recently left games with sore body parts. Sanchez will be sidelined a long time, while JV will apparently miss just one turn in the rotation. Add the team-jarring trade that sent center fielder Austin Jackson and starter Drew Smyly packing, and the Tigers can be forgiven if they seem a bit distracted and edgy.

But amid all of this swirling bad news, Martinez stepped up earlier this week and asked Detroit fans to back their team and be patient. He assured Tiger Nation that his teammates would bring their best effort and he said all of that in calm, measured tones. Sort of the way he stalks opposing pitchers from the batters’ box.

Contrast that with Nathan, the hyperventilating closer who on Wednesday made a gesture to Detroit fans after recording the final out in a Tigers’ win over the Pirates. And lest you think it was an “in the moment” type thing, he did it again to the other side of Comerica Park as the Tigers were celebrating the victory. Nathan was upset at the boo birds who made themselves heard when the reliever walked a few batters in the inning. Earlier this season, Nathan did a similar thing at home in front of the Detroit fans after getting a final out. Sort of a “take that” gesture. Well, fans would rather see Nathan tell the opposing team “take that.”

Nathan hasn’t impressed me on the hill nor in the clubhouse so far in his short Detroit stint. A close look at his postgame interviews shows a guy irritated that he is being asked questions about his performance. He seems like a guy who can handle it when things are good, but when they’re bad, don’t mess with him. Two other incidents also rub me the wrong way about “Joe Average.” In a game earlier this season that Detroit lost to Oakland, Nathan allowed a walkoff homer to lose a 1-0 lead. Early in the 9th, rookie Nick Castellanos was able to get his glove on a very soft liner but he couldn’t corral it and no outs were recorded on the play. Nathan had plenty of chances to pitch out of the inning, but this is what he said in a postgame interview:

“The big out there was getting Jaso. You get him and it changes everything. Changes how your approach is against … Donaldson. Changes how you can pitch to him. Gives me a chance to play with him a little bit. When we didn’t get Jaso, puts you in a tough spot. First and third, real good hitter at the plate. Kinda forces me to go after one of their better hitters. So Jaso was the out … that we thought we had, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

Did Nathan throw Castellanos under the bus? You bet he did. The quote was immediately scrutinized, and it should have been. The reason ears popped up all over Tigerville after Nathan’s comments was that it was something we don’t hear from a Detroit player. Not in the last three years when Detroit has won three straight division titles. Not from a team dominated by veteran leaders. As a veteran who’s been through many battles in his long career, Nathan should have handled that better. Can you imagine Mariano Rivera deflecting blame away from himself if he had blown that game? (Well, could you imagine Mo blowing that game, or the six other saves that Nathan has blown.)  Not a chance.

In April, when Nathan was getting pummeled in his first regular season action as a Tiger, he said some curious things. He told the press he had a “tired arm.” Then the next day he backed off that comment after many speculated that he may be injured. Nathan seemed peeved that he was misunderstood. He only meant that his arm wasn’t giving him everything it had, and that was a condition that would happen from time to time during the season. Ummmmm, ok.

Nathan doesn’t seem to fit on this Tigers’ team. It’s as if he’s out there every time trying to show everyone how good he is, and don’t they realize it, and he always has an excuse for his struggles. This past week he said that he “didn’t think I have been pitching badly,” and that the “opposing hitters have been really good hitters.” He said this with a straight face. With Nathan, it’s always his teammates or his arm (which he doesn’t few as a part of himself) or it’s the hitters just being too good. The fans are just a bunch of knuckleheads who don’t know how good he is, and how dare they boo?

But have you ever noticed that the leaders on this team always take full responsibility? Verlander, even when he’s been rocked this year, talks about how he has to work harder and get his mechanics right. Cabrera tells us again and again that it’s his job to drive in runs and when the offense scuffles, he answers for it every time. Max Scherzer, who’s emerged from Verlander’s shadow to be a leader in his own right, is the most humble man on the team. And then there’s Victor, having another fine season on his way to another .300 batting average, and protecting Miggy in the lineup. He doesn’t always get the big hit, but he’s always bearing down every time he’s at the plate. No one in baseball concentrates harder when they are going head-to head with the pitcher. He’s a professional hitter.

Even though he doesn’t succeed 100% of the time, VMart stands in the clubhouse like a man and answers the questions with humility. He stands there and acts like a gentleman and a good father as an example to his young son. He gets his teammates fired up, he doesn’t tear them down. And Victor doesn’t yell at the fans or make gestures at them, he tells them that he understands their frustration and he asks them to keep coming out and cheering.

And that Joe Nathan, is why the fans never boo Victor Martinez. He’s only a few lockers away, you should watch and learn.