There is nothing graceful about Joe Nathan.
Not in the way he pitches. Not in his reaction to the fans. Not in the way he has handled himself this spring training. The three are interrelated. The first leading to the second, then on to the third.
Because of that Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has an $11 million problem on his hands that he's going to have to solve -- soon.
Nathan is a public relations problem for an image-conscious organization. He is the tinder and the fuel and the spark waiting to be struck, a one-man PR forest fire waiting to happen. He can't perform well enough on the mound to win fans back to his side, and he can't seem to stop himself from saying the wrong things off the field long enough to keep his name out of the headlines. You just wonder what's going to be said next.
The latest PR misstep came Tuesday, when Nathan used a softball question during a radio appearance to bring up a quote about the fans that would be best left buried. "I'm actually glad you brought that up," Nathan told MLB Network Radio, when asked about his apparent disregard for the fans in Detroit, "because I didn't say it."
(Say what? This is what Nathan told reporters March 12: "I don't care, to be honest. You know, those guys, to be honest with you, aren't even on my mind. Fans aren't in my mind. Only people that really matter to me is my family and the people in this locker room. ... Fans are going to be the way they are, and that's the way it is. That doesn't bother me. It's not a part of my life. They're not a part of my life. Period.")
"This goes on the reporters that said it," Nathan continued Tuesday. "What I said is, they brought up the fact that they booed and I said I don't care how they react. They're entitled to do whatever they want. They paid, they bought the ticket. They're entitled to do what they want while they're there. So not one time out of my mouth did I say I don't care about the fans. So that was a misinterpretation, I think. So if that wasn't a misinterpretation then they misquoted me. So the heat falls on the reporters. I'm glad you brought it up because hopefully this kind of clears the air a little bit. Never once did I say that. I think I've proven to fans that I do care about them. I'm always outside every day basically signing autographs. So I think my actions speak more than the words that came from another reporter."
Decide for yourself whether this controversy is Nathan's making or, as he believes, the media's. But remember, nobody made him say the words that came out of his mouth. Either way the result is the same: fans are talking about Nathan for negative reasons again.
Truth be told, Nathan appears to be a nice guy. In my experience, he's nice to the media, honest, and open with his time. And he has tried to show fans they're important to him, despite fans vocally reminding him his best years are in the rearview. The self-awareness is there, too. After the controversial chinflick last summer, he took further steps to win back the fans, beginning with an apology. From there he went on to reading angry tweets about himself, showing a sense of humor. Although he failed to win every fan back to his side, Nathan appeared to have done enough to bandage his mistakes.
Any controversy should have been over then. Or, it could have ended when Nathan issued a clarification to reporters two weeks ago, telling them: "I don't know if it came out wrong or whatever, but it was never that I don't care about fans. I think what I said was, I don't care what they do. They have the right to do what they want to do. It's not that I don't care about them as fans, but I don't care how they react. They have a right to react how they want to. So I want to get that cleared up and I hope that we can make it as popular as it was when it said I don't care about fans." The media did their part. The second story was given the same amount of play as the first received. Headlines were written. Controversy was again left in the past. And Nathan has again blown it back up.
The media perspective on this is easy to understand. We asked. You answered. We quoted your answer as you spoke it, with proper context. They're just trying to do their jobs here. Withholding those quotes given by Nathan would not have been doing their jobs. Various media members reacted Tuesday night, with MLive's Chris Iott standing in for the opinion of many when he tweeted the underside of the bus that he and the others were figuratively thrown under. To be fair, the media aren't trying to make this a controversy. Many have spoken out to say they feel they did their jobs fairly and don't care beyond that. That's a good stance to take.
The fan perspective is even easier to understand. Fans expect one thing primarily from the players who represent them: success. A majority of fans are willing to forgive a lot of bad behavior for a player who is successful on the field. Those fans would not care less about what Joe Nathan said about them if he could go out to the mound and dominate in the late innings of games. But he can't dominate. For a lengthy period, he could barely muddle through successfully at all. And for the paying customers to be treated to poor pitching and disrespect, well, that was just too much to take.
Nathan's best years are behind him. His spring has not gone a long way toward inspiring confidence, either. With a fastball struggling to get to the low 90s and uninspiring secondary pitches, he leaves a lot more to worry about than just his 5.79 spring training ERA. Kicking the hornets nest just six ticks before Opening Day was a sin of commission. Unless the Tigers make the decision to eat the $10 million he's owed for this season and the $1 million buyout of next year's option, he's going to hear boos the rest of his Tigers career. His arm can't overcome the trouble his mouth keeps getting into.