MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Nathan was summoned to a meeting at the San Francisco Giants' minor-league complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., late in spring training 1996. He was told that to realize his dream of a major-league career, he would need to switch positions -- from shortstop to pitcher.
Nathan became so emotional he admits to shedding tears. After composing himself, he walked out of the office and out of professional baseball for a full year.
Despite being selected as a shortstop-pitcher in the sixth round of the 1995 draft out of NCAA Division III Stony Brook (N.Y.) a year earlier, Nathan balked at what he heard that day from Jack Hiatt, then Giants director of player development, and Keith Bodie, then Giants minor-league field coordinator.
"His heart was set on playing shortstop," said Bodie, now the pitching coach for Class-A Salem in the Houston Astros chain. "He took it as a slap in the face."
Trying to hold back tears, Nathan told Hiatt and Bodie he needed time off.
"To be told after years and years of doing something that I've got to start over -- and the whole thing about not going to be breaking (minor-league camp) with the team -- it was definitely a tough day," Nathan said. "All I could think of was that I was playing better than some of their shortstops that they have who are breaking camp. This isn't right. I should get another shot at being a shortstop for another season."
History has provided a different perspective. More than a decade after that career-altering decision, Nathan has become one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues, averaging 40 saves in his first four seasons with the Twins and setting a pace to surpass that figure this season.
Said Nathan, "I'll say it now, that it was the best decision I've ever made."
After leaving the Giants in 1996, Nathan returned to Stony Brook, now an NCAA Division I program, and earned a degree in business management. The degree was a secondary goal.
When Nathan walked out of the Giants' office, he fully intended to give baseball another try. But emotionally, he wasn't prepared.
Nathan thought he was making progress as a shortstop, even if his 1995 year at split-season Bellingham didn't show it; he batted .232 with three home runs and 20 RBIs and committed 26 errors in 56 games.
But Nathan believed he adapted to the speed of the pro game during the following spring training.
At the time, Nathan had limited experience as a pitcher. He went to Stony Brook as an unheralded player from Pine Bush (N.Y.) High who stood 5 feet 7 inches as a high school sophomore and 6-1 when he graduated.
He pitched three innings his senior year at Stony Brook. Giants scout Alan Marr, who signed Nathan, has a great relationship with Stony Brook coach Matt Senk and suggested Nathan get a shot at pitching.
"When I was able to watch him at shortstop and throw the ball across the diamond, it was about his arm action," said Marr, now a Baltimore Orioles national scout. "It looked like a pitcher. It was fluid. It was loose."
Later that season, Senk arranged for Nathan to throw in the bullpen in front of some scouts. Nathan said he threw 99 percent fastballs just to show them pitching could be a fallback option for him.
"All scouts use stats, but it's all about the tools," Marr said. "Here's a kid who was 6-4 with a great body and his arm worked great and he could swing a bat."
After the Giants doused his dreams to be a shortstop, Nathan spent 1996 working out with the Stony Brook team while earning his degree.
He focused on the mechanics of pitching for the first time.
"So going back to school was great, to get my degree at Stony Brook but to allow myself a chance to work out and really get my mind right," Nathan said. "Just saying, 'All right, I'm going to be a pitcher. Let's give it a shot.' "
Nathan contacted Marr shortly before he graduated, and Marr put him in touch with Giants General Manager Brian Sabean.
Nathan was asked to write a letter explaining what he did in his year away and why he wanted to return. Two days after graduation in May 1997, Nathan was on a plane bound for Arizona -- and another chance.
He opened that year in the bullpen at short-season rookie league Salem-Keizer and finished in the starting rotation. He went 2-1 and was second in the league with a 2.47 ERA. His fastball exceeded 90 mph, and he said he immediately had a good feel for a curveball. Mastering a changeup would take more time.
Nathan pitched for San Jose in 1998, including two starts against Modesto at John Thurman Field.
On April 21, 1999, only two years after taking pitching seriously, Nathan was called up to the majors from Double-A Shreveport and debuted for the Giants against Florida. His first major-league pitch hit 97 mph. He tossed seven shutout innings and held the Marlins to four hits and three walks while striking out four.
Nathan spent the rest of the season bouncing between the majors and Triple-A Fresno and opened 2000 in the Giants' rotation.
But his career took another unexpected detour in early May that year, when he experienced shoulder pain playing catch between starts.
"That's when I first felt it," he said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it hurts.' I couldn't even play catch. I had to stop. I was like, 'I'll be all right. Give me a couple days rest, and I'll be fine.' "
But he wasn't. Nathan was on the disabled list twice because of shoulder problems, finishing 5-2 with a 5.21 ERA while trying to pitch with pain between DL stints. One start while he was on the DL came against Modesto. He had offseason surgery on his right rotator cuff and labrum.
When Nathan reached back for his fastball the next spring, it registered 83 mph.
"There's no life on your fastball," he said of the comeback. "But your offspeed pitches, there's no bite on those either. There's no sharp break, just kind of a lazy curveball, lazy slider. Everything you throw up there just seems to hang up there a little longer. Needless to say, I got my brains beat in for a solid year."
Nathan's patience was tested to the max. While pitching for Fresno early in the 2001 season, he gave up four consecutive home runs -- tying a Pacific Coast League record -- over a span of nine pitches during a 14-5 loss to Tucson.
Nathan tried to remind himself he was there to get healthy and stronger, but the fans reminded him of the results.
"It's tough when you have fans there who are all over you," he said. "It got bad. It got to the point where I hated pitching at home."
The low point of his career came just more than a week after the four-homer debacle, when he was sent down to Shreveport.
Nathan was 3-6 with a 6.93 ERA at Shreveport, but his fastball climbed to 88 mph during the season and touched 90 by the end of the year.
"He knew it would not be a lost cause," said Bert Bradley, Fresno's pitching coach at the time.
Nathan spent most of 2002 with Fresno but was a September callup by San Francisco and pitched three scoreless innings. In 2003, he became an established member of the Giants' bullpen, going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 78 appearances. He developed a slider while waiting for his fastball to return, finishing his current repertoire.
Giants closer Robb Nen and setup man Todd Worrell told Nathan he could be a closer someday. Nathan scoffed at the suggestions -- until the Twins and Giants worked out a deal to send Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to Minnesota for catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
Nathan knew little about closing. But in 2004, his first season with the Twins, he registered a career-high 44 saves and was named to the first of two All-Star teams.
Nathan has a fastball he can rear back and throw in the mid-90s or take a little off and make it sink. He has a slider that breaks down so sharply it can drill for oil and a curveball that makes Bert Blyleven's heart flutter.
His mental fortitude helps him ignore hostile crowds on the road, loud music, Thunderstix, Rally Monkeys and multi-time All-Stars in the on-deck circle.
"When he goes on the mound, you feel like he's not going to make a mistake," Twins teammate Livan Hernandez said.
Entering Tuesday, Nathan has had 173 saves since 2004, second in baseball to Mariano Rivera of the Yankees. Nathan, 33, is second on the Twins' all-time list to Rick Aguilera. The Twins are so sure Nathan will continue to dominate hitters that they signed him to a four-year, $47 million contract extension during the offseason with a 2012 option for $12.5 million. There were rumblings that the Cubs and other teams were interested in trading for Nathan during the offseason, but the Twins told them he wasn't on the market.
One reason the Twins believe Nathan has more good years ahead is his late introduction to pitching.
"He has been well-protected," Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. "He hasn't logged a ton of innings. He's a guy who is in great shape. That's why it's a young 33-year-old arm."
Has Nathan thought about how far he has come in 11 years? He pondered the question before answering.
"It seems like the time has gone by fast," he said. "You think about the story, and it definitely takes you back a bit."
Marr often thinks about Nathan's career path when his two young sons watch Twins games from their home in Sarasota, Fla.
"Baseball is a funny game," said Marr, who has 25 years of experience. "I've come to the realization that players come from anywhere, and you can't overlook anyone."