By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Whitehall native Nate McLouth.
It’s been that way since that incredible season in 2008 when he was an All Star centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But a flurry of some nagging, and even a few major injuries, sapped some of those skills that saw McLouth win a Gold Glove award and lead the National League in doubles in 2008.
Pittsburgh fans, and even a number of his outspoken teammates, were aghast when McLouth was traded to Atlanta in late May of 2009.
That was then.
This is now and McLouth finds himself playing a vital role for the Baltimore Orioles, a team in the heat of the American League’s East Division race with the New York Yankees.
Nate was kind enough to take a break from his hectic schedule Saturday morning to give this ‘ole announcer’ a call prior to Baltimore’s game with the Boston Red Sox.
My how times have changed over the past few months for McLouth, and fortunately, it is all positive.
“Well, first of all, it’s worked out pretty good,” McLouth said. “Faith has always played a big part in our family. Sometimes you get tested in life and sometimes it can make you better and make you stronger.”
Nate was quick to answer when asked if he ever questioned his abilities while he was still a member of the Pirates.
“I never doubted my abilities but I did wonder if I’d ever find them again,” he said.
Contrary to many negative reports, McLouth did have a number of highlight moments during his injured-skewed tenure with the Braves.
Fortunately, I was in the house to witness one of his shining moments.
On July 24, 2009, while spending the weekend with my grandsons and family in Milwaukee, we attended the Braves’ game that evening against the Brewers. Nate blasted a home run deep into the right field seats that night and my grandson Jackson and I returned the following night as guests of the McLouth family.
The Orioles were in Boston this weekend for an all-important series with the struggling Red Sox.
In his first-ever at-bat in Fenway in 2009, McLouth bashed a home run on the first pitch he ever saw. The ball sailed into the right field seats off Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
McLouth further elaborated on playing in Fenway:
“What a neat place this is to play.” McLouth said. “Yesterday, when I was walking down the tunnel to the dugout I was thinking of all the players (Cobb, Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Yastrzemski, Grove, Mantle, DiMaggio, Kaline…) that have made this same walk – it is pretty special.”
McLouth certainly has been on a zigzag path since the end of the 2011 baseball season.
Understandably, Atlanta was not going to gamble and resign Nate to a lucrative contract for his upcoming option year. That paved the way for the former Whitehall star to return to Pittsburgh.
He was confident that he was finally going to be 100 percent healthy for this coming season, after undergoing surgery to repair a troublesome sports hernia that first flared up at the beginning of the 2011 campaign.
The humble McLouth is not the sort to burn any bridges, but after a robust spring training, where he batted close to a .400 clip, McLouth seemed to have earned a spot in the Pirates’ outfield.
However, the Pirates and their second-year manager Clint Hurdle, elected to go with a youth movement, a decision that virtually buried McLouth deep on the bench.
“That’s OK. That was definitely part of it (slump). I knew coming in that I wasn’t going to be an everyday player, but I did think that after having good spring training that I would get a little playing time,” McLouth said. “But it didn’t work out that way, but things do have a way of working out. I knew that if I continued working out, and just enjoy what you do, then I could get another opportunity.”
Hurdle, who was born in nearby Big Rapids, was adamant in his decision to ride the rapids with rookie outfielders Alex Presley and Jose Tabata.
Presley has a local tie to our area as the nephew of former North Muskegon resident Katherine Allen Kelley. Katherine was the brother North Muskegon resident, and lifelong Yankee aficionado, Avery Allen, a great basketball star at North Muskegon back in 1953.
Presley and Tabata were ultimately sent down to the Pirates AAA affiliate in Indianapolis to refine their skills.
McLouth, meanwhile, had received his release from the Pirates on May 31 and returned to his new hometown of Knoxville to spend time with his wife Lindsay, and to ponder his future in baseball.
Less than a week after his release, McLouth received a new lease on life. He was signed by the Baltimore Orioles and assigned to their Triple A affiliate in Norfolk, Va.
“I really enjoyed my time in Norfolk,” said McLouth, who unleashed a display of power that harkened back to his days at Whitehall High School where he hit 16 home runs in his senior season and was named the state’s high school player of the year.
“It got me back to having fun, playing and remembering that baseball is fun to play and not work.”
McLouth had 10 home runs in his short stay with the Tide and earned a Minor League player of the week award before his recent return to the majors.
After a quick start to this season, the Pirates are slumping while the Orioles have turned the city of Baltimore upside down. Camden Yards had become about as quiet as the reading room at the Hackley Library until the resurgence of the Birds.
Much of the credit for Baltimore’s new found success has to go to McLouth, who is enjoying the pennant chase.
“It’s great,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot about Baltimore before I got here, but what a great sports city. The crowds that we’ve had – well it’s like a Saturday afternoon football college crowd. It’s been a blast and we’ve been playing well and we’ve been playing well on the road,” McLouth said.
McLouth has helped the Orioles cause, not only with timely hitting, but also with defensive play that as made him a virtual regular on the highlight portion of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.
The normally plodding Orioles also have been energized with Nate’s rediscovered base stealing abilities that has seen him steal nine bases in his 44 games.
Who would have ever believed that the Orioles would be challenging those very affluent Yankees for the East Division title?
Before McLouth left for the ballpark for an afternoon game against the Red Sox, he was asked about his current manager Buck Showalter’s stoic persona and dry sense of humor.
“Yes that’s exactly how he (Showalter) is,” McLouth said. “He has a very calming effect on players. Whether we’re on a hot streak or we’re struggling a bit, he still has that same calming effect in the dugout.”
Clearly, McLouth is now hitting with so much confidence. Has he made any subtle changes to approach?
“No, not really to be honest with you,” he said. “Mechanically, I just went back to being aggressive, but not overly aggressive and just having fun in the box.”
Fortunately for McLouth, his return back to West Michigan this fall may have to wait as Baltimore makes a big push to play postseason baseball for the first time in 15 years.