McLouth was OK in his first half year in Atlanta, putting up serviceable numbers: .257 average, .354 on-base percentage, 11 homers and 12 steals in 84 games. But the next two seasons were disastrous, both injury-riddled and ineffective. He batted a combined .210 with just 10 homers and 11 stolen bases and played basically half a season each year.

It's the $13.75 million question that has haunted McLouth. Why did it all go so badly in Atlanta? There are plenty of theories.

"One thing is he had a major hamstring injury in 2009 in the first month or so he was there," said his father, Rick McLouth. "Between that and battling other nagging things and performing below his expectations, maybe he put too much pressure on himself."

His old Pirates teammate, Ryan Doumit, thinks McLouth simply wasn't prepared mentally for moving on.

"I think it blindsided him. He loved Pittsburgh and he was under the impression he'd be there long-term, or at least the next three years. I don't think he ever really got over that," said Doumit, now with the Minnesota Twins. "It was a face-of-the-team deal for him and then he goes to Atlanta and he's just another guy on that team. He certainly wasn't the same type of player in Atlanta that we saw in Pittsburgh."

McLouth said he doesn't have an easy answer, though he dismisses the injuries. The bottom line, he said, is he wasn't playing well, tried to rebound and got further away from what made him successful.

"Eight or nine adjustments down the road, you are so far removed from what you do at the plate that you dig yourself into a big hole and it is hard to get out of," he said. "And I think that's the point where I was at. And it kind of becomes mental and you start doubting your abilities. I think it was a combination of a lot of those things."

"A totally different circumstance"

This offseason, McLouth signed back with Pittsburgh to be a bench player. But it's tough in baseball to go home again. He left as the reluctant young hero and returned as just another retread for an organization that, much like the Orioles, has continually failed to lure significant free agents to a losing franchise. The honeymoon was over.

"When he left, his posters and his flags were all over the concourse and the walkways [at PNC Park]. He was the face of the organization," Peterson said. "To come back three years later, things are completely different. Don't get me wrong, he loved coming back and loved Pittsburgh, but it was a totally different circumstance."

The introspective McLouth says he wasn't a good fit in his second go-around with the Pirates. He knew he'd be on the bench, but he didn't adjust well to the role. He started once in the Pirates' first nine games, and any momentum he had regained at the plate in spring training was lost.

McLouth played in 34 games — started 10 – and was batting .140 when the Pirates waived him in late May. He had the option to stay with the organization and play at Triple-A Indianapolis, but he didn't think he'd ever get consistent playing time with the Pirates.

So he looked elsewhere. The Orioles, under new executive vice president Dan Duquette, were in full reclamation mode, offering second, third and fourth chances to rudderless former stars.

Duquette's special assistant, Lee Thomas, had recommended McLouth this winter before he signed with the Pirates. And McLouth had a major supporter in the big leagues in Russell, who loved the player and the person.

"Nate's just a pleasure to be around," Russell said. "He's someone you can count on."

Quietly, on several occasions, McLouth has purchased winter clothes — hooded sweatshirts and jackets — for the needy and delivered them to a church consortium in Michigan. And he shrugs off the attention when asked about it. So the Orioles felt he'd fit perfectly into their unassuming, team-first clubhouse — if he could still play.

"He's only 30 years old, so I didn't understand why he didn't have his game together," Duquette said. "We had an opportunity and I wanted to see if we could help him get back to the high level he had performed at in the big leagues."

"We get what he brings."

McLouth signed a minor league deal with the Orioles on June 5 and worked with the organization's staff, including hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger, to get his stroke back. Thanks in part to the gregarious Johnson, McLouth started enjoying the game again in Norfolk — something he admits he lost in Atlanta.

"Triple-A is not where you want to be as a player, obviously. But it was a really, really good experience for me because I just got back to just having fun and playing instead of working," McLouth said. "It had become a job the past few years, and that was a really good time for me to get back to enjoying what I do. And I think [Johnson] had a lot to do with that."