All year the Orioles had sifted through the scrap heap and shipped former All-Stars and wanna-bes alike to the minors to be evaluated by Johnson, a baseball lifer with a keen eye for talent.
The husky Johnson lumbered over to the 30-year-old and said, "Let me ask you a question. Aren't you Nate McLouth?"
A sly smile — one that his friends say is his mischievous trademark — crossed McLouth's lips. He immediately understood Johnson's point, responding with, "Let it eat?" — baseball jargon meaning, "You want me to be more aggressive and get after it?"
"Absolutely. Be who you are. You've won a Gold Glove. You've put up major numbers in the big leagues. You're a good player. You're not old." Johnson said to McLouth that night.
"I mean, this guy should be in his prime," Johnson said. "So I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but it helped. And it got crazy. He hit like nine home runs in a month.
"And we got that player again. He is Nate McLouth again."
A trade that "broke his heart"
Baseball is filled with stories of players who seize a team and a town in a breakout season only to fizzle and fade a few years later, whether it's the travel grind or the intense competition or the inevitable injuries that sound a promising career's premature death knell.
McLouth was that guy, a 26-year-old homegrown All-Star and Gold Glover in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next February, he signed a three-year, $13.75 million extension to be the club's cornerstone. To put it in Orioles' terms, he was Pittsburgh's Nick Markakis, only in a smaller, Brian Roberts-sized package.
"It was the only place I ever played," said McLouth, now the Orioles' starting left fielder. "I played at every level of the minor leagues there. … And as long as it had been since the organization had won, I was really enjoying the process of trying to help turn that around and being a part of that."
Then the unexpected struck. Roughly four months after signing his lucrative deal, the feckless Pirates traded McLouth to the perennially contending Atlanta Braves. In search of an athletic, young center fielder, Atlanta offered talented right-hander Charlie Morton and two of their top seven prospects, lefty Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. The Pirates had future MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen playing center in the minors, and their pitching depth was suspect.
"They felt like it was a trade they couldn't pass up," said Orioles bench coach John Russell, who at the time was the Pirates' manager. "But I think it was a little bit of a shock to us and to Nate, just signing a multi-year deal and thinking he is going to be there and then all of a sudden to get traded."
For some, leaving baseball's purgatory for the Braves would be a godsend. It wasn't for McLouth, a small-town type from western Michigan who is described as unfailingly loyal by his friends. McLouth broke down in tears during an interview after the deal was announced.
"It was tough. Just those personal relationships," McLouth said. "You see the product on the field. You see the game on the field. But the stuff in the dugout and the clubhouse and in spring training, you don't see. You don't see the human part of it. I knew that was going to be the toughest part to leave behind."
Bill Peterson, who once managed a teenage McLouth on a travel team and has become one of his closest friends, was playing Guitar Hero in a Pittsburgh apartment with McLouth when the phone rang.
"You could tell part of him was excited to join a contender that's constantly in the playoff race, and that was intriguing to him," Peterson said. "But the flip side is Nate is a very loyal man. So it broke his heart to a degree to have it all go down like that."
"Too much pressure on himself"
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."
By July, McLouth was crushing the ball. The Orioles had noticed, but they didn't have obvious room for another lefty outfielder. So McLouth forced their hand.
He had an opt-out clause in August if he wasn't promoted to the majors. He exercised it, believing that he had resuscitated his game enough that another club would call if the Orioles let him go. Instead, they waived veteran outfielder Endy Chavez and promoted McLouth on Aug. 4.
"You know how much trust I have in Ron [Johnson] and our minor league people and their evaluations. And how much confidence I have in John Russell, and he had the guy when he had his best year ever," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "[McLouth] knows the criteria here and he knows we get him. We get what he brings. And we're fans of it."
McLouth has flourished offensively and defensively for the Orioles, playing in all but one game since his recall and, for nearly a month, filling in at leadoff after Markakis broke his left thumb Sept. 8. Through Thursday, McLouth was batting .274 with a .349 on-base percentage, six homers and 10 steals.
His resurgence ranks as one of the biggest surprises in this inexplicable Orioles' season. But not for those who knew him when.
"The last couple years were the fluke. He is so much better than that," Doumit, his former teammate, said. "There's a lot of baseball left in him. This is maybe just what he needs."
Says McLouth's father: "I think a good word for Nate is overcomer. He has kept the faith and refused to accept failure. … Buck likes saying that if you get your nose bloodied you've got to go back out there. Well, Nate's gotten knocked out, knocked right off his feet and he keeps getting back up."
"Stronger and better because of it"
McLouth keeps doing it because he is a baseball player; he's never wanted to be anything else. He still has no idea what he'll do when his baseball career ends.
As a 2-year-old he could take a round plastic bat and launch a Wiffle Ball over the family's one-story home. As a 4-year-old he could catch any pop-up thrown to him, no matter how high. As a high-schooler he was drafted in the 25th round because he was set on playing at the University of Michigan, but he couldn't refuse the Pirates' eye-popping $400,000 offer.
Yet, in the past three years, he admits he occasionally thought about quitting. Something kept gnawing at him, though. Maybe it was his deep religious faith or his "overcoming" nature, but he had to give his career another shot.
"It's part of the path that God has laid out for my life. And I don't question it. Were the last couple years tough? Heck yeah they were. But I know I am stronger and better because of it," he said. "Baseball is a funny, funny game. Two months ago look where I am at and then today. It's an awesome blessing to be here."
McLouth, who will be a free agent at season's end, would like to return to the Orioles in 2013, and the club would like to have him back. So many things can change between late September and this winter, however, that it's hard to predict what will happen.
For now, the club and the player are just enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. No one is asking why; they're just thrilled that Nate McLouth, somehow, is Nate McLouth again.
"When you look at guys that have done it, and then basically have gone down the wrong career path, you start thinking, 'Man, if we can just get this guy to come back up, we've got something good,'" Norfolk's Johnson said. "It's still all there, it's never gone anywhere.
"I mean, he is the best story of the year. He's got to be."
The Nate McLouth file
Full Name: Nathan Richard McLouth
Born: 10/28/1981 in Muskegon, Mich.
Weight: 180 lbs
Family: Wife Lindsay, no children
Draft: Taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 25th round of the 2000 amateur draft
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