On a day when Joe Nathan affirmed his connection to Stony Brook University at the dedication ceremony for the $1.3 million baseball field that bears his name, the Twins' closer said the Mets "are going to be on my radar'' when the free-agent market opens to all teams Thursday.
The Twins declined Nathan's option in the hope of negotiating a less expensive deal with the righthander, who missed all of 2010 because of Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2011 to record 14 saves with a 4.84 ERA, well above the 1.87 ERA he recorded in his six previous seasons with the Twins. He saved 246 games from 2004-09.
Nathan said he left on good terms with the Twins, but he made his plans clear to test the free-agent market.
The Mets have needed a closer ever since they traded Francisco Rodriguez to Milwaukee in July, and they might be a good fit for Nathan, who grew up in Pine Bush, N.Y. (Orange County). Asked if he would entertain an offer from the Mets, Nathan said, "We're definitely not counting any teams out. But obviously, the Mets are going to be on my radar. It's a team I followed growing up around this area. That would be exciting.''
Money generally is the deciding factor in free agency, but Nathan has other priorities as he approaches his 37th birthday on Nov. 22.
"The dollars are kind of on the back burner,'' he said. "It's all about winning right now. Where I'm at in my career, I just want to be on a club that has a chance to go to the postseason and have a chance to pitch in big games.''
As a four-time All-Star with 261 career saves, Nathan has pitched in plenty of big games on teams that reached the Division Series four times. He credits his success to the start he got at Stony Brook from 1992-95, returning later to complete his degree in business management.
At the dedication ceremony, which was held in a tent covering the home plate area during a driving rainstorm, SBU baseball coach Matt Senk recalled a similar rainy day in 1995 when a large group of pro scouts showed up to see Nathan, who played shortstop for Stony Brook, go through a pitching workout. The experience at Stony Brook, which made the NCAA playoffs for the first time in 1995 in Division III, was so meaningful to Nathan that he agreed to donate $500,000 toward the new baseball facility.
"I was here last year for an Alumni Day event,'' Nathan said. "We got to watch the last ballgame on the old field. That was pretty cool. This is my first time seeing this field. It just blew me away.''
Coming out of high school, Nathan wasn't much of a pro prospect. He arrived at Stony Brook as a shortstop who also could pitch. "I came here for the academics and to get an education,'' said Nathan, who was a two-time academic All-American. "Baseball just kind of worked out. They had the patience to allow me to build myself as a human being and a player, and I think that's what ultimately got me drafted and to move on and play professional baseball.''
Nathan was joined at the dedication by many of his college teammates, and he said he hopes future generations will experience the same camaraderie he did. "I wanted to be a part of this and to give these players and the players of the future the best opportunity to pursue their dream, whether it's baseball or anything they want to do in their life,'' he said. "I want them to have the greatest experience they can have while they're here.''