OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Nathan Patterson never even made the varsity baseball team as a middle infielder during high school back home in Kansas.
In fact, he’d strayed far from the game — running his own landscaping business and working various other jobs that included sales and software — before baseball came back into his life when he least expected it.
If that was the whole story, Patterson’s journey to the Oakland Athletics’ rookie ball team would have been remarkable, yet the way the pitcher got discovered made it even crazier yet: He became an instant social media sensation.
In Colorado for a family reunion to celebrate his grandmother’s 80th birthday last month, Patterson wound up at a Rockies game with time on his hands because of a rain delay. He and his brother tried out the speed-pitch challenge cage at Coors Field just for fun. His brother, Christian, hit 83 mph and the booth operator congratulated him on the top speed of the day.
Then Patterson took his turn, spending about $5 total for all the tosses.
The radar gun read: 90-94-94-96-95-96.
He might have even had a couple of beers in his system.
His brother’s video of the throws quickly took off on social media.
“Guys, we were just chillin at a @rockies baseball game, and my brother decided to step into a speed pitch challenge…he hit 96 mph ?? @MLB Let’s get him signed!” Christian posted on Twitter with the video.
Then, Christian sent a social media update that read, “And 2 weeks later…he’s now a professional athlete” featuring photos of Patterson signing his contract in full green and gold A’s gear.
“It’s become more and more real now,” the 23-year-old Patterson said. “There’s kind of a misconception that I threw a ball … almost a month ago and got signed, a misconception that there was no work or sacrifice that went into it when in reality there was a ton of work and a lot of sacrifices over the last year that got me to being where I am today.”
An elbow fracture discovered when Patterson was playing on a showcase team the summer before his senior year in high school kept him from playing baseball that final season at Blue Valley High in Overland Park, Kansas. Just 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds when he graduated, Patterson is now 6-1, 185 pounds.
There were also complications that derailed his rehab. He “wasn’t ever able to really get 100%” healthy, so Patterson pushed aside any college baseball hopes and enrolled in community college courses. He lasted only two months before dropping his four classes to run the landscaping business that took off and became so busy that he and a friend needed to hire employees.
When Patterson realized about a year later in June 2015 that “sun up to sun down” lawn care and landscaping wasn’t his life path and he wanted to “go experience the world,” he used Google to determine where he would go next. Austin, Texas, came up as No. 1 when he searched for “coolest places to live when you’re young and single,” so he told his friends and family that’s where he would move.
He met his girlfriend in Austin. Fast forward and she was promoted and they wound up moving to Nashville, where Patterson was able to work remotely for the software company he had joined. Last summer, his family visited and they went to a Nashville Sounds Triple-A game, with the ballpark close to where Patterson lived. That’s when he initially tried out one of those pitch-speed booths, hit 96 mph on his final throw and realized he had quite an arm — even with his background being as an infielder.
“Blew my own mind, honestly,” he said.
A coach saw him and immediately encouraged Patterson to play baseball, if not collegiately then in the pros. So a couple of weeks later Patterson began contemplating the idea of chasing a lost dream once more, as a pitcher.
But last December, Patterson’s plan to resume baseball was stalled again when he got hit by a car while riding his electric longboard. He broke the wrist on his left, non-throwing hand and needed surgery.
“It was a very, very sad day, like all this work over the last two months was for nothing,” he recalled.
Patterson returned to Kansas City for two weeks at Christmas last year and his family urged him to push on. By January he was throwing off a mound again in Nashville with a cast on the other hand, and that’s when about 20 colleges came calling along with a handful of major league organizations. Patterson hired an agent.
He also began working closely with Jarrod Parker, who played for the A’s before a pair of Tommy John surgeries forced him out of the game. Parker opened Parker Sports Performance last September in Nashville, and Patterson was one of the first athletes to participate in a regular training program at the center.
“Lucky enough to have him walk through the door first of all,” Parker said. “Rarely do people get that kind of chance. Usually it’s kind of that pipe dream. He came in and put his nose to the ground. We threw so much at the kid when he was here to prep him for the situation.”
The A’s signed Patterson, who struck out the side in order during his first pro appearance Aug. 15. His second outing wasn’t as smooth with Patterson giving up three runs on two hits in two innings. Then Sunday night, in his final start before the rookie ball season concludes Monday, Patterson struck out two and retired the first eight hitters he faced before being pulled after a two-out single in the third.
Now, Patterson gets stopped for photos or to sign a baseball — “You’re that guy,” people will say.
“What guy?” Patterson responds.
He knows there’s plenty still to do on the way to his goal of pitching in the big leagues one day.
“The first few days, weeks, it was just surreal,” Patterson said. “But talking with my family, my dad, he’s like, ‘Nathan, this isn’t surreal any more, this is real, you are living this, you are an athlete, you are good, you are talented, you are athletic, just live this, enjoy it, absorb every single day.’”