10/19/2015 9:00 AM
Mike Nannini didn't have as good of a season as he'd hoped, but he brought a lot of experience and a renewed passion to Kansas City. (2015 file photo by John Ellis.)
By ELIZABETH OROSCO
A warm summer breeze blows east, and the 2008 Northern League Champions flag comes alive, waving toward the diamond. A few players uniformly lean up against batting cage, eyes following a ball shot into the empty left-field bleachers. Another stands along the first-base line, whipping a wooden bat around his body.
It’s late in the 2015 season and pitcher Mike Nannini watches his teammates taking batting practice on the field below him, pauses, and takes a deep breath in.
“I have a picture of me on my second birthday with a baseball swinging a bat,” he says. “I believe this is why I’m on this earth, to play the game of baseball as long as I can.”
He waits for a fly-out to deep right to settle into his teammate’s glove before taking his eyes off the field and finishing his thought. “I’ve played my entire life.”
In the summer of 1998, the Houston Astros selected Nannini in the first round of the MLB June Amateur Draft. He was only 17 years old. He had graduated high school a month prior. The second hardest-throwing high school pitcher in the country, Nannini was the Astros’ top prospect. Over the next 11 years, he would play for several organizations, including the Cubs, Marlins, Blue Jays, Reds, Tigers, Pirates, and Mariners.
At the end of those 11 years, Nannini walked away from the game he once loved, having lost his passion. He said, without that love of the game, he was faced with a decision: to continue playing despite his lack of passion, or to take the next step and walk away.
“To be honest, the business side got to me,” he said. “The traveling, the being away from home… I just lost my passion a little bit, playing for so long, it just kind of went away. The support system, the passion, and the drive just weren’t there.”
He decided to stop playing, and didn’t put on a uniform for the next six years.
In 2012, he moved back to his hometown of Las Vegas and began coaching baseball at Bishop Gorman High School. This is where Nannini said his spark and drive for the game was reignited as he coached and spent time with a team that genuinely loved baseball.
“When I was out there with those kids,” Nannini said, “seeing the game how it was meant to be played—hard and fun, I just got that rise in me again and I realized that I needed to be out there playing, that I wasn’t ready to be a coach.”
After realizing that he wasn’t finished playing baseball, Nannini said he began training hard, and getting himself back in shape to perform to the best of his ability. Additionally, though, Nannini said his faith played a big role in his decision to return to the game after so many years.
“I started training and honestly I gave it all to God,” he said. “I’m a very religious guy and I asked him if he wanted me to play and I gave it all to him. Then I did everything I could training-wise, health-wise.”
In 2014, at the age of 33, Nannini returned to the game with the Amarillo Sox. After the team released him, Nannini decided he wasn’t going to let the renewed passion go away this time, so he got in touch with one of his former managers in the Astros organization, John Massarelli, and asked for a chance to pitch in Kansas City. Nannini got a call soon after with an opportunity to be a part of the rotation for the T-Bones.
After just three starts in 2014 for Kansas City, Nannini faced yet another challenge.
Beginning to feel pain in his elbow, he assumed that it was his body telling him to slow down after six years of not playing. However, Nannini later found out that he had strained his flexor-pronator tendon, the first injury of his career. His season was immediately cut short and he returned home to have the injury evaluated.
“I’ve never been injured before, throughout my whole career, so I didn’t really know,” he said. “I just thought that it was because it had been six years and my body was trying to catch up. Mentally, I’m a strong person, but when you’re put in that situation, when it’s new to you, you don’t know how to react and how to go about it, you just try to play through it and it wasn’t right.”
After intense therapy and rehab, Nannini signed again with the T-Bones during the 2015 season. He went 2-4 with a 5.78 ERA in 17 games (seven starts). He had 23 strikeouts to 11 walks.
It wasn’t his stats that made the biggest difference for Nannini, though. It was what he could bring to the clubhouse.
Despite the age gap between himself and the other players on the team, Nannini says that the dynamic in the clubhouse was tight knit and goal-oriented. As an older, seasoned player, he understood his role with his teammates.
“When I was younger, I really appreciated the older guys showing me the ropes and teaching me the wrongs and rights,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here, to help some of these guys out. This clubhouse is a good bunch of guys so it’s fun to come to the park. We are all here doing the same thing and a lot of these guys understand that. It makes it very easy to come to the park, stay at the park, hang at the park and just enjoy it.”
Over the years, Nannini says that even though his perspective hasn’t changed on the game itself, he has learned one valuable lesson that has allowed him to balance life and baseball in a way he wasn’t able to in his early playing years.
“Now, at the end of the day, it’s just a game,” he said, “and I understand that now. There are a lot more important things in life than baseball and back then, baseball overtook me. I mentally thought so much about everything and now I just go out and have fun, knowing that I’m here, that’s where I’m supposed to be, and to have fun and perform. This is a game of failure. You’re not going to go out there everyday and throw a no-hitter or a perfect game. It’s the greatest game out there, but it is just a game.
“I just need to keep God first and everything else will fall in place. Of course, every kid’s dream is to pitch in the big leagues, but you have to take it one start at a time. Who knows, maybe that will be the end of my story.”