Once unlikely hero, McLouth a spark for O's
Outfielder enjoying renaissance in Baltimore after re-signing with club
SAN DIEGO -- Free agent Nate McLouth was getting in an offseason workout in early December when his phone rang.
"Nate," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who hadn't spoken to the outfielder much since Baltimore's season ended in the American League Division Series, "we're getting ready to sign another outfielder. Are you in or are you out?"
McLouth, who hit .268/.342/.435 in 2012 for Baltimore after being promoted from Triple-A, was in. The former All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner, who signed a Minor League deal after being released by Pittsburgh last May, had wanted to come back to the O's. But the team's checklist at the Winter Meetings included going home with another outfielder, and while executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette had McLouth as the Orioles' top choice, the club wasn't waiting around.
"Sometimes those type of phone calls are used as maybe a scare tactic," McLouth said. "But I didn't get that. It couldn't be farther from the truth. It was a very genuine conversation, and I appreciated it."
McLouth hung up and called his agent, and the Orioles got their man, signing McLouth to a one-year, $2 million deal before leaving the Meetings. The signing barely registered a blip on baseball's radar as O's fans clamored for the club -- fresh off its first postseason appearance in 15 years -- to make a splash on the free-agent market.
But Baltimore's big move was re-signing McLouth, and the smaller deal has had a serious effect on every facet of the Orioles' game. McLouth has taken over the everyday job in left field, and he has undergone a renaissance in Baltimore, eclipsing a career high in stolen bases by June and providing a spark as the team's primary leadoff hitter, with a .283/.350/.420 line in 100 games, including his first career grand slam on Friday.
"He's revamped our lineup, and he's revamped himself and his career," O's center fielder Adam Jones said of McLouth. "First and foremost, he's a great man, a great guy in this clubhouse. But on the field, he wants to win. And he does everything he can on the field to win for this team."
It's evident in talking to McLouth how much he enjoys Baltimore, and the comfort factor of playing for Showalter and bench coach John Russell -- who managed him at the start of his career in Pittsburgh, where McLouth was an All-Star in 2008 -- is a big reason for his revival after three frustrating seasons in Atlanta and a less-than-stellar second stint with the Bucs. McLouth uses phrases like "second to none" in describing Orioles fans and launches into stories about the fan interaction out in Camden Yards' left field. There are rare times an opposing fan gets in a word to McLouth out there, and let's just say the O's faithful makes sure it doesn't happen again.
"That's why one loss in the grand scheme of things isn't a huge deal, but it seems like when we lose at home, it hurts a little more," McLouth said. "Because you know they want us to win so bad. And they come, they bring their kids to the games to see us win. And when we don't, it stings."
McLouth has done his part to help Baltimore stay in the AL East race, and he is leading Orioles regulars with a .328 average, with three doubles, three triples and a homer since the All-Star break.
"A lot of people [outside the team] don't know a lot about him, because he is quiet," Nick Markakis said his fellow outfielder, who doesn't command the spotlight the way teammates like Jones and Chris Davis do. "But he's one of the better teammates I've ever had. He brings a lot to the table. He's the type of guy that you need on your team to win. Lot of guys wouldn't be having the years they are having if it wasn't for guys like Nate."
Sincere is the word consistently used by Showalter to describe McLouth, and it shows, from his late-game sliding catch in a recent 11-0 loss to the way he conducts himself in the O's clubhouse. Fluent in Spanish from his early days in pro ball, McLouth was one of the first players to welcome Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia when he first set foot inside the visitors' clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark. McLouth was also dubbed an "all-time favorite" of Triple-A Norfolk manager Ron Johnson, who started coaching shortly after his playing days ended in 1984.
"There's a lot to like about what he brings," Orioles closer Jim Johnson said of McLouth. "He's a veteran player. He's had success and failure at this level, so he has a lot of different views on how things are. And that's always helpful. Things can go good for such a long time and guys become [complacent], but he's had to go through adversity to get to this point. And I think he's enjoying it too, which is part of the fun."
It was the gregarious Ron Johnson who helped McLouth get back to having fun. The O's had interest in him on special assistant Lee Thomas' recommendation in the offseason prior to 2012, and they picked him up off the scrap heap after McLouth was released and went home to Tennessee.
"He performed pretty well recently in 2008, and we weren't sure why he wasn't performing at that level, given his age and his health," said Duquette. "It turned out he just needed a little more time."
Time to get back to being McLouth, that is.
"When he first joined the club, I watched him play and I was like, 'Does this guy remember who he is?'" Ron Johnson said of McLouth's first few days in Triple-A. "Just because of the way he was going about it, all cautious at the plate. One day, he was sitting there and I was like, 'Are you Nate McLouth?' He goes, 'Yeah.' I go, 'Well, go be yourself, man. You're really good.'
"I think Nate forgot who he was. He was a really talented young guy that had a lot of success, and I really think whatever his struggles were over the last year or so kind of clouded the fact that he was who he was. Norfolk gave him an opportunity to get that confidence back."
There is no telling where the Orioles would be this season without McLouth, particularly with fellow left fielder Nolan Reimold's season-ending corrective spinal fusion surgery. Scouts frequently point McLouth to as Baltimore's lineup's catalyst and the player opposing pitchers must monitor as soon as he reaches base, changing the dynamic for the teammates who hit behind him.
And, of course, there is that hair, which has spawned teammate teasing -- invoking names that range from "Saved By the Bell" TV character Zack Morris to actor Michael Douglas -- a Twitter account and a T-shirt night that branded McLouth as the "Base Bandit" and featured a photo of "The Incredibles" movie character Dash.
The good-natured McLouth donned the black superman mask and carried a base to film the team's promo in the home dugout one afternoon before the club played Cleveland.
"There were like six of their guys in the [visiting] dugout, I was like, 'Guys, I'm sorry, it's embarrassing. Don't tell anybody,'" McLouth said. "Last year, I think Chris Davis brought [the nickname Dash] up, that was the first I've heard of it. It's pretty good. They put that poster up [in the clubhouse]. It's pretty funny. It could be worse."
In fact, it's hard to imagine a better scenario for McLouth than what he has in Baltimore, a city he admits he knew next to nothing when he first put on the O's uniform a year ago Sunday.
"He wanted to come back," Jim Johnson said. "What does that tell you about him? He could have waited. But I think he really wanted to be here."