As he moved to the mound from the bullpen, Chad Nading left the cage that trapped him.
At 29, he was getting his first flavor of the major leagues: a spring training game between the Padres and Dodgers.
His parents watched the walk their son waited what felt like a lifetime for. The boy they saw strike out sides at 17 was now a man making up for millions of missed moments.
He had to stay serious, though. “Strike one. Strike one,” Chad mouthed mentally, maintaining focus. He had a job to do.
But he couldn’t help but ponder the path that put him on a perch placed 60.5 feet from the plate a decade late.
Every summer, Alaskan baseball coaches organize a clinic at the collegiate summer ball field in Anchorage. It includes a showcase for college coaches from across America to come look at the best the state has to offer. At the end, a high school all-star team is selected and pitted against the best local college players. In 2003, Chad made his debut.
When Chad hears his name called, he assumes he will play first base. There is no way a 14-year-old would be asked to pitch against players old enough to drink, right? Wrong.
His coaches tell him he would start the game and go one inning and not another more. Reluctant and nervous, Chad takes the mound and finds Godzilla with a bat waiting for him.
“What the hell am I doing up here?” Chad thinks.
With no other option, he locks in. He throws the ball toward the plate in a heave of desperation.
“Oh my god,” he thinks, as the giant punishes his pitch 700 feet foul. Chad turns to the dugout and sees his coaches laughing.
“Come on, you got it. Don’t worry about it,” they shout between giggles.
Chad faces forward again and switches up his style. He chucks a changeup, which his foe fouls off. The nerves started to calm.
He continues with his changeup, and his third pitch sends the slugger sulking. Chad’s nemesis screams and tomahawks his bat into the dugout, earning himself the boot.
Chad gains control. His first pitch to the second batter is laser beamed to the right fielder’s mitt. He strikes out his final assignment in four pitches, cementing the supremacy of a lanky kid over bearded men.
“Maybe I’m different,” Chad wondered.
From 2003 to 2006, Chad Nading was Anchorage’s East High School athletics. He helped the track program to two state titles and grabbed an individual state championship in the high jump in 2004, his second after winning in the same event in eighth grade. He played basketball, too, but just as a way to stay in shape. But that didn’t stop him from using his 6-foot-6 frame to dictate the post.
He lettered four times in football and quarterbacked the team to a state title in 2003 as a sophomore. He was recruited to play Division I football and in 2005 attended the Army All-American Junior Football Combine in San Antonio with the likes of Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman and Percy Harvin.
“I believe if he had chosen football, he probably could have played in the NFL,” Nading’s longtime friend Corey Madden said. “If he really wanted to be good at basketball … he could have easily played college.”
“Watch him dunk. Over and behind the back, it’s nuts,” a former coach and friend Tom Novak said. “He’ll throw a football through a brick wall. He’s a super, super athletic guy who can do it all.”
But nothing could top baseball.
Nading started first base and pitcher all four years. He started at fourth in the rotation as a freshman, moving up to second as a sophomore and the staff’s ace as an upperclassman. As a junior and senior, he won Big Stick and League MVP and was named first-team first base and pitcher. His combined batting average exceeded .600, and by the time he was a junior, Nading’s fastball was in the low 90s. He was the Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year in Alaska in 2006, culminating what could only be described as a dominate career.
His team’s success followed suit. Under the guise of head coach Tony Wylie, East won every state championship from 2003 to 2006 with Nading as the only constant for all four rings. In 2003, Nading caught the final out at first base, becoming his teammates’ tackling target in celebration. The following year, he again caught the final out, announcing East’s authority in Alaska.
Nading’s teams had a swagger about them that didn’t exist in other teams. Sometimes East would win by 20 and still not be satisfied.
“We didn’t just want to win,” Nading said. “We wanted to embarrass people.”
It seemed to be smooth sailing for Nading. He ran circles around his competition, and it became clear that professional baseball was within his grasp.
“He was the prototypical pitcher that we were looking for,” Wylie, who doubled as a major league scout at the time. “Big, tall, lean body with lots to build on.”
On June 7, 2006, that potential was officially recognized. While doing physical labor to help his father, Curt, with his latest real estate venture, Nading received a call from Brian Reid of the Detroit Tigers. In the 36th round with the 1072nd pick, 18-year-old Nading was drafted into the best baseball league in the world.
He now had a decision to make: begin his professional career or go to college? Nading had committed to play baseball at Oregon State, the reigning national champions, but Detroit offered him a generous signing bonus to leave it all behind. After deliberating with his father, who played football at Utah State in the 1970s and wanted his son to have similar experiences, Nading chose college, and so began his 10-year hiatus as a successful baseball player.
Nading’s first base days ended in Corvallis. He expected to have an opportunity to play the position, but that didn’t last long.
“What did you get drafted as?” Nading said he was asked.
“Go to the corner. Start running.”
“That was it. First base and hitting, no more,” Nading said.
Immediately, Nading could tell this would be different from high school. Before, Nading’s talent alone was much too much for his opponents to handle. It quickly became clear that wouldn’t cut it in college.
“In Alaska, I was the only guy who could throw 90 miles per hour,” Nading said. “I got to college and everyone could.”
He tried to keep up. He spent hours in the weight room, building strong relationships with the strength and conditioning staff because of the time he spent improving his body. He worked as hard as he could to change himself from an athlete to a pitcher.
“These guys would throw the ball in, out, up, down, left, right, sinker, slider, curveball with command, and I knew that was what I was lacking,” Nading explained. “That’s ultimately what drowned me out of my freshman year. I wasn’t polished. I was just a rough athlete.”
Nading struggled during fall ball before the start of his freshman season. He couldn’t command the ball well enough to beat batters. It was the first time he had issues on the diamond, and he didn’t know how to cope.
“I knew I wasn’t preforming like I thought I should, and I never understood why because I knew I was really athletic, and I knew I could do a lot of different things in all sports,” he said. “But for some reason, throwing a damn ball over the plate was a struggle for me at that point.”
An injury officially derailed his chance of playing in the 2007 season, landing him a redshirt he expected his play would have earned him anyway.
Oregon State continued to win without him. The team won its second-consecutive national championship in 2007, and Nading got to experience his fifth-straight triumphant dogpile.
But it wasn’t the same as his past titles. Although his teammates had accepted him into their family, Nading didn’t feel he contributed much to the championship run. His perfectionist ways were being tested and failing, and it continued to eat at him.
Then, a miscommunication regarding his scholarship was the final straw, and Nading requested a transfer. In December 2007, he moved to Skagit Valley Community College in Mount Vernon, Washington, to play the 2008 season. He performed better, but still not up to his standards. The weather and solitude left Nading wanting a change.
In fall of 2008, he found his third school in under a year. Two high school friends, Casey Flair and Tate Knutson, played wide receiver at UNLV, and through connections, Nading was able to find a spot onto the baseball team. He hoped the fresh start would mean fresh play. It didn’t.
Nading performed okay in the 2009 season, but didn’t do anything to impress or increase his innings. Nading had no expectation of being drafted that summer after how he had played since being drafted the first time in 2006, but the Texas Rangers saw something in him. A call from a Rangers scout awoke Nading from a nap, and he learned he had been selected in the 37th round, dropping just one round in three years.
He again faced a decision: go professional or finish his degree? Nading had two more years of eligibility but only one until his degree. After discussing with his parents, he again chose school and turned down Texas.
In what would be his final college season, Nading started off well. He assumed a setup role for the Rebels and had success early in the year, even earning a few starts. But back injuries steered him the other way, forcing him to miss most of the middle of the season, and he couldn’t put it back together again.
Nading graduated in 2010 but had the option of playing as a fifth-year senior in 2011. He called family-friend and then-manager of the San Diego Padres Buddy Black for advice.
Black asked Nading to come live with him in San Diego for a week or so to train and talk about his baseball future. Nading accepted, and Black helped him tighten up some of the mechanical issues he had.
Once Nading felt comfortable, Black arranged for a scout to watch him throw. Nading threw at Petco Field and did well enough to earn his first professional contract.
He drove to Peoria, Arizona, to play rookie ball with the other Padre prospects. But it didn’t go well. Nading was inconsistent, an issue that plagued him for a few years now, and by the end of the summer had too many bad outings and numbers.
He returned months later for spring training, hoping a summer of training in Las Vegas would cure his consistency. It didn’t.
Roughly two weeks into spring training, San Diego released Nading and unleashed a whirlwind of worry onto the 23-year-old.
“I have no idea what to do,” Nading said. “I always had a next step in mind, but once you get to the point of professional baseball, there’s no next step. It’s just figure it out. If you want it bad enough, you’ll figure out how to get back in.”
Left with little else, the next morning Nading showed up at the Oakland Athletics training facilities with a full backpack of gear. He walked up to the front desk and explained all he wanted was a chance to show his stuff. But Oakland was also making cuts and didn’t even bother to see Nading throw.
Nading tried his technique with the Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels, and he became accustomed to the answer they always announced: no.
With no other teams to turn to, Nading went home and began to question his baseball future. That’s when he received a call from Pat Murphy, the short season coach for the Padres and someone Nading had known from years past. Murphy told him he had a fresh idea to ail his troubles: submarine sidearm.
Nading had always thrown over the top, but desperate to make something happen, he accepted Murphy’s offer. After working with Murphy on the new motion for about a month, Nading steadily gained confidence. Murphy put Nading back in front of San Diego scouts, hoping a reinvented look would entice them. It didn’t.
The Padres were intrigued, but it wasn’t good enough. Why should we re-sign someone we just released, the scouts explained.
Curt Nading said that was the lowest point he noticed for his son in his long road through baseball, he didn’t let it last.
“He was wondering, ‘Now what do I do?’” Curt Nading said. “After that, he had a battle in front of him, and he dealt with it without very much negativity at all.”
Before the start of the 2012 season, the San Angelo Colts hold a player introduction night, including an intrasquad exhibition. Everyone has their name, hometown and a short bio read over the microphone. Chad’s name is last on the list.
“This is Chad Nading and … we don’t have anything on you,” the announcer says.
“I’m from Alaska,” Chad says under an eye roll.
“He’s from Alaska!”
On the left side of the stands, Chad hears a family stand and cheer.
“My daughters were born there! I was in the air force!” the father yells.
After the game, the team holds a barbeque. Chad walks up to the Alaska fan family and meets the Baker family.
Ken Baker introduces Chad to his daughters and asks him where he’s staying. Chad says the team has the players in a hotel for now, but beyond that he doesn’t have anywhere to stay.
“You stay with us!” Ken exclaimed. “One of these girls will give up their room. You stay with us.”
One problem: Ken’s wife Season was out on a business trip, and 6-foot-6 stranger sitting at her table was her homecoming present the next day. She’s hesitant at first, but relents and Chad stays with the Bakers during his time in San Angelo.
In 2015, Ken calls Chad and says he got a job in Anchorage at the hospital, but Season is still looking for work. The next day, Curt says his assistant of 30 years is retiring, and a lightbulb enters Chad’s head. He sends Season’s resume to his dad, and she fit his needs.
Today, you can find Season Baker working in Anchorage for the parents of the baseball-playing stranger who surprised her in her home five years ago.
After the Padres released Nading, he focused his sights on all that was left: independent baseball. He continued working out, hoping he could find a baseball home somewhere. Luck caught him again, though, and he pulled his oblique soon before his next opportunity in Chico, California.
Still trying to help his friend, Murphy placed a call to the Chico Outlaws, an independent team, and told them about Nading. He explained his situation and mentioned his injury. With a month between then and the start of the independent season, Nading had time to recover.
Nading drove the 10 hours from Las Vegas to Chico and arrived to find 70 other players hungry like a 1930s unemployment line. He settled in, thinking the team understands his situation. It didn’t.
On day two, he’s asked to throw. He tried to explain his injury and beg for understanding, but the Outlaws had none of it.
Nading stepped up, but with every sling his side seemingly split. Unsurprisingly, the scouts sent him back south.
Furious, Nading drove 10 hours straight back to Las Vegas. Once home, he felt the hopeless once again.
“I didn’t know again,” he said. “Lost.”
He called his dad with questions, and he found an answer. Curt told his son about a tryout in Council Bluffs, Iowa, led by the Major League Scouting Bureau, and so it goes.
After going home to Alaska, getting physical therapy and pitching in his brother’s adult league just to get innings, Nading flew to Omaha and rented a car to drive to Iowa. Because of his professional status, Nading got to throw first, an advantage because scouts grow tired of watching a bottomless list of pitchers pitch. He threw over the top, abandoning the submarine style he had shoehorned into his arsenal, and the scouts liked what they saw. However, they weren’t ready to recommend him to a major league team. Instead, they recommended he play independent baseball first, something Nading accepted as long as they found him a team.
A few phone calls later, Nading headed west for Lincoln, Nebraska, and a date with the Lincoln Saltdogs.
On June 10, 2011, a day after turning 24, Nading showed the Saltdogs his stuff. They asked about his poor stats, and he explained the submarine arm slot he had been tinkering with. It seemed to be going well, and Nading felt good about his tryout. Then the rug was pulled.
Although Lincoln liked what it saw, the team wasn’t looking to sign anyone, adding to the growing list of different ways Nading heard no.
A friend from Nading’s UNLV days, Blake Gailen, played for Lincoln and offered his couch as a condolence. Once Nading got to Gailen’s apartment, and the despair sets in. What now?
Gailen has an idea: Lincoln had two home series in the next 10 days. Nading could talk to their coaches and hope something happened. Nading spent the next week and a half on Gailen’s couch, trying to entertain the independent teams that came to town like a non-traveling circus, but no one bought any tickets.
Nading went online and found the Fort Worth Cats. He caught a flight to Dallas and met the team’s coach, thinking his chance to prove his ability would come. It didn’t.
Before letting him throw, the coach insisted on looking at Nading’s stats online. Nading tried to warn him, but the coach wouldn’t have it.
“He just got this look on his face,” Nading said.
And that was that. Nading asked for a chance to throw, but again found the word no.
Nading took to Facebook, looking for even the littlest lead. He noticed Joe Agreste, whom he played rookie ball for the Padres with a year earlier, was in a new uniform: the Gateway Grizzlies, located in Sauget, Illinois. Nading cold called Agreste and asked about his team’s pitching. To Nading’s delight, the Grizzlies needed bullpen help. Nading asked Agreste to see if he could come meet the team wherever it was for a tryout.
Finally a yes, but with a catch: Nading had to get to Florence, Kentucky, by the next day.
“Where is Florence, Kentucky?” Nading asked. Thirty-five minutes from Cincinnati, Google answered.
One sunrise later, Nading was throwing for his life, and he survived.
Gateway took a chance on him, shining a ray of hope on the big frame they bet on.
Bases loaded. Two outs. Team needs an out. The time was now.
Chad inhaled the warm wind, wound and whirled.
The ball felt good as it bowled away from him, bulldozing its way to the batter.
Now for strike two.
The rest of the 2011 season went as they all had since high school. Nading’s command and consistency weren’t there, at Gateway let him go. Still searching, Nading spent the fall in Alaska before going to Palm Springs, California, in January 2012 with catcher Chris Caves, a friend he met a year earlier with Murphy, for the California Winter League in what seemed to be his final chance to chase his dream.
Nading started to feel confident for the first time in a long time, and teams noticed. He catches the eye of the Laredo Lemurs, and they sign him in California. Nading went to Vegas to train thinking his luck could turning around. It didn’t.
A month later, Nading gets a call from Madden saying sorry about the release. Perplexed, Nading asks what Madden meant since he hadn’t even played a game yet. Madden said he read it in the newspaper.
“How is this a thing? How does this happen?” Nading despairs.
Nading called Laredo’s coach looking for an explanation. Five years later, that call hasn’t been returned.
Nading called Bobby Brown, a friend and coach of the Abilene Prairie Dogs, for answers.
“Oh you know how baseball works,” Brown told Nading. “Some other guy had more experience than you, so you were the guy out.”
But Brown had some good news. His friend, Doc Edwards, was the manager of the San Angelo Colts, and they needed help.
Nading called his parents and informed them of his newest home.
“Where’s that?” his parents asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going to put it in the GPS and just go.”
After the game in Florence, Chad boards the bus, excited to meet his new teammates. He extends his hand out to the player seated next to him.
“Hey, man, it’s nice to meet you. I’m the new guy,” Chad says.
“I know. They just released me for you.”
Chad could empathize, but in that moment, he couldn’t sympathize.
“I know what this feels like, but I can’t say I’m sorry,” Chad thinks. “It’s baseball.”
For the next seven hours, the two sit in silence, inches between them but miles apart.
Three games into the 2012 season, Nading was named one of San Angelo’s starters. In his first outing, he felt good. The confidence was back, he felt comfortable and he trusted Edwards. The first inning went well. Then the second inning came, and his oblique went.
“No way in hell. This can’t be happening,” Nading thought, struggling to cope with another slap to the face.
In independent baseball, there is no disabled list. If you’re unable to play, you’re taken off the roster and someone replaces you. But Edwards believed in Nading.
“I think you’re different, and I want you to stay around,” Nading remembered Edwards said.
Edwards and San Angelo offered Nading free physical therapy in exchange for not getting paid, a deal Nading accepted. For a month, Nading hung out with the Bakers, going to drag boat speed races and shooting guns, helped around the field and hustled to recover.
When he felt healthy enough, Nading gave it another try. The first inning went well. The second inning went well. He thought the third inning would go well. It didn’t.
Nading felt his oblique give, and he knew he couldn’t fight this one, ending his run with the Colts.
Novak called Nading with an opportunity. There was a new league being started in Arizona that Novak was coaching in called the Freedom League, and it needed players. Novak offered to let Nading pitch an inning at a time and let him go at his own pace, an offer too good to refuse.
The 2012 summer went well. Nading felt comfortable with Novak and gained some confidence. He started throwing well, better than he had in a while. But the Freedom League wasn’t run well enough to have an official stat keeper, meaning Nading’s success might as well have been a dream.
Still, things continued to look up. In the fall, Novak introduced Nading to Brian Fischer, the head coach of Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale, Arizona. Fischer needed a pitching coach, and Nading needed a place to train. It was a perfect marriage.
Nading spent the rest of 2012 and the start of 2013 preparing for the season and helping those whose shoes he wore seven years earlier.
While playing catch one spring day at Notre Dame, Chad sees someone he recognizes out of the corner of his eye. He notices the man fixed on his pitching, so he turns look for himself. There stands three-time all-star and 14-year Major League vet Jason Schmidt.
“Please tell me you’re not a senior,” Jason says.
“I wish,” Chad chuckles.
“I saw you throwing across the field and had to come see what was going on,” Jason explains.
“I’m Chad Nading. I’m the new varsity pitching coach.”
“Cool, I’m the freshman pitching coach.”
Chad pauses for a moment, wondering why someone who struggles to throw strikes is above someone who nearly won a Cy Young.
Jason and Chad get to talking, and Chad gives the gory details of his career gone wrong. Jason asks if Chad will play catch with him so he can feel how his ball moves. Naturally, Chad accepts.
“I think you’ve got something, so I need to call this guy,” Jason says the next day after Chad impresses him. “His daughter plays softball with my daughter. He’s a big league scout for the Boston Red Sox. His name is Steve Peck.”
Days later, Steve arrives at Notre Dame ready to review the reliever. He watches Chad in the bullpen, and admits he likes it through a request.
“In two or three days, I need you to get some hitters out here of any age, of any profession,” Steve says.
Chad collects his best 16 year olds and warns them he won’t go easy. After tearing up the teenagers, Steve says he sees the talent and will be in touch. Chad walks away without anything more.
Two days later, the phone rings.
“Hey, are you free to meet me for breakfast tomorrow morning?” Chad hears Steve say.
“For what?” Chad asks.
“I’ll have a contract for you.”
Nading nestled in to Fort Myers, Florida, and found a routine. As the days of extended spring training went by, so too did the roster. Slowly, the Red Sox peeled away at their prospects, and slowly Nading inched closer to a baseball home. He was pitching well, and he felt this could go somewhere. It didn’t.
On the final day of cuts, Nading walked into the complex. Before he could get onto the field, he was called into the office. He knew what that meant.
Homeless in the baseball world, Nading went back home to Alaska, for the second time using his brother’s adult league as a roof over his head. He went back to Arizona for the Freedom League’s second and final season, and reverted back to the submarine slot, still searching for the answers to his questions. He threw well, but without any stats or tryouts lined up, fate had to throw a ball Nading’s way.
A friend from the California Baseball League called Nading and told him about a professional Japanese showcase for independent and professional players in Fresno, California. Playing overseas hadn’t occurred to Nading, but American baseball hadn’t done him many favors, and in late 2013 he followed fate to Fresno.
To start the tryout, Nading threw in his natural over-the-top position. The Japanese scouts’ faces stayed straight; a bad sign. With nothing to lose, Nading called an audible. He asked for and was granted one more throw. He sunk down and slung from the submarine slot. The scouts sang like Sinatra seven whisky shots south.
Nading was told he would be drafted into the Baseball Challenge League, a semi-professional Japanese league. Sure enough, the Ishikawa Million Stars selected Nading, and he weighed his options. Go to Japan or continue pursuing his dream in America?
“If anything, it’ll be a great life experience,” Nading thought. With little momentum elsewhere, Nading took his chances, and took his battle across the Pacific.
In late February 2014, Kanazawa, Japan, welcomed Nading with a blizzard. His driver was more focused on his cigarettes than the snow-covered road.
“I flew 18 hours to die in a little box,” Chad thought.
But he survived. However, his apartment had its own plans. Not made with Americans in mind, Nading promptly smashed his forehead on the door frame, an abrupt greeting that made him realize this will be a different experience.
Nading’s roommate moved in a week later, leaving him with the place to himself. Without a consistent translator, the next seven days produced plenty of perplexities. Soon, though, the season started, and baseball is a language Nading speaks fluently.
He assumed a setup role, commanding eighth innings. Nading played well, but halfway through the season asked to change his throwing style back to over the top. The change proved positive, and he was starting for the second half of the season.
“You’re meant to throw over the top,” Nading thought. “You’re supposed to do this. You need to become more confident and just allow things to happen.”
After the Million Stars lost in the championship, Nading decided to end his Japanese career. With his success and sureness in pitching over the top, he was determined to finally make his mark in America.
“I knew my goal now was to get back to America and prove to myself I could play affiliate baseball,” he explained.
Nading rejoined Notre Dame Prep’s coaching staff and reconnected with the Oakland Athletics. They brought him to their complex to throw, and Nading felt great about his velocity. He’s told he will hear back in a day or so, but weeks later his phone rings. He was told to go find innings “in a real American independent league” so they could have stats to judge him on.
This seeped into spring of 2015. Nading threw for the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers. Nothing came of it. Some teams wouldn’t even give Nading a chance. When Novak presented Nading to a Toronto Blue Jays scout, he laughed in his face.
“The scout looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t care if you throw 106. Toronto will never sign a guy who’s 27 years old,’” Novak said.
“That was my biggest problem,” Nading said. “Nobody would answer the phone, and nobody would allow me to come throw.”
Chad caught the ball from his catcher and refocused. With strike one out of the way, just two and three stood between Chad and the dugout.
Time for strike two.
Chad sticks to his guns and fires a fastball.
The ball grazed the batter, leaving no marks but doing enough damage to walk in a run.
All his career, Chad wrestled with walks. Now, on the biggest stage he’d performed on, it was back.
Still, bases loaded. Still, two outs. Still, team needs an out. Still, the time was now.
With 2015 looking like another lost cause, Novak presented Nading with a new opportunity. A new league was starting in Ozark, Missouri, that would have six teams playing on a single field. With nothing else to do, Nading packed his bags and headed east with Novak and two baseball friends, Billy Young and Ryan Deeter.
Once they arrived, they checked out the hotel and stadium to find 200 guys waiting to play in a rundown dump. For the next week, the league’s general manager held the players in limbo, twiddling their thumbs as the stage was set.
Rumors swirled that the money supplier was pulling out, and the league would fold before starting.
“This is the end of me,” Nading thought.
The hotel owner started banging on doors, telling players they had one more night before they had to leave. He hadn’t been paid yet, and at this point it didn’t seem likely to happen. Nading watched as the league’s general manager was hauled away in a police car, driving away with what seemed to be Nading’s final chance in baseball.
The group drove back to Arizona, beaten and demoralized. But soon they caught word of another opportunity. There was a money tournament in Canada, and the winners got paid. They swallowed their pride and flew to Seattle, finding refuge in nearby Bremerton, Washington. The three joined the West Coast Guns, a team made up of players who had also been released from minor league and independent teams.
After training, the team drove up to Grand Forks, British Columbia, for the Grand Forks International Baseball Tournament.
Immediately, Nading’s internal alarm went off.
What the Guns’s owner failed to mention was he expected his players to live on a campground during the tournament. As poor as the accommodations were, the 100-degree weather made them worse.
Nading took it to his head coach, and he offered the extra bed in his hotel room. Not wanting to leave behind his friends, Nading asked about them. After some searching, they find a blow-up bed and camping cot and jam them into the room, creating a continent of cushion across the room.
“We had enough room for us to crawl over into the bathroom area,” Nading said.
Despite the living conditions, the Guns made it to the championship before their pitching ran out on them, earning the team second-place money. The team loaded up onto an air condition-less bus and rode 10 hours back baking in a 100-degree oven.
Once they got back, they asked for their share of the prize money. But the owner refused. He said he only promised to share the money if they won. Too exhausted to fight, the three accepted $200 each and flew to Phoenix.
“Basically at that point, I was done,” Nading said. “I played catch every once in a while. I had no more outlets that I could even think. I was basically retired without retiring.”
In the spring of 2016, Chad receives a call from Scott Emerson, the Oakland Athletics then-bullpen coach. Scott, the uncle of one of Chad’s players at Notre Dame Prep, tells Chad he thinks he has too much left in the tank to be done. He asks Chad to come throw for him, providing the 28-year-old with a glimmer of hope.
After Chad shows Scott what he has, Scott calls Luke Robertson, a past player and pitching coach for the Wichita Wingnuts. Next comes Chad’s first true break in 10 years.
In the early morning of June 5, 2016, a phone call interrupts Chad’s golf outing. It’s Luke.
“Hey, how fast can you get to an airport?” Luke asks.
“We went 14 innings last night, and we need you to come pitch for us in Kansas City.”
With his clubs in tow, Chad runs from the 12th hole to the parking lot, rushes home and packs for seven to 10 days, not knowing how long the Wingnuts planned to keep him around.
Two and a half hours later at 11:30 a.m., Chad boards the plane. He lands in Kansas City at 7:05 p.m., the same time as game time. He hurries to the field and makes it by the fifth inning. In moments, Chad signs his contract, gets a jersey and goes to the bullpen to get hot.
Chad wasn’t needed that night after all. A two-run home run gave Wichita the lead, and the closer finished out the game.
The next day, the Wingnuts head coach, Pete Rose Jr., calls Chad into his office.
“I respect you for what you’ve been through,” Pete says. “I want you to know you’re here for a reason, because we got a great report from a very good source. You could go in tonight and give up nine runs, and you’re going to get the ball again tomorrow in the eighth inning because you’re going to throw eighth innings of every game we have the lead or we’re tied in. Just know that you’re going to get opportunities to be successful here.”
Chad was in disbelief. For the first time in his career, he was given a margin of error. For the first time in his career, a coach understood.
“Maybe I’ll even have fun with this sports again,” Chad hopes.
The next game, Wichita hold a nine-run lead in the ninth inning.
“There’s no pressure. It’s just baseball,” Chad thinks.
Chad strikes out the side in 15 pitches.
After the game, Pete walks up to Chad and shakes his hand before looking him in the eye.
“You’re going to pitch in the big leagues.”
Nading tore through the 2016 season. It took 23 innings for him to give up a run. His velocity was the best of his life, ranging from 94 to 98 miles per hour.
“I was having fun for the first time in my entire baseball career,” Nading said.
Nading finished the season with a 1.83 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 40 appearances. Baseball America ranked him as the second-best pitching prospect in independent baseball and the fourth-best overall prospect.
“In my head, I went from number 800 million to number two considering what I had been through not even a year before,” Nading said.
He started getting calls from major league teams. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers asked to watch him throw, even offering to come to him at Notre Dame Prep. He did well enough for the Brewers to call back and ask to see him at their complex. After his second showing, he got the good news.
Milwaukee planned to sign him, giving Nading the break he’d sought since 2013. All he had left was a physical and some paperwork.
“The next day I go get the physical, everything’s good, I shake the guy’s hand, and they say welcome to the Brewers,” Nading said. “I’m really excited. My family is really excited.”
This was what Nading had slaved a third of his life for. At 29 years old, he was back into the world of baseball. This could be what brought him into the major leagues. It didn’t.
About a week later, Nading got a call from someone with the Brewers.
“I hate to do this, but something came up in the process of signing you,” he said. “There were some differences of opinion on your physical, and we can’t sign you to this contract. We have to void it.”
For what felt like the millionth time, Nading was lost.
“Here I am again thinking this could have been the coolest thing in the world to get back into affiliate after everything that happened,” Nading said. “But then they just completely disappear off the map.”
Nading turned to the league’s 29 other teams, but there was a problem. Articles had been published about his signing with Milwaukee. Teams refused to work him out until they were certain he wasn’t a Brewer.
After scrambling to get his name cleared, Nading received a call from the Miami Marlins in fall of 2016. One of their scouts had seen Nading in Wichita and set his name in. Now that he was available, the Marlins wanted to take a look. They invited him to Jupiter, Florida, to pitch in an exhibition.
The tryout went as the rest of 2016 went. Nading threw well and appeared to impress the scouts. It seemed like this could happen. It didn’t.
Although they liked what they saw, the Marlins told Nading they couldn’t ignore his age. They didn’t want to spend a roster spot on a 29-year-old.
But Nading kept his head up. He knew he had the ability and confidence to make it happen. All he needed was the right opportunity.
In February 2017, Nading found another chance. A connection with the Arizona Diamondbacks got Nading a tryout with the club. For Nading, this was the ideal landing spot.
“This is my best spot,” Nading said. “This is an organization that’s located right down from where I live in Scottsdale. I thought this is definitely going to happen.”
The Diamondbacks spare Nading yet another no. Instead, silence is their answer, and Nading is left wondering where the last 10 years have gone.
After Arizona’s rejection, Nading sat in the complex dejected, miring in his own hopelessness.
Suddenly, a ray of light.
Mark Rogers approached Nading and introduced himself. He told Nading he’s a former baseball player from Maine and understands how difficult it can be for someone who grew up in a winter wonderland to make it in a summer sport. After a tumor ended his baseball career, Rogers turned toward scouting. He went to the tryout to see if he could spot talent, and Nading caught his attention.
After Nading explained his story, Rogers offered to send his name to the Padres. Nading said he was with them in 2010 and it didn’t work out, but Rogers assured him the front office was under a new regime that may be more open minded. Nading agreed.
A small tryout was set up for a Rogers’s contact. After impressing him, he sent Nading’s name to the front office to get him a tryout in front of more scouts at spring training.
A few days later, Nading was at the Padres’s complex in Peoria, Arizona, throwing for another scout. He was told he would face live hitters and could throw as many times as he wanted. Calm and collected, he stepped to the mound.
“It might have been the best I’ve ever thrown the baseball in my entire life,” Nading said. “Everything was working. I was very confident. All my pitches were strikes.”
After, the scout told Nading he looked good and he would hear back in a day or so. Nading feared this would be the same song and dance, a routine he had grown accustomed to.
“I’ve heard this before,” Nading thought. “Hopefully it’s not the same, but I’ve done this over and over again.”
He was left praying for a lifeline to the big time, hoping this could be when it all comes together.
Chad feels too nervous to wait at home. He has to get out of the house. He uses the golf course as his spa.
Curt and Chad follow fellow Notre Dame Prep coach Scott Schoeneweis to his country club, the Fire Rock Country Club in Fountain Hills, Arizona, a day after his Padres tryout. At the eighth hole, Chad’s phone rings.
Chad steps away from Curt and Scott to take it.
“Hey, what are you up to?” the Padres representative asks.
“Oh, I’m out golfing,” Chad says nervously.
Chad answers. The rejection calls Chad was used to wouldn’t go on like this. He would get a no and that was that. Maybe this wasn’t a no?
“Hey, could we cut to the chase here? I’m kind of anxious,” Chad stutters.
“We all discussed it and decided that we would like to give you the opportunity to let you come in and prove yourself at spring training.”
Whoa. Is this really happening? This is really happening.
“When do I need to be at the physical?” Chad asks.
“Can you be there in an hour?”
Curt stands with Scott out of earshot, unsure if it were a good or bad call. As Chad finishes the phone call, he comes down the slope in the golf cart.
“Thank you very much for the opportunity,” Curt hears his son say.
After the call ends and Chad explains what happened, he and Curt hug, chest bump and high five. Chad releases a decade of disappointment, and Curt relishes his son’s reward.
For the first time in 15 years, Curt is finally beating his son in golf, but he’s happy to end early.
“This is the only excuse you’ll ever have to end a round of golf with me,” Curt thinks.
Chad books it back to the car and races home. There he meets his mother, Dena, and shares the news and a big hug between sobs of success.
Then, to the complex. While there, he sees some trainers and coaches who were around in 2010 when he was released.
“What the hell are you doing here again?” Chad read on their faces.
“Yeah, it’s been seven years, but I’m back,” Chad thinks triumphantly.
He signs his papers, receives his uniform, sets up his old locker and the next day, Chad is in full uniform participating in spring training.
The oldest member of the team and a staple in the bullpen for San Diego’s Double-A affiliate San Antonio Missions, this is the first time in his career Chad has started a season on a team and not had to tryout in the middle of the year. He started the season as the team’s closer, but after another oblique pull kept him out a month, he’s now available for any relief help the Missions need as he gets back to 100 percent. He has 22 strikeouts in 16 games, and his five saves are tied for best on the team.
“The four months have been worth every blood, sweat and tear, bad, good, horrible days I’ve been through in the sport,” Chad said. “I can really sit back and watch things happen now and be proud of what I did. Even if today were the last day, it was so rewarding even to just be here.”
Chad has learned plenty about himself along the way. During his struggles, outsiders would bad mouth him and say he was a waste of talent, one of Chad’s biggest fears. Now that he’s older and gotten into affiliate baseball, he’s less concerned with what others think.
“I was trying to prove people wrong, that they were wrong,” he said, “but the reality is, I’ve learned to teach myself that I’m here to prove myself right.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is yet to be reached. Chad still had two more levels of baseball to climb until he can say he lived his dream. But he’s not thinking about a long career, making all-star teams or anything more than throwing one pitch.
“I don’t look that far into the future,” he explained. “I just want to look for that one, shining pitch. I think the coolest thing in the world in all of this would purely be to look into the stands and see your family, who has been through hell and back for you and with you, to be able to watch it.”
Through it all, Chad’s family has been by his side. From financial to emotional support, they were there. At the many times when Chad felt helpless, they were there with guidance.
“If I didn’t have the family I have and the friends I do, I think I would have been absolutely miserable,” he said. “I would not have kept playing if I didn’t have the support that I have from my family and friends.”
His parents never lost faith, at least not outwardly. Curt and Dena said there were times where they weren’t sure things would turn around for their son.
“There was one window of time before he went to Japan that I wondered, but I never said it to him,” Curt said.
Even other members of his support network didn’t always believe it would work in Chad’s favor.
“There were times I thought, ‘Chad, nobody’s going to give you a shot,’” Novak said. “’You might as well start doing something else carrying a lunch bucket.’”
But their support didn’t stop, in part because of how persistent Chad was.
“He never, ever said out loud, ‘I wonder if I’m going the right direction,’” Curt said. “I’ve been in business for 40 years, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like him.”
It isn’t just his determination. Chad’s personality has helped him create the connections that have provided him opportunities, and he is as genuine as any person there is is.
“He’s probably one of the most humble individuals on the entire planet. In a world where character should mean more than it does, Chad Nading is all about high character,” Novak explained. “His parents did an amazing job with him. That’s the root of it. I only dream that my kids can turn out like he has.”
Novak isn’t worried success will change Chad.
“The term that they use when guys start to have some success and you don’t get a call back, you’re getting big leagued,” he said. “Chad Nading wouldn’t big league his postman.”
“A lot of it has to do with his character, his makeup,” Wylie said. “I’ve been coaching around 35 years, and I’ve only seen a handful of guys with his makeup. I don’t believe the kid has ever had alcohol touch his lips. You can’t say that about a whole lot of kids.”
It’s true, Chad has never drank alcohol, smoke cigarettes or done any other drug. From a young age, he promised his parents he would stay away, and now well into his adulthood, he has maintained that vow.
“I knew if I woke up with energy and a clear mind, I would always be ready for any opportunity that might come my way,” Chad said. “Kept my mind on one goal always.”
“He’s as clean an individual as there is,” Novak said. “He’s the real deal.”
To sum up Chad’s personality in one sentence, that’s easy for Novak.
“Chad Nading could watch my kids.”
Bases loaded. Two outs. Team needs an out. The time was now.
Chad glanced away from the plate. There stood five-time all-star and two-time Silver Slugger Adrian Gonzalez on deck.
This was his time. Ten years. Ten years of pain and suffering. Ten years of walks. Ten years of bad breaks. Ten years of no.
First pitch: slider for a ball.
Transfer from Oregon State.
Second pitch: fastball for a ball.
Released by San Diego.
Third pitch: slider for a strike.
Signed by Gateway.
Fourth pitch: slider for a strike.
Signed by Ishikawa Million Stars.
Fifth pitch: fastball for a ball.
Dumped by Milwaukee.
Sixth pitch: slider for a swinging strikeout.