The warm, engaging smile Nate Snell flashes as he chats with fans and signs autographs is a decided departure from the manacing scowl he wore on his baseball cards. But times have changed for the 58-year-old Snell, and he no longer has to worry about intimidating opponents or making a positive impression to maintain his roster spot.
Want to really get Snell smiling? Just ask the native of Orangeburg, S.C., about Baltimore, where he’s made his home since 1985, his first full season with the Orioles.
“There’s something about Charm City,” he said before a recent Orioles Alumni autograph signing at Camden Yards. “I’ve spoken to a lot of the players who’ve come here and there’s something about this city, it sucks you in. It’s that family feeling. Everybody loves baseball and everybody loves the Orioles. That Charm City feeling is always like being at home for me.”
Baltimore was home for most of Snell’s brief major league career, An amateur free agent signing in 1976 out of Tennessee State University, Snell spent seven seasons as a Baby Bird before finally reaching the majors at the end of the 1984 campaign, a promotion that came after Double-A Charlotte won the Southern League crown.
Snell made five appearances out of the bullpen and broke spring training as a member of the big league club in 1984, a gangly 6-foot-4 right-hander with a deceptive delivery. He spent three seasons as an Oriole before being released in December 1986 and signing with the Detroit Tigers, for whom he pitched his final major league season in 1987.
His statistics for 104 games in the majors make it difficult to believe Snell didn’t have a longer career. He was 7-6 with a 3.29 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 219 innings. He walked only 12 batters in his career and allowed a home run only once every 11.5 innings.
These days, that kind of production would earn Snell a multi-year contract worth millions and job security. Instead, he was a journeyman, bouncing around the minors until 1988. Ironically, his pro career ended in Miami, with the independent Single-A Marlins in Bobby Maduro Stadium, where he pitched his first game as an O’s farmhand for the Miami Orioles of the Florida State League in 1977.
“It’s easy to look back and think my ERA was pretty good,” said Snell. “As a reliever and as a starter, it wasn’t bad. But when you look at the numbers these guys have now, it makes you wonder what could have been.”
Even his best season with Baltimore - a 3-2 record with five saves and a 2.69 ERA in 43 games in 1985 - wasn’t without some bad luck. Pitching in relief of Dennis Martinez against Minnesota on July 9, 1985, Snell was struck in the side by a line drive off the bat of designated hitter Mike Stenhouse with one out in the top of the seventh. The shot broke two ribs and sent the reliable reliever to the disabled list. At least he got credit for the 11-6 victory.
“He was a left-handed batter and I was falling off (the mound in my follow through) when it hit me, Snell recalled. “Cracked two ribs.”
His first visit to Memorial Stadium? That, too, came from an injury - and a visit for an exam by team doctors.
“I remember the first time I came up. It wasn’t for pitching or anything, it was to see a doctor,” he said. “So the first time I saw Memorial Stadium , it was like, ‘This is what it’s like to be in the big leagues, playing here. This is where I want to play. Right here.’ It took me quite a while because we had (Jim) Palmer, (Scott) McGregor, (Mike) Flanagan - all these 20-game winners. It took a long time, but I stuck around long enough to get there.”
Now he’s a part of the Orioles Alumni Autograph Series, where former players sign for free and interact with fans for an hour before Monday and Thursday home games. Participants are not announced in advance, but are found in the MASN tent on Eutaw Street beginning 90 minutes before first pitch.
“It’s always fun coming back to the stadium and seeing some of the guys. Being around the game is bring back some old memories, so it’s good,” Snell said.
Snell has also done some Orioles Alumni outreach, like an appearance earlier this year at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland. Snell always respected the African Americans who served as trailblazers for his generation, and interacting with some of the elderly ballplayers has sparked him to learn more about the Negro Leagues.
“That was the first time doing something like that,” he said. “I got a chance to see some of the old guys who played in the Negro Leagues and chat with them. ... I really didn’t follow it as much, but I’m starting to read up on the history now.”
For the past 22 years, he’s driven a tractor-trailer feeder truck for UPS, often working the night shift. In another three years, he hopes to retire and make more frequent trips to Camden Yards. Some of his coworkers have no idea that he once pitched in the majors, much less for the Orioles.
“I’m just ‘Nate’ to most of the guys, but some of the guys will come around with my cards and they want me to sign. ... It’s a different feeling being at the ballpark and signing autographs than for somebody I work with,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here. It’s always a thrill to know you’ve done something that the fans will remember what you did. That they remember, recognize you is something.”