By Jack Loder
If you look away from the field at Eldredge Park for a moment after the third out of an inning is made, you might miss it. As music comes on over the speakers and a dejected opposing batter begins to unstrap his batting gloves, a red and white blur charges across the diamond from the infield dirt between first and second base. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to catch the number six on his jersey before he disappears into the dugout, slapping hands with anyone remotely in his vicinity. If you’re luckier, you’ll be able to hear the praise he chants to his teammates, no matter the situation on the field.
You can learn a lot about both a team and individual players by keeping a close eye on the field between innings. The Orleans Firebirds are consistently impressive in this category, something that can largely be attributed to second baseman Nate Furman. He’s never been the biggest guy on the field, nor has he ever been the most eye opening five-tool prospect. What coaches, teammates, scouts and fans can count on though, is his motor.
A unique blend of high energy, positivity and unwavering passion for the game is evident in any game he plays. It’s this type of intangible perfection that has launched Furman from an underrecruited and undersized high school player to an All-conference Division I starter who just heard his name called in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft. It’s what makes him the heart and soul of both the Firebirds and the UNC Charlotte 49ers.
What makes Nate go? A more appropriate question would be what doesn’t.
“I come to the field every day and make it a priority to bring good energy and to be the best teammate I can be,” Furman said. “I like to bring that energy that’s infectious, if I focus on that, the play on the field will take care of itself.”
Leading with a comment about being a good teammate makes a lot of sense to those who have been lucky enough to know Nate. Simply put, Furman is the epitome of a team guy. He’s often seen before warm ups holding court in the dugout, with teammates attentively listening with intrigued grins pasted from ear to ear. Even as he warms up in shallow right field an hour or so before first pitch, he’ll make a point to give a shout and a salute to any familiar face, whether they’re dressed like him or not. The energy is just as infectious as he describes. It’s universally strived for, but rarely achieved.
“He’s real, he’s genuine, he is always locked in. You watch Nate for a few innings, that’s the way the game is supposed to be played,” manager Kelly Nicholson said. “I think he was raised right, he was raised by great parents. Everything you preach to players when it comes to how to hold yourself, Nate is an example of that.”
Nicholson has coached hundreds of college baseball’s best players over nearly two decades at the helm of the Firebirds. He takes pride in bringing in players who check all the boxes, not just those that describe on field ability.
“I think people know what we’re about here, and that’s getting good players who are great people,” Nicholson said. “Nate embodies that, he makes everyone better. It’s a very short list of guys I’ve coached who have what he has.”
Finding players who are willing to chat with media before games is often a daunting task, with pregame routines and superstitions taking precedence for many guys. Ears tend to perk up, and subsequently time tends to be made, however, when the opportunity to heap praise on a favorite teammate is presented.
“We’ve played baseball our whole lives, you hear things from coaches about what kind of guy you want to be,” catcher Garret Guillemette said. “Nate is that guy in every way possible. You wouldn’t know if he went 0-4 or 4-4 by the way he holds himself on the field. I’d have 25 Nate Furman’s on my team if I could.”
Guillemette then pivoted to Austin Knight, who is another UNC Charlotte infielder playing for the Firebirds. Guillemette thought surely Knight, who sees Furman almost year round, would be able to find a negative word about him as a teammate. He asked as Knight walked by, causing him to pause and lean on his bat in deep thought. Knight grinned after a prolonged moment of silence and shook his head.
“I’ll let you know if anything comes to mind,” Knight said. “You might be waiting a while, though.”
It’s not just the intangibles that make Furman so valuable to both the Firebirds and the 49ers. He’s one of the best all around ballplayers on any team he is a part of. If you can’t see it immediately from his stature, the numbers tell the story. In Charlotte this spring, he led the team in batting average at .371 and also set the high mark in games started. He was penciled in as the starting second baseman in all 58 games. He smacked 14 doubles, and racked up a team high 86 hits.
Perhaps most improbable was his .976 OPS. Calculated by adding a player’s On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage, an OPS north of .900 is usually a sign of a hitter that leans heavily on the home run and extra base hits to produce. The kicker with Furman is that he hit just two bombs, 14 doubles and two triples. The bottom line? Nate gets on base. Almost every game.
These totals were more than enough to earn Furman second team All-Conference USA honors. You could argue, and make a very compelling case, that he deserved to be a member of the First Team. You’d have to argue on his behalf, because he certainly won’t.
“Some people were mad about that,” Furman said with a grin. “It doesn’t matter to me though, getting honored at all is awesome, especially if the team is winning.”
The production he showed during the 2022 spring season has carried over nicely to his summer on the Cape for the most part. Slashing .307/.396/.375, he is a mainstay at the top of Kelly Nicholson’s lineup. A bit of a dip is to be expected with the transition to wood bats and facing premiere pitching night in and night out. Despite the lack of cupcake matchups on the mound, Nate’s still been able to get on base nearly 40% of the time. Whether he’s playing at second base or DHing for the Birds, quality at bats are a given.
As the cliche goes, the best ability is availability. Furman is always available. He started all 58 games for NC Charlotte in 2022, showcasing impressive durability throughout the entirety of the campaign. Make no mistake, he too struggles with the physical toll that playing in every game of a long college season takes on the body. Assistant coach Phil Cebuhar has seen him up close and personal for the last two seasons as a coach at Charlotte, he fondly recalled an instance during Nate’s freshman year that exemplified his toughness and will to win.
“Nate got an opportunity to get into the starting lineup about halfway through his freshman year and he obviously was going to do everything in his power to take advantage of that,” Cebuhar said. “It was his first game in the lineup and he hit a pull side line drive over the first baseman’s head. It was a hustle double and he slides into second base and comes up with a hammy pull. He’s hurting real bad, when our trainer gets out there you can tell he’s in pain but the only thing he was saying was ‘get me some tiger balm get me some tiger balm’ there was no chance he was coming out of that game.”
No matter the ailment, Furman will only leave the field on a stretcher. In his mind, the energy and positivity he holds in such high regard is best communicated while he is on the field.
This toughness will be put to the test time and time again as soon as later this summer, when Furman makes his professional debut. The MLB draft is the goal for every single player who plays on the Cape, although the goal became a realistic one later for some than others. For Furman, an early high school commitment to Seton Hall didn’t pan out by the time he was a senior. The Brookhaven, Pennsylvania native felt he was under recruited once his recruitment opened back up. His genuine kindness and positivity is as authentic as it comes, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t keep receipts and compete with that fire burning within.
“I”d say I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder, you have to bring that every day. My competitiveness is that chip, that’s just kind of how I am,” Furman said. “It helps me be the best all around player I can be. It also allows me to remember how lucky and blessed I am to have been given a shot by the staff at Charlotte. I knew it was the right place as soon as I stepped on campus. My phone background is the infield there. I play with a little bit of a chip but it’s important to remember how many good things I have.”
At this point, those good things are nearly too many to count. After struggling to adjust to life away from home as well as finding playing time early in his freshman year, Furman has played himself into a position to sign a dotted line and get paid a lot of money to play the game he cherishes so deeply.
On Monday afternoon, the Cleveland Guardians selected Nate with the 121st overall pick in the MLB draft. The work is hardly over, but it’s important to acknowledge the scope of Furman’s journey. A month ago, he was on a two week temporary contract to play for the Firebirds. Now, he’ll be leaving for a different reason. Nate Furman will keep surprising people as long as he plays the game, just not those who have spent enough time around him on the baseball field.
“The ceiling for him is the Big Leagues,” Cebuhar said without hesitating. “He has big league make up. There’s not a kid that I’ve been around that has a more impressive makeup and mind set. He’s just gotta go out there and do it.”
Next time you’re checking out a minor league baseball game, especially one that features a Guardians affiliate, keep your eyes peeled for a second baseman that stands out above the rest for reasons that can’t necessarily be put to words. You might catch Nate Furman.