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Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

SFSU pitcher reflects on action-packed summers with Portland Pickles

Gators left-handed pitcher Nathan Shinn experienced the endurance and shenanigans of collegiate summer leagues in 2022 and 2023
Andrew Fogel
Nathan Shinn poses for a picture near the dugout at Maloney Field on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Andrew Fogel/Golden Gate Xpress)

More than miserable and extremely exhausted, Nathan Shinn slammed his head into the pillow inside an Edmonton hotel room on the evening of June 6, 2022 –– a fitting end to a busy day packed with a boatload of misfortune mixed with a strong amount of travail.

The Portland Pickles, Shinn’s collegiate summer baseball team, were in the midst of another rigorous travel schedule set to carousel the team around the Pacific Northwest. On this particular trip, the crew was heading from Bellingham, Washington, to Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. While not insanely complicated from a geographical standpoint, the trip quickly tested their strength and camaraderie.

It started with a 2:30 a.m. wakeup call to board the team bus and included an adventure through border customs, a cameo at the wrong Canadian airport and a quick two-hour nap upon arrival that all took place before losing a nail-biting one-run game to Edmonton. When it was all said and done, most players and coaches were lagging on 20 sleepless hours. They almost all slept for 14 straight hours after that.

It’s extravagant, but this is a normal occurrence in the unforgiving grind of almost every collegiate summer league across the United States — they’re demanding and they’re supposed to be.

“Looking back on the moment, I thought it was the worst thing ever,” Shinn said. “But that’s a trip — that’s a day — where you couldn’t get through with just yourself. I enjoyed struggling with my teammates, and that’s kind of what made them teammates.”

Shinn, who’s considered a core member of San Francisco State University’s baseball team, has now embarked on two consecutive summers playing with the Pickles — a team not affiliated with SFSU, but a viable opportunity for the junior left-handed pitcher to receive more reps while squaring off against some of the highest-regarded amateur players in the country.

A product of Pleasanton and alumnus of Foothill High School, Shinn has spent most of his life developing a self-described “bulldog mentality” while competing between the white lines. The 20-year-old even says his first word as a bewitching one-year-old was “ball.”

“I’ve been loving baseball since pretty much out of the womb,” Shinn said. “It’s something that I’ve always had a passion for.”

Shinn was a diehard San Francisco Giants fan in his youth and took several trips from the East Bay to Oracle Park each season in hopes of catching a glimpse of his favorite players — Madison Bumgarner and Hunter Pence — while taking bits and pieces from their game to compliment his own. After graduating from Foothill in 2021, Shinn began sifting through different colleges to find the best fit to continue his baseball career.

The best pitch came from SFSU.

“I was kind of undersized, under-recruited, which is fine,” Shinn said. “I understand I’m smaller. I wasn’t the strongest. The more I saw the campus, I knew this was a place where I could develop and really grow. Out of all the options I had, this is the place where I saw the most growth for myself and a place where I could influence.”

Across his first two seasons with the Gators, Shinn’s transition to the collegiate level has been relatively seamless. In 27 appearances, he’s gone 8-9 with a 4.51 earned run average in 119 ⅔ innings pitched with just 27 walks allowed and 127 strikeouts. He was named an All-CCAA Honorable Mention, CSC All-District and two-time Gator of the Week winner in his sophomore year.

Shinn’s stellar play has not overshadowed his work in the classroom.

For the past two seasons, he’s been a CCAA All-Academic Award honoree and was recently announced as one of 44 SFSU athletes to be named on the spring semester’s academic honor roll — all from dedicating roughly two hours a day for his studies.

“I take a huge amount of pride in that,” Shinn said. “That’s something that my parents drilled into me from a very young age. It’s ‘OK, if you want to do baseball, you need to be an excellent student as well.’ It’s basically time management, 100%. I make sure I get it done. And I learn what I need to learn. From there, I do what I really love to do, which is baseball. Discipline creates freedom.”

During his freshman season, Shinn grew close with Gary Grosjean, a fellow member of the Gators pitching staff and Truckee native. The two became inseparable and quickly bonded over the similarities in their work ethic. As the spring progressed, so did the budding mentorship with Grosjean — three years older than Shinn — leading the way.

Gators starting pitcher Nathan Shinn (22) throws a warm-up pitch before the first inning during a baseball game between the SF State Gators and the Cal State Dominguez Hills Toros at Maloney Field on Friday, March 24, 2023. ((Aaron Levy-Wolins / Golden Gate Xpress)

“We had a few talks during my junior year and his freshman year, just to not take it too seriously but to also keep pushing,” Grosjean said. “I think we kind of just made a really strong relationship from that. He’s definitely one of my best friends — absolutely love the kid. Probably the best personality I’ve ever met in sports. Never met a kid like him and I can confidently say I never will again.”

The opportunity to play in organized and competitive summer leagues — the same ones that produce noteworthy alumni with extensive professional experience — is hard to come across. Between being away from home to plowing through a demanding workload, the criteria for entry has historically been passion-required.

Just ask Grosjean, who had a tough time landing with an organization for the summer following the Spring 2022 season at SFSU. He made roughly 20 phone calls to teams and heard nothing but crickets in return. The silence was soon interrupted by a singular ring — an opportunity.

It was Portland Pickles manager Mark Magdaleno, known as “Coach Mags” to his players.

A baseball junkie with over four decades of coaching experience at the high school and college levels, Magdaleno — known for his occasional explosive tirades against umpires — has been at the helm for Portland since 2021. Not only was he interested in bringing Grosjean aboard, but he also expressed curiosity about other SFSU players — preferably a center fielder and a left-handed pitcher. Grosjean suggested Gators outfielder Nick Upstill as his first recommendation.

Naturally, Shinn was the second.

“They just kind of obviously opened the spot for him and he stole the show,” Grosjean said. “He really made it his own.”

For the next two summers, Shinn strapped up the green and navy blue uniform for the Pickles, a team in the South Division of the West Coast Baseball League.

With their home field at Walker Stadium in Portland, the Pickles play around 45-50 games a summer in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. While the sights are always set on winning, Magdaleno says the development of the players takes priority over everything else.

“This is real baseball,” Magdaleno said. “It’s supposed to mimic what life’s supposed to be in the minor leagues. That’s the whole West Coast League.”

The team is filled with talent from across the country seeking to improve their skills for a chance to be drafted by a big league team.

At SFSU, most of the players remain with the team for the entirety of the year. With the Pickles, it’s an ongoing rotation of players coming through the locker door. According to Baseball Reference, over 60 players appeared in a game for the Pickles in 2023 across 54 regular season games — a tough deal for anyone priding themselves on remembering names.

“It was kind of something that I knew how to do,” Shinn said. “ It’s like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ You kind of introduce yourself and get to know the person a little bit. And then from there, you can start to gel and become teammates. You can get more comfortable. People switch in and out, too. But for the core team, it takes about two weeks.”

Shinn flourished with Portland, appearing in a combined 19 games across two seasons. He notched an exceptional 1.79 earned run average while striking out 51 hitters and walking just 17 batters in 50 ⅓ total innings — he would’ve thrown more, but the team limits the starting pitcher’s usage to 65 pitches or four innings in an effort to preserve health.

Nathan Shinn, a left-handed pitcher for the SFSU baseball team, poses for a portrait near the outfield wall in Maloney Field on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Andrew Fogel / Golden Gate Xpress) (Andrew Fogel)

“He loves to compete,” Magdaleno said. “He’s not afraid to fail. The great athletes are going to push themselves to a place where they might fail because they’re willing to try something new. They’re willing to push themselves to the limit, whereas the average athlete just wants to be successful. He’s a bulldog who wants to compete. He’s wanting to do things. He’s willing to do things that other people aren’t willing to do.”

The previous two summers, Shinn was away from home for the first time. He and Grosjean lived together with a host family — a household of four with two teenagers who were very much content with two college baseball players residing with them.

On a normal game day, Shinn would rise from his slumber around 11 a.m. or noon. A quick bite to eat, a lifting session and a cold shower preceded the 40-minute drive to the ballpark. Following night games, Shinn would arrive back home at roughly 11 p.m.

While most people would be sleeping as the clock shifts to midnight, Shinn and Grosjean would spend the next few hours eating — downing everything and anything in sight.

“He eats more than any kid I’ve ever met in my life,” Grosjean said.

On many nights, ribs — a Shinn favorite — were demolished quickly.

“We ate so much food,” Shinn said.

The idea of heading to bed was still out of the question at 1. a.m., as Shinn still had to take control of his rehab-recovery routine, which usually took about an hour. He would finally be out like a light by 2 a.m.

The next day would consist of the same schedule. And so would the next day. And the next day. And the one after that.

If the Pickles were on the road, like the wild, sleepless Canada trip, it became even more of a grind — a survival of the fittest lifestyle that Shinn felt ready for.

“The number one quality for a pitcher to have is consistency,” Shinn said. “You need to be ready to play and be ready to go every single time. If you’re not healthy, you can’t play. I haven’t missed a start I don’t think ever. It’s something I’ve very much pride myself on, is that I’ll be ready to play for my teammates anytime you need me to.”

It’s not serious all the time, though. There are some giggles involved.

The Pickles pride themselves on being one of the few baseball entities in Portland. As a result, they’ve been committed to providing ample in-game entertainment for fans — shenanigans, gimmicks and laughs.

During one game, the organization blew up a paper mache whale in center field. On other nights, they’ll play an instant classic: the wiffle ball spin game, where a hand-selected fan spins furiously in circles ten times with their forehead on a plastic bat, stationed parallel on the ground. Dazed and dizzy, the contestants often find themselves falling over like a heavily intoxicated giraffe.

“I would say the gimmicks are surprising, to say the least,” Grosjean said. “Some of them we know about, but I would say a large majority, we have no clue what’s going on. It’s a lot of entertainment for the fans. But it’s also entertaining some of the players as well. I mean, the whole summer baseball thing gets a little repetitive. It does create a good environment and spices it up.”

It’s not a common theme for a player to return to Portland for a third straight summer. Shinn is striving for a chance to play in the high-profile Cape Cod League in 2024, but wouldn’t close the door on a possible reunion with the Pickles. Neither will Magdaleno.

“He treats people the way he wants to be treated,” Magdaleno said. “He’s an outstanding gentleman. He’s a great young man. He’s a credit to his family, first and foremost and he’s a credit to San Francisco State University. The Portland Pickles want Shinny. We’d love to have him anytime he wants to pitch for us.”

As the winter season continues with some baseball activity from SFSU on Maloney Field, Shinn is looking to anchor the pitching staff and lead the Gators to a regional berth. However, he’ll do so without Grosjean, who transferred to CSU Bakersfield in June. The duo still makes time to chat over FaceTime on the 15th of every month — their way of staying connected to reminisce about the life lessons of playing in Portland.

Shinn says his message is simple for any young player looking to dip their feet in summer baseball: if there’s an opportunity, don’t decline.

“I think it provides an incredible perspective on how to achieve your goals if your goal is to get better,” Shinn said. “I think it just provides a great breath of fresh air that you can then apply back to your college. The goal for summer is to develop so no one cares as long as you’re putting in the right effort.“

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About the Contributors
Steven Rissotto
Steven Rissotto, Managing Editor
Steven Rissotto (he/him) is co-managing editor for Golden Gate Xpress. He is a journalism major with an education minor. A native of Pacifica, Steven attended Archbishop Riordan High School, where he played baseball and wrote on their award-winning newspaper, The Crusader. Before transferring to SFSU in Fall 2022, he attended Skyline College for two years and wrote for The Skyline View. He also covers the San Francisco Giants for SF Giants Baseball Insider on Sports Illustrated.  In his spare time, Steven enjoys cracking jokes, watching documentaries and sports, reading biographies and recording his baseball podcast, RizzoCast.
Andrew Fogel
Andrew Fogel, Photographer
Andrew Fogel is a photographer for Golden Gate Xpress and Xpress Magazine who’s majoring in photojournalism and minoring in labor and employment studies. If he’s not taking photos, Andrew can be found rooting for the various Philadelphia sports teams. He aspires to be either a staff photographer or a sports photographer in the future.
Aaron Levy-Wolins
Aaron Levy-Wolins, Xpress Magazine Photo Editor
Aaron Levy-Wolins is a senior photojournalism student who specializes in portraiture. He has spent multiple semesters with the Golden Gate Xpress newspaper, working as a photographer. San Francisco Bay Area born and bred, his work has been published in SFBay, El Tecolote, and Broke-Ass Stuart.  While his passion is photography, he loves watching movies and cooking. He plans to freelance and travel after graduation.

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