Saturday, April 13, 2024 Apr 13, 2024
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Nathaniel Lowe Is Shooting His Shot

On the field, the Rangers' first baseman is known for his eye in the batters' box. Off the field, he puts it to use behind a camera.
Lowe has been shooting photos ever since he was given his first camera in middle school. Photo by Jackson Robertson.

“That’s the money shot right there,” says Nathaniel Lowe, some 20 minutes and 55 attempts into the day’s photo shoot. We are in a park in Bluffview, a short walk from the rental house he shares with his girlfriend and their two dogs. The younger dog, a seven-month-old German Shepherd named Mondo, is today’s muse, and Lowe knows what he’s after: Mondo at his cutest, with his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth and a blue plastic ball wedged in the other.

But by virtue of his day job, Lowe is well versed in the many ways a plan can go awry. It takes cajoling, beckoning, chasing, and liberal amounts of fetch for Mondo to eventually deliver. When the session is over, Lowe finds only a handful of shots he’s pleased with. So be it. He is drawn to activities interwoven with failure, perhaps moored by them. There’s baseball, where in the last two years he’s earned a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and a World Series ring as the Rangers’ first baseman. There’s his primary off-field pastime, golf. And dating back to middle school, when his mother, Wendy, gave him his first camera, there’s photography. He long ago embraced the notion that he cannot master any of the three.

“There’s always another way to grow,” he says. “You never beat baseball. You never beat golf. And you never beat photography, either.”

There is improvement, however, and plenty of it since he began taking the hobby more seriously during the pandemic. Like most everyone else, Lowe had time on his hands and not enough ways to fill it and so, he says, “You name it, I tried to shoot it—and I wasn’t very good at shooting a lot of it.”

He got better through repetition, as well as from plenty of teachers: team photographers with the Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays (his first team), pool photographers in other MLB cities, a longtime Sports Illustrated and TIME photographer named Andy Hancock who invited him to his studio. Lowe learned he wasn’t a portrait photographer. “I’m not great with profiles and shadows,” he concedes. Instead, he leaned into shooting the world around him. Ballparks. Skylines. Tourist traps on the road. Flowers. Birds. Lately he’s gotten into photographing whatever catches his eye from the window seat on team flights. “I don’t know how many people have seen a double rainbow from the air,” he muses.

He readily admits that he goes through phases with photography. One week, he might shoot every day; another, he won’t touch his camera at all. If that stunts his growth as a photographer, it matters only for his capacity to be distracted while at work. To him, the joy in photography comes through being present, in being able to snatch an ephemeral moment and turn it into something solid. “It’s kind of cheesy, but if I get 100 Polaroids and tape them all to the fridge, there’s 100 memories in front of me right there.” he says. What he’s chasing, then, is “the proficiency so that when my brain doesn’t work, when I get old, I have visual images that do work,” he says. He’ll be 29 in July, and has a family on his mind. “I want to show up when I have a child and not be messing with the flash, you know? I want to know, ‘This is gonna work, and this is what we remember, and this is what we felt at the time.’”

And so he’s committed to upping his skill level, one shoot at a time. It’s working, even if Lowe jokes that his “photography batting average is not good.” In the beginning, he estimates that he’d be satisfied with just one or two shots out of every 50. Now that number has crept up to seven or eight. Technology helps: he is not above splurging on high-end equipment, and he is not shy about letting autofocus do more than a little heavy lifting.

Perhaps his meticulousness helps him, too. That is the story of his baseball career, after all: a big man determined to sand down each tiny edge in his game. Lowe debuted in the big leagues with Tampa Bay in 2019 with a strikeout problem and a healthy platoon split. By the end of his first full season with Texas, in 2021, he had slashed the Ks down to a palatable 25.2 percent while raising his walk rate to a robust 12.5 percent, hitting 20 points higher against same-sided pitching than opposite-sided. That was enough to establish himself as an everyday player. The following year, his 141 wRC+ (which measures offense independent of park factors) was the highest total for a Rangers regular since Mike Napoli 11 years earlier. (Corey Seager has since surpassed Lowe’s mark.)

That left defense as the glaring blemish in his game. In 2022, Lowe finished as the worst defensive first baseman in baseball. That wouldn’t do. A year later, following an offseason of toil, he improved dramatically enough to win the Gold Glove as the best at his position in the American League.

But his offense plummeted along the way. The culprit was the final month and a half of the regular season, when Texas snapped out of a mid-summer funk amid its No. 3 hitter slashing .160/.294/.260 across 106 plate appearances in September and October. There was good reason for it: Wendy, the woman who shuttled him to baseball games as a child, who gave him that first camera, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“My September was so poor on a personal level,” he says. “Learning how to come to the field with a smile on my face for my teammates when the team was on such a high and I was going through a month that was so terrible—like, it was definitely a learning process.”

The postseason wasn’t much better individually, although that’s a lot more palatable when the season ends with a world championship. It matters to Lowe that he won a ring here, in a baseball market that waited half a century to experience its first taste of what 21 others had known multiple times. He saw its impact in the throngs of people who showed up to the parade in Arlington as well as in smaller gestures, from the barber shop owner who gleefully showed Lowe photos of him in the stands at Arlington Stadium to the anonymous patron at Drake’s Hollywood who picked up the tab on a very expensive bourbon Lowe was drinking to celebrate that Gold Glove win. “It’s just so cool to see decades of waiting and decades of being a fan come to fruition this year,” he says, a grin sweeping over his mustachioed face.

Still, it gnaws at him, a player who traditionally comes alive in the second half, that he couldn’t finish strong in 2023, and that he couldn’t marry his newfound defensive prowess with the offensive production that had long been his calling card. He does not hold back when asked about his latest area of improvement.

“I’ve had my good offensive season on a bad team, and I’ve had a good defensive season on a really good team,” he says. “Now it’s time to play better on both sides of the ball on a really, really good team.”

Because he believed his best chance to get there was through simplification, he spent the winter at home in Florida rather than bask in the World Series afterglow in Dallas. He needed to spend time with Wendy and his father, David, and his younger brother, Rays outfielder Josh. He says he also needed to pare down his circle as he tries to get back on track.  

“Just kind of getting less chefs in the kitchen,” he says. “When I struggled last year, there were so many people that wanted to help, because everybody wants to help. And that’s fine, but I didn’t do a good enough job of compartmentalizing with everything that was going on to shut that out and play my game.”

Now he’s in spring training with the opportunity to do just that—to settle into old rhythms and see friendly faces, to reprise his role as one of the loosest guys in the Rangers clubhouse. (One example of many: the time Lowe ribbed Aroldis Chapman, the preposterously jacked reliever who always arrived at the weight room in skin-tight clothing, by showing up to lift in his underwear.) And he’ll have his camera in tow, too, like usual. He’ll shoot some days and let others lie, and he’ll continue succeeding far less than he fails.

But Lowe will keep at it, as always. His eye is always trained on something more.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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