SIOUX CITY | Something about playing baseball here brings out the best in Nate Samson.
Now in his third season and second stint with the American Association Sioux City Explorers, the 29-year-old shortstop has done nothing but produce impressive numbers since putting on an X’s uniform.
After spending eight seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization, Samson joined the Explorers in 2014 and immediately caught fire. The Ocala, Florida, native batted .335 with 23 RBIs and 26 runs scored in 43 games.
The Arizona Diamondbacks took notice, purchasing Samson’s contract and sending him to Class AA-Mobile, where he hit .274 in 46 games. He was released at the end of the season, but the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him and he spent time at three different levels, including AAA Oklahoma City, but opted for free agency again following the 2015 campaign.
Samson then returned to the Explorers for 2016 and put together an unforgettable season, earning Most Valuable Player honors in the American Association – a first in franchise history.
He led the league in on-base percentage (.424), tied for first in hits with a club-record 137 and games (100), tied for second in doubles (30) and stolen bases (31) and wound up third in batting with a .350 average.
“Last year everything kind of fell in place for me, when I wasn’t feeling too good at the plate I still got the hits that I needed,” Samson said. “Some of them were bloopers and broken bat hits and when I was feeling really good is when I would get two or three a game. I have zero complaints on last year.”
The Explorers won their second straight Central Division title, thanks in no small part to Samson’s contributions.
Samson picked up where he left off this season, compiling a league-best 19-game hitting streak that was snapped on June 21. Since then, he’s collected just six hits in his last 36 at-bats, seeing his average drop from .380 to .333, but baseball has a way of evening things out.
Samson was voted a starter for the upcoming American Association All-Star game.
“I worked on some things in the offseason but kept the same plate approach,” Samson said. “I haven’t been doing too well recently but with seven or eight line-outs. The numbers aren’t there recently but I’m still hitting the ball well, just right at somebody and you can’t really control that.
“It does require some luck but all in all I still feel really good and I’m excited about what’s left of this year. Once we get healthy I have a feeling we can do something special.”
The Explorers brought in two of Samson’s former teammates in the Cubs organization, Tony Campana and Josh Vitters, each of whom reached the major leagues. Injuries have slowed the club thus far and the X’s are in last place in the division, but just 1.5 games behind co-leaders Kansas City and Lincoln.
“I played with both of those guys and they’re both good friends of mine and when they had the opportunity to come over here and us all play together again it’s always a great time,” Samson said. “They’re really good players and good people. That makes for a good combination.”
Samson has been around baseball his entire life. His father, Fred, spent seven seasons in the Texas Rangers organization. Nate starred at Forest Hill High School in Ocala and when he was 16 years old, his traveling team posted a mind-boggling 117-1 record.
The Cubs drafted Samson directly out of high school in the 34th round in 2006. He played his first professional season on the rookie league team in Arizona, where he showed great skill at getting on base (.360 on-base percentage), but hit just .211 in 21 games.
He batted .246 in 61 games at Mid-A Peoria in 2007, then collected three hits in six at-bats at High-A Daytona. Samson returned to Peoria the next season, raising his average 47 points to .293 while driving in 42 and scoring 69. That led to a promotion to the AAA Iowa Cubs for three games.
In 2009 he split time between Dayton and AA Tennessee, then played two full seasons for the Tennessee Smokies, batting .262 in 2010. His average slipped to .236 in 2011 but his power numbers increased and his 25 extra-base hits were 17 more than the previous season.
Samson batted .271 through the first 75 games of the 2012 season. After being called back up to Iowa, he hit .280 in 19 contests, but when it became clear he wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to advance past AA in the organization, he opted to become a free agent, signing with the American Association Winnipeg Goldeyes.
Despite struggling at the plate, the Cubs signed him again at the end of June and sent him back to Tennessee, where he hit .257 in 31 games. Samson decided to opt for free agency at the end of the 2013 season.
That’s where the Explorers came into play.
“I enjoy playing here, the people are really nice and I’m getting to know a lot of the fans on a first-name basis,” Samson said. “The owner (John Roost) is great, (general manager) Shane (Tritz) is great. I have zero complaints playing here.”
Common sense says that a major league organization will more than likely show interest in Samson again before the season is over. That, however, is something that he can’t control.
“You have to take it game by game or it gets into your head,” Samson said. “If you’re worried about getting picked up out of here and trying to worry about things you can’t control that’s when you start to struggle. You really have to take the mindset of just what can I do for the team and myself today that can help me move forward.
“If you’re on a winning team you’re going to get looked at more by the scouts who are coming through. It’s one of those things where you have to win here to get people to watch you as you’re playing successfully. You can’t be too selfish thinking why am I not out of this league yet. I’m going to take my same approach of seeing what I can do to help my team win today and letting the chips fall as they may.”