BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first time Nate McLouth joined the Pirates organization, he was 18 and had just finished his senior year at Whitehall High School in Michigan.
The second time Nate McLouth joined the Pirates, 11 years later, he did so of his own volition, the memories of his playing days in Pittsburgh convincing him to return and reverse a 2009 trade that he called, "In a word ... devastating."
"I grew comfortable with the city, living in the city, finally learning my way around those messed-up roads there," he said. "Just grew very comfortable with the people in the organization."
McLouth, 30, and the Pirates changed in their time apart. McLouth struggled for the past two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, dealing with nagging injuries. The Pirates, who finished last in the division with a 62-99 record after trading McLouth in '09, rebounded from a dreadful '10 and flirted with contention in '11.
"There's still the same feel," McLouth said. "Actually, the feel is better. Even in the two years I've been gone, coming back now, it's a lot more relaxed, yet the expectations are there.
"Playing against the Pirates, even from the difference between 2010 and 2011, is like playing against a different organization."
McLouth debuted with the Pirates in '05, but his playing time -- and performance -- increased in '07, when he hit .258 with 13 home runs in 137 games. He parlayed that improvement into a '08 season in which he hit .276 with 26 home runs, 94 RBIs and 46 doubles, earning himself a spot in the All-Star Game.
In June '09, the Pirates traded McLouth to the Braves for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke, who are currently on the Pirates' 40-man roster.
The difficult injuries began in Atlanta. McLouth collided with outfielder Jason Heyward in early June '10 and got a concussion. He did not return until late July, but struggled to the point where the Braves optioned him to their Class AAA affiliate. McLouth finished the season with a .190 average and six home runs.
In '11, McLouth developed a sports hernia, an injury that he said originated on the second day of the season.
"It lingered and lingered and got worse and got worse," he said. "I think it was actually when we were playing the Pirates in Atlanta that it just became too much. It was a long process because not only did it hurt to play, I couldn't do my normal workouts. I couldn't lift, things like that. It took a lot of my strength and stuff away."
McLouth missed time in May and June and played his final game in '11 July 28 against the Pirates. His line for the past two seasons: 166 games, .210 average, 10 home runs, 24 doubles and a .650 on-base plus slugging percentage.
McLouth had surgery in August to repair the sports hernia and spent the winter rehabilitating at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he lives in the offseason.
"Since it was the offseason there was no rush to get back, which probably worked in my favor," he said. "I was able to kind of take it easy and build myself up slowly."
The Braves declined McLouth's contract option after the '11 season. In the winter meetings in December, McLouth agreed to a one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Pirates, saying he "didn't have to think twice about it." His time in Atlanta, though, could prove instructive.
"Adversity's going to hit you in life at some point, in your personal life or your work life," he said. "If you can deal with that and overcome it and have thicker skin because of it, you're going to be that much better and enjoy and appreciate your future success that much more."
McLouth said he is fully healthy. He likely will break camp as the fourth outfielder, but the team has said he will get significant at-bats. Both corner outfielders, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, missed large chunks of games due to injury in '11, so the chance for more playing time could present itself.
"I think there's a lot to be said about being in a place you love, no matter what job you do," he said. "If you like where you're at, and like the people you're working with, you're going to be happy and you're going to perform your best."
NOTES -- Charlie Morton (hip) threw a bullpen session Sunday morning featuring two- and four-seam fastballs as well as breaking pitches. He is scheduled Wednesday to throw batting practice.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG.