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The Real Steal

Feb. 11, 2008
Feb. 11, 2008

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Feb. 11, 2008

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The Real Steal

While baseball fixated on the destination of a two-time Cy Young winner, self-effacing Orioles ace Erik Bedard quietly surfaced as an off-season pickup who could make an equally big impact

HE IS aforeign-born, 28-year-old southpaw who's just over six feet tall. He has theability to flummox lefthanded and righthanded hitters alike with a stunning mixof power and finesse. He has become, says an American League general manager,"an annual Cy Young candidate," and one who was available thisoff-season to any deep-pocketed and prospect-rich club interested in adding atop-of-the-rotation ace. He is not, however, Johan Santana, the erstwhileMinnesota Twin. ¬∂ He is Erik Bedard, who was born seven days before Santana inMarch 1979 and last year proved that he can wreak Santana-like havoc onhitters. He tied Santana (and two others) for fifth in the AL Cy Young voting,and would likely have challenged C.C. Sabathia for the award had a strainedright oblique not cost him the final five weeks of the season. Only eightstarters in the history of the game have had a season in which they struck outmore batters per nine innings than the 10.93 Bedard averaged last year for theBaltimore Orioles. Just three—Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and CurtSchilling—have done so while topping Bedard's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.88to 1. Most of his other key statistics in 2007 compared favorably withSantana's: Pitching for a worse team, Bedard went 13--5 with a 3.16 ERA versusSantana's 15--13 and 3.33. Bedard also allowed 19 home runs to Santana'sleague-worst 33.

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2008 issue

"Santana'smore polished and has had more sustained success," says first baseman KevinMillar, who frequently battled Bedard as a member of the Boston Red Sox beforejoining the Orioles two years ago. "But Bedard's stuff, when he puts it alltogether, is better."

Yet for much ofbaseball's winter of discontent the only story that knocked the Mitchell Report(and its fallout) from the headlines was the Santana Sweepstakes, whichmercifully ended last Friday with the completion of his trade to the New YorkMets (box, page 60). Bedard might represent even greater value in a trade thanSantana, because Bedard won't be a free agent until after the 2009 season andprobably will be paid less over the next two seasons—in arbitration with theOrioles, he's seeking $8 million for '08—than Santana will make in the firstyear of his new contract ($19 million). It was only in the past two weeks or sothat Bedard's name regularly entered the discourse, as the subject of a tradethat would send him to the Seattle Mariners for a package that includes22-year-old outfield prospect Adam Jones and reliever George Sherrill. (As ofMonday, the deal was reportedly pending results of players' physicals.)

As the discussionscontinued, Bedard, who likes attention about as much as Thomas Pynchon does,was happy to stay far, far away from the spotlight.

THERE ARE twoplaces in the world where Bedard truly feels comfortable: on the mound and inhis hometown. As soon as Baltimore completed its last game, he got into histruck and sped due north, as he has every October. Eight hours later he arrivedin Navan, Ont. (pop. 1,450), the rural village 18 miles east of Ottawa in whichhe has lived with his parents and younger brother since he was four. "It'scalming here," he says. "When I'm here I don't think about the media,or trade rumors, or what's going on with the team. I just concentrate onworking out, getting ready for the season. I put all my energy intothat."

He sleeps in hisfolks' basement, in a lair fit for a college student. A poster of Bruce Leehangs above a rumpled bed. A Molson kegerator sits in a corner. Trophiescommemorating past athletic glories cover nearly every flat surface.

Erik and hisbrother, Mark, 25, an elevator mechanic like their father was, work out for twohours each evening in the small weight room next to Erik's bedroom and play RBIBaseball on old-school Nintendo between sets. Starting in December, Erik throwsto Mark every two or three days—sessions that in the past few years wereconducted at their cousin Robert Laplante's nearby poultry farm, in an emptybarn that for much of the year houses 40,000 chickens and has an ammoniac stinkthat lingers in your sinuses for hours after a visit. ("Smells likemoney," Laplante likes to joke.)

Despite theincreased presence of Canadians in the major leagues—Bedard became the 200th toplay in the bigs when he debuted in 2002 and is part of a cadre of stars thatincludes Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Jeff Francis and Russell Martin—strangersrarely stop him on the street to talk about the game. "Nobody bothers me uphere," he says. "It's like my fortress of solitude."

To expand upon theSuperman theme, Navan might well be baseball's Krypton: an isolated and far-offplace from whence sprang a man of rare and wondrous powers. "He's one ofthe best pitchers I've ever been around—stuffwise, certainly," says LeoMazzone, the former Orioles pitching coach who also tutored future Hall ofFamers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in his 15 1/2 seasons with theAtlanta Braves. "I told him, 'The best compliment I can give you is that Ihad the privilege of coaching the greatest starting rotations in the history ofbaseball, and you could have fit right in on any of them.'"

Over the pastseason and a half, in particular, Bedard has demonstrated that he's in commandof one of the most versatile arsenals of any pitcher in baseball. Crowd theplate and he'll bust you inside; step in the bucket and he'll nibble outside.He throws three types of fastballs—a four-seamer that touches 95 mph, atwo-seam sinker and a cutter—as well as a sharp curve and a changeup thatMazzone says is only 60% developed. The pitch that has raised Bedard to elitestatus, though, might be the one that Mazzone refers to as "thecomebacker," a sinker that appears to a righthanded hitter to be headedinside before it drifts back over the plate. Bedard's insistence on throwing itconcerned Mazzone at first. "I said, 'You know the margin of error is verysmall on that pitch,'" recalls Mazzone. "'It doesn't go away from thebarrel but comes to it.' He looked at me and said, 'They can't hit it.' And Isaid, 'O.K., let's see.' And they couldn't." (Indeed, lefthanded battershit .229 against Bedard in '07, righties only .209.)

"When I came[to Baltimore] I said to him, 'Let me be clear about something: Nobody wants toface you,'" says Millar. "'Big Papi, Mike Lowell, Derek Jeter, AlexRodriguez—they don't want to face you.'"

Red Sox firstbaseman Kevin Youkilis says, "The strike zone looks a lot bigger the way hepitches; when a guy throws to just one side of the plate it seems smaller. He'sone of those guys where if you go 2 for 4 you had a great day, and if you go 1for 3, you're still excited. And 3 for 4? He's either off his game, or you'replaying out of your mind that day." Youkilis has never had such a dayagainst Bedard. In 23 career plate appearances against him, Youkilis has onehit—a single—and has struck out nine times.

Even when he'sperforming at the peak of his ability, though, Bedard's countenance rarelychanges. Last July he allowed the Texas Rangers two hits and no walks whilestriking out 15 in a complete-game shutout, and faced the minimum 27 batters."I showed the most emotion I ever have in my life during that game,"Bedard acknowledges. "I pounded my fist."

Bedard's reservedmound presence came about in part because he was not a ballyhooed prospect.It's another way in which Bedard, a sixth-round pick by Baltimore in 1999, islike Santana, who was a centerfielder growing up in remote Tovar, Venezuela,and didn't become a dominant starter until his mid-20s.

Few players inOttawa even touch a baseball between October and March, and most high schools,including Bedard's, don't field teams. Bedard pitched his team into the BabeRuth World Series as a 13-year-old, but his lack of size (he was 5'4", 150pounds at 17) and velocity got him cut from the area's elite travel club twiceas a high schooler. He went to Norwalk (Conn.) Community-Technical College onlybecause he tagged along when a friend tried out there in December 1997. "Hethrew the ball real easy, but he was hitting 80," recalls Mark Lambert, hiscoach. "I figured he'd be a pretty good reliever."

By then Bedard hadsprouted to almost six feet, and thanks to his first work with weights, headded 30 pounds to his frame and 7 mph to his fastball at Norwalk. He became astarter as a freshman and went 7--1, leading the Panthers to a 44--5 record andthe National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Seriestitle. The next season, in which Norwalk went 50--2 but was the nationalrunner-up, he was named the NJCAA Player of the Year after going 11--0 with a0.48 ERA. "It was junior college," says Bedard, never one to talk uphis accomplishments. "It's not like I was playing Division I oranything."

EACH FEBRUARY forthe past six years, Bedard has loaded up his truck and made the 1,600-mile,24-hour trip from Navan to Fort Lauderdale for the start of Orioles springtraining. He enjoys the drive, using it to make the mental transition from thefamiliar rhythms of home to the pressures of big league life.

When SI went topress, Bedard was planning to leave for Florida this Monday, although he wasalso ready to head to Peoria, Ariz., where the Mariners train. Wherever he endsup, he has to show that he can avoid injury and sustain his dominance in theway that Santana has for five years. "I just pitch," Bedard says, witha poker face, "and if it works, it works."

No matter what,he'll return to a more Cribs-worthy fortress of solitude. He's completingconstruction on a new house, which is more than four times the size of hisparents' place and will feature a wine cellar, a gym, a screening room, anoutdoor pool covered by a dome and an extra-long garage in which he's alreadybegun throwing to his brother, who will live with him. It's a 10-minute drivefrom his parents' house. Even the brightest of spotlights won't be able topenetrate the five acres of forest that surround it.

"I told him, 'I coached the greatest rotations inthe history of baseball,'" says Mazzone, "'and YOU'D FIT RIGHT IN onany of them.'"

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PHOTOPhotograph by Porter BinksLEFT WING Bedard had a lower ERA and struck out more batters per nine innings in 2007 than the coveted Santana (inset).PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above]PHOTOSIMON BRUTYCOMING HOME TO ROOST Before building a new house, Bedard worked out during frigid winters at a cousin's chicken farm.