Bedard arrives on a road less traveled
O's young ace took an unlikely route to stardom in Majors
BALTIMORE -- If you think Erik Bedard's taking a big leap now, you should see the one he took a decade ago.
Bedard, one of the American League's breakthrough pitchers this season, can recall a simpler time in his life when he was pitching for fun instead of notoriety and big-time paychecks. The southpaw happily recalls his roots in baseball, which are unlike those of virtually anyone else in the league and perhaps unique in the long history of the game.
It's rare enough to be a French Canadian playing in the big leagues, but it's quite another thing to make a late leap without playing high school baseball. Bedard grew seven inches and put on 30 pounds in the summer after he graduated and needed a well documented stroke of luck in the form of a chance tryout with an obscure community college in Connecticut.
"My senior year in high school, I was 5'4 and 120 pounds," said Bedard, explaining his physical transformation. "That summer, I grew to 5'11 and 150 pounds and went to college, where I gained about 30 pounds in four months. I never lifted weights before that or ate anything to try to get big -- I didn't know anything about that stuff.
"I had a spurt and started working out at the same time. I had to fill out. I was a string bean."
And he wasn't just a string bean -- he was a beanpole who had no ambitions to play college ball. Bedard had only played recreationally before tagging along with a friend for a tryout at Norwalk Community Tech College, where he flashed an easy delivery and an 81-mph fastball for a coach that never could've imagined how well he'd eventually pan out.
Mark Lambert, then the head coach at Norwalk and now the pitching coach at Trinity College, thought Bedard would be an adequate reliever. Two years later, Bedard was a Junior College All-American whose parents barely recognized him. Somewhere along the way, he learned English, bumped his fastball up 10 miles an hour and decided what he wanted to do with his life.
"That was the changing point in my life, pretty much," he said. "If I hadn't gone to try out for that team, I wouldn't be here."
"You've got to remember his background -- he came from Canada and it's not like he was on All-Star teams," added Lambert, who took in a game at Camden Yards last week. "He grew up in a purely recreational situation for athletics. He wasn't even playing high school baseball, so it's not like he was Joe All-State. There's absolutely no ego with him at all. Ever.
"And there never was with us. He was a First-Team All-American and you wouldn't know he was the best player on the team. He was just like everybody else -- he just did what he was supposed to do."
Bedard helped Lambert to a national championship -- the first and last of the coach's career -- before going on to be a sixth-round pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft. The left-hander said his baseball maturation came at the same time he was learning English, which he did by fraternizing with his teammates and taking the lowest level course his college had to offer.
"When we were home, if we had to order a pizza in English, I would tell my friend, 'You order,' because I was too shy," he said. "I really forced myself to speak it and learn it well. I had to take the first English classes. There's the English you have a credit for and there's an English below that -- that's the one I had to take. I kind of had to re-learn how to speak it and write it."
After that, Bedard was better equipped to meet any challenge that stood in his path. He shot quickly through the Minor Leagues but blew out his elbow at the end of the 2002 season, an injury that required ligament replacement surgery and nine months of physical rehabilitation. Bedard was pitching in games just 11 months after the operation and in the big leagues by 2004.
His maturation as a pitcher has come in a straighter line, with most of his success coming from a wide-ranging assortment of pitches. Bedard throws four different fastballs for four different purposes and changes the hitter's line of sight with a big-breaking four-seam curveball. He mixes everything in, an approach that took him a few years to master.
"I don't think he changes speed on the fastball -- he changes direction," said pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "For example, he has the four-seam power fastball. Then he has a cut fastball. And he has a sinking fastball, although I don't think it's a true sinker. I think it's a fastball with live movement. And then he has the comebacker. He can work both sides with his curveball."
"He's a great pitcher," said Johnny Damon, the Yankees' left fielder . "And he doesn't really get affected by anything, which makes him even better. He just goes out and pitches. If he gets you out, great. If not, it doesn't get to him. But usually, he can."
The potential was there before Mazzone arrived, but Bedard had trouble remaining consistent. He made 50 starts in his first two full big league seasons and posted a 12-20 record, showing glimpses of his talent but never putting it together. Those numbers are ancient history now, as Bedard went 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA last year and is 10-4 with a 3.05 mark this year.
The 28-year-old attributes his success to being more comfortable in the big leagues and knowing what to expect from every given situation, and he said that his relationship with Mazzone has provided a steady building block.
"When we talk, we kind of think the same way, so it makes it easy to adjust to what he's saying," he said. "And he listens to what I have to say. That's the biggest thing in a relationship with a pitching coach. If it's only one-sided, I'm out of it. You can't be a coach and only have one way. That's not the way life works. But he's not like that. He listens to me and I listen to him."
For his part, Mazzone said he's hearing high praise from all the way around the league.
"A lot of people are saying that the Baltimore Orioles might have the best starting pitcher in baseball right now -- coming from other professional coaches and managers," he said. "Anytime you have a starter of his caliber, he can be the centerpiece on a pitching staff that has a chance to be really, really good -- and young. They're pretty good right now."
Bedard, who's under contractual control for the next two seasons, will have a chance to sign a long-term deal in the offseason. He's not concerned or consumed by that now, though.
For now, Bedard wants to continue pitching well and worry about contractual details later, hoping that his breakthrough will work out as well as his emergence did a decade ago.
"As a player, I don't feel like that," he said of being a breakout pitcher. "Maybe from the outside looking in, people can say that, 'Oh, now he's going to be consistent for the rest of his career.' As a player, I'm just doing my job. You just try to do well and win games. From the outside it might look like that, but from the inside that's not what I'm thinking."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.