Pitcher Perfect

TIM BAINES -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:33 AM ET

FT. LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- He was too small. A wisp of a kid. Shy. In a good kind of way. A francophone country boy from pleasant small-town Navan, population around 1,400 if you're counting a few of the sheep and cows.

A young lad who got as much of a thrill out of fishing or snowmobiling as anything.

Never in the world could he expect to be a professional athlete. Too much worked against him. He didn't really like hockey. And he was too scrawny to strap on a football helmet.

He loved baseball. He and his best buddy played mini baseball with a foam ball covered in duct tape, whacking the daylights out of it with plastic bats. They kept stats too.

Baseball was just a way to pass time. He turned down a chance to play on a competitive team when he was 12, not wanting to miss a fishing trip with his dad. A couple of times, he was cut from competitive teams. Forced, for one reason or another, to play on the B team.

He was an average boy. Loving life. Sports was a chance to hang out with his buddies. No more, no less.

But he got bigger and better.

After graduating from high school, there were no college scholarship offers. But a quiet fire burned within him. He didn't give up, earning a tryout to a community college team in Connecticut. He put on weight, his fastball got faster and his curveball ... well, it kept curving. Two years later, a phone call changed his life. Forever.

A small-town boy was going to get a chance to pursue a big-league dream. A dream that's now reality.

Erik Joseph Bedard is a pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles. Earning $300,000 US this year. And hoping for a huge payday next season when he's eligible for salary arbitration.

The kid from Navan has made it. Against all odds. Overcoming surgery three years ago after blowing out his left elbow. For the first time, there were doubts.

"It was the eighth inning. My 100th pitch," says Bedard. "There was no sound, but immediately I felt a burning sensation. I knew right away it was a Tommy John injury.

"It was devastating. I thought it was the end of everything.I had never been that angry in my life.

"I phoned home and I had to console (my parents). I told them everyone who has the surgery comes back 100%. But I didn't know if I would. I knew I'd be out at least a year and I wasn't sure it'd be the same again."

He rehabbed for six weeks, "but it was still hurting pretty bad. I was having second thoughts. I wasn't sure if the surgery had worked."

Spring training started and Bedard began throwing. And throwing. And nothing seemed to change. Pain and more pain.

"It hurt for a month, month and a half, and mostly, the pain never went away. But then something happened. It seemed like the pain went away overnight."

---

Bedard, now standing 6-foot-1 and tipping the scales at 192 lbs., is taking bunting practice in a field behind Fort Lauderdale stadium. Many of the Orioles players are down the highway in Jupiter, playing a spring training exhibition game against the Florida Marlins. But Bedard, not scheduled to pitch on this day, remains behind, working out.

He finishes his turn -- he won't get many chances to bat during the regular season with the American League designated hitter rule -- and a coach yells: "BAY-dard, send me another pitcher." He trots away and does as he's asked.

Compliancy is not a problem with No. 45. He's as polite and nice as they come. The son of Normand and Nicole Bedard has learned his manners well. Just a nice Canadian kid, albeit one who could be on the brink of stardom, according to Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller.

"The Minnesota pitcher, Johan Santana, the one who won the Cy Young last year," says Miller. "(Bedard) could be that good. He throws as hard or harder. Everything he throws is hard, he just needs the changeup. It's a matter of changing speeds and when he starts throwing something else, he could be special.

"He's worked hard on it and he's looking great. The sky's the limit for him."

Wow, high words of praise, indeed.

"He said that? That's overwhelming," Bedard says the next day. "The coach thinks I can do that? I'm going to work as hard as I can. Johan Santana? I just want to be my own person."

But Bedard, so modest, so quiet, shouldn't be surprised. He may never have been the biggest kid on the team, but the fire in his belly continues to push him forward. On the fast track to success.

"I'm laid back, but when it's crunch time, I'll do anything possible to win," says Bedard.

"I don't express what I feel, but there's a lot of intensity inside me. I want to be good, but I just don't show it."

"You'd never know it, but he's a competitive guy," says Orioles teammate Tim Raines Jr. "It's tough for guys who aren't in the clubhouse to see because he never seems to show any emotion. If we're out, he opens up a bit. He's got a great sense of humour."

And he's managed to leave at least one of his "Canadian" habits behind.

"I used to say 'eh' in college and they made fun of me," says Bedard. "I don't say it anymore. I go home and notice people say 'eh' all the time.

Bedard sits on the pitchers' side of the Orioles clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale. On one side sits Todd Williams, with Tony Fiore on the other. Across the room, stars like Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora and Sammy Sosa roost.

There's lots of chirping and singing coming from the Latin corner, but Bedard keeps his distance. He's not awestruck by the star chatter, either. Not like he was in his first big-league camp.

"It was overwhelming to walk into the clubhouse," says Bedard. "You look around and to you, they're all superstars, all better than you.

"I tried not to make eye contact. I just stayed with the younger guys ... I didn't want to do anything wrong. As you go along, you feel way more comfortable.

The first batter he faced in an exhibition game, against the Texas Rangers, was Alex Rodriguez. Freaking A-Rod!

After getting A-Rod out, he whiffed Palmeiro, then got Gabe Kapler out, too. Three up, three down. So much for rookie jitters.

"I was really nervous," says Bedard. "Two (future) Hall of Famers. I was just trying to throw as good as I could against arguably the two best hitters in the league at the time. I was like: 'Wow, if I get can these guys out, I can get anybody in the league out.' "

Family is important to the 26-year-old pitcher.

"It's my first priority," he says. "I'm lucky to have a good one. We always hang out and talk. The older you get, it just seems to get closer.

"When you're younger, you don't realize how much your parents are doing for you. Driving you everywhere. Bringing you things. They're role models."

Nicole, who works as an administrative assistant at the Senate, and Normand, an elevator mechanic, are proud of Erik. But they're just as thrilled with younger brother, Mark, 22, who's an elevator mechanic apprentice. Normand is 5-foot-9, while Nicole is 5-foot-5. Erik got the height in the family.

Mark was a football player, an excellent running back and safety, with the Orleans Bengals. While one parent was driving Erik to baseball, the other would be chauffeuring Mark to football.

"Baseball and football, we were always going in a different direction, sometimes three times a day," says Normand. "Time flew by like you wouldn't believe.

"At one point, we wanted to sell the house and move to Orleans. We were on the move all the time," says Nicole.

So many miles were put on the Plymouth Voyageur. So many memories. And some pretty good scraps between the brothers.

"I was 14, he was 10, but we had some pretty good fights," says Erik. "We'd be fighting and my dad would be yelling at us."

"I held my own, but he had the weight advantage," says Mark. "I'd be crying and hugging my mom and he'd be off to the side laughing at me."

Now Erik is the sombre one. Mark is outgoing, the antithesis of Erik. That's likely why they get along so well.

---

So much time was spent snowmobiling at his uncle Gerald's farm in Sarsfield. Just racing around. With nothing but trails and trees around. That, to him, was paradise.

Even at a young age, Erik was drawn to sports.

"He was three and the only thing he wanted to do was get my tennis racquet and the ball," says Normand. "I'd be chasing the ball all over the place."

He started playing softball, but got bored and his parents signed him up for the Orleans Little League.

"He always had a great arm, even at a young age," says Normand. "But it (Major League Baseball) wasn't my vision. It wasn't my intention to make him a major-league player. The dream was his, not mine."

---

Friends are very important to Bedard, especially the core group that he spends so much time with when he's home: Philippe Grandmaitre, Alexandre Regimbald and Yves Potvin. No chance of Bedard getting too big for his britches with these buddies around.

"He's the most humble guy I know," says Grandmaitre, whose family has lived next door to the Bedards for 20 years. "He doesn't talk about himself. We've all been friends for so long, that if one of us starts getting out of line, the other three will knock him right down."

Grandmaitre catches for Bedard in the off-season.

"You don't realize how hard they throw until you sit there trying to catch (Bedard)," says Grandmaitre.

---

Bedard was an average student in school.

"In class,I never put my hand up for anything," he says. "I actually did okay, but I was a teen. I went to school because I had to."

"School wasn't his top priority," says Normand. "It was always sports."

He took a Grade 11 cooking course because he "thought it was a bird course." But it came in handy when he moved out on his own and he's become quite handy in the kitchen, often cooking for his parents when he's home.

---

A member of Garneau's school golf team, he played regularly at Bearbrook. While he was rehabbing from his elbow injury, Bedard played golf a lot. Got his game down to the low 80s. He doesn't get many chances to play now, sometimes shooting in the 90s.He's got a set of Nike clubs, with a Cleveland sand wedge. And he can hit the bejeezus out of the ball. Last year, he played in a best-ball tournament at Doral in Miami, winning the long drive contest with a bomb of more than 320 yards.

Bedard was cut from an Orleans Little League team, then a couple of times from the Ottawa Nationals. His fastball was barely tickling the radar gun. He'd get knocked down, then bounce back up again.

"I didn't care. It wasn't a big deal," says Bedard. "That's me. I don't dwell on things.

"I was small and I didn't throw hard. I played on the B team. A lot of my friends were on the team. Little League was just fun for me."

He tossed a one-hitter, an infield single, as he pitched Orleans to a Canadian Little League junior championship win over Burnaby, B.C., in 1992.

Bedard may have been small, but he had a big heart, something that caught the eye of Nepean Red Sox manager Richard Dow.

"Everybody had cut him ... they thought he didn't have it," says Dow. "But I just has a feeling about him."

Dow never regretted adding Bedard to the Red Sox roster.

"One time, we played the American Legion champion team from Pennsylvania. Eric pitches and beats them 3-1," says Dow. "In 1997, we were playing in Hartford, in the big tournament final. Eric's got a sore arm.But it's the seventh inning. We're leading 4-3, but they've got the bases loaded. None out. He comes to me and says, 'I can do it. Put me in.'

"He strikes out the side on 10 pitches.

"I've seen guys that looked more like pitchers than him, but not with his finesse, not with his intelligence.

"I always thought he'd rather go fishing with his father than play baseball.But he can pitch. He still looks the same. He could figure out a hitter when he was 12 ... and he can still do it.

"He's not your classic-looking pitcher, but if you go by the book, neither is Randy Johnson. All Eric needed was a chance."

---

All along one of the main knocks against young Bedard was his size. Too short, too skinny. But then something wondrous happened.

"In Grade 12, I was 5-foot-4. By the summer, I was 6 feet tall,"says Bedard. "I didn't know what was going on. But that's when everything started happening."

"I towered over him," says Grandmaitre. "When he was 5-foot-5, I was almost 6-foot-2. But from one summer to the next, I went from looking down at him to looking him right in the eyes."

But he was still skinny. Until he got to Norwalk and started throwing the weights around.

"I got to college in January and by May, I'd gained 35 pounds. It was unbelievable.

"I'd never really lifted weights before, but I did it like crazy. I'm still not sure how I did it."

And he added some pop to his fastball. He went from throwing an 80-mph heater, to topping out at 86-87. The next year, in the first intra-squad game, the radar gun got him at 88.

"I just got stronger," says Bedard. "At home, I was only playing for three months and I'd lose arm strength.

He was enrolled in computer science at Norwalk, but left after just 1 1/2 years ... when he took the phone call that changed his life.

Bedard was sitting at home on June 2, 1999, hoping he would be drafted, waiting for the phone to ring. Normand was out cutting lawn, too nervous to stay inside. It took a couple of hours after the draft began, but sure enough, the call came from scout Jim Howard.

"All he said was: 'You've been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the sixth round.' I guess they've made so many of these calls, it's hard for them to get excited.

"It was exciting for me, a great feeling. It was pro baseball and they wanted me. But I knew it was only the beginning. When I got down here, I knew I was a long way from making it."

He signed his first contract, getting an $80,000 signing bonus. He paid off some loans and bought a Ford Cobra.

---

Bedard feels comfortable with the Orioles. Over the winter, there were rumours that he would be traded to the Oakland A's as part of a package for ace pitcher Tim Hudson, who was eventually sent to Atlanta.

"They didn't trade me, so I guess that means they think highly of me here,"he says.

"I feel like I belong. I love playing baseball for a living ... in front of millions of people. It just doesn't seem like work.

"My problem last year was I wasn't consistent. I try to nibble and strike guys out. I have to learn to minimize the damage, not be afraid of contact."

---

Bedard owns two trucks. A 2003 Ford Lightning F150. And a 2005 F250 Harley Davidson special edition Ford, black with burgundy flames, he picked up before he left for Florida last month. He laughs and wonders aloud if Campbell Ford, where he bought the truck, shouldn't be giving him some kind of deal for mentioning the dealership.

---

During this past off-season, took a trip to Cancun with his brother. Nothing fancy, just some time to kick back and forget about throwing fastballs and curveballs and changeups.

Forget about facing hitters like Manny Ramirez and Ichiro Suzuki ... and yeah, Gary Sheffield and Vladimir Guerrero.

"The guy I'm most afraid of is Gary Sheffield," says Bedard. "It seems like no matter how hard I throw it, he can hit it.

"And Guerrero? Last year, one game I'd given up one run in 62/3 innings. He hits one 450 (feet) off me. Fastball down and in. Nobody should be able to hit it and he crushes it. I just looked and all I could say was: 'Wow!' "

---

With their son's success, Erik's parents feel the highs and lows as much or more than he does.

"I can't watch a game and relax," says Nicole, who was a softball player with a Bell Canada team for 12 years. One year, she won a trophy for being the best hitter.

"It's very unnerving to look at your son when he's pitching," says Normand, whose days of playing catch with his son may be nearing an end, especially since Erik hums the ball into the plate at speeds of up to 93 mph, plus the fact that he has a knee-buckling curveball.

"My eyesight is not good enough," says Normand. "His fastball moves. I've caught him and my wrist was black and blue. I also took one off the ankle ... the ball bounced off the ground."

---

As laid back and modest as he is, Bedard loves the lifestyle of a big-leaguer.

"I'm playing baseball in front of millions of people," he says. "It doesn't seem like work. I love it so much."

And he's even starting to get autograph requests.

"Miguel Tejada, he comes back from a trip and he's got like a bin full of fan mail. I come back and I've got like 30," says Bedard with a chuckle.

He doesn't expect he'll change his demeanour anytime soon.

"Sometimes it's not the things you say, but the things you don't say," says Bedard. "This is a business. You really have to watch what comes out of your mouth."

While he says he spoke "horrible" English until he went to college, there is not even a twinge of French accent in his voice now. He's become Americanized, "but I'll never lose my French Canadian heritage."

He lives in downtown Baltimore, near the breathtaking inner harbour. But he hasn't forgotten Navan.The tranquility. His family. His friends. The people.

He bought five acres of land in Sarsfield and hopes to build there. The big-city boy still has small-town dreams ... Navan's simple lifestyle is Utopia to him.

"Everything is so fast (in the majors)," says Bedard. "Everywhere you go.

"Big cities. Big hotels. Everything is small back home. That's what I like.

"That's where I grew up and that's where I'm going to live. I've already looked at plans ... the house will be somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 (sq. feet), with a theatre room and a big couch.

"My roots will always be in Navan ... in Ottawa.

"I'm not famous yet. When I get famous, I'm going to hide. Back home."

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH ERIK

- AGE: 26

- HEIGHT: 6-foot-1

- WEIGHT: 192 lbs

- SALARY: $300,000 US this year

- MARITAL STATUS: Single

- FAVOURITE MOVIE: Shawshank Redemption

- FAVOURITE TV SHOW: Friends

- CDS YOU OWN: 50 Cent, Linkin Park, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney

- FAVOURITE ACTRESS/HOT BABE: Carmen Electra

- FAVOURITE FOOD: Chicken, steak, pork chops

- FAVOURITE ATHLETE: Michael Jordan

- HOBBIES: Snowmobiling, fishing, golf, cooking

THEY SAID IT

"He's not your classic-looking pitcher, but if you go by the book, neither is Randy Johnson."

-- Nepean Red Sox manager, Richard Dow

"The Minnesota pitcher, Johan Santana, the one who won the Cy Young last year. (Bedard) could be that good ... The sky's the limit for him."

-- Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller

"You'd never know it, but he's a competitive guy. It's tough for guys who aren't in the clubhouse to see because he never seems to show any emotion."

-- Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tim Raines Jr.

"He's the most humble guy I know. He doesn't talk about himself. We've all been friends for so long, that if one of us starts getting out of line, the other three will knock him right down."

-- Philippe Grandmaitre, Erik Bedard's best buddy

"My eyesight is not good enough. His fastball moves. I've caught him and my wrist was black and blue."

-- Normand Bedard

"The guy I'm most afraid of is Gary Sheffield. It seems like no matter how hard I throw it, he can hit it."

-- O's starter Erik Bedard

"My roots will always be in Navan ... in Ottawa. I'm not famous yet. When I get famous, I'm going to hide. Back home."

-- O's starter Erik Bedard

tim.baines@ott.sunpub.com


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