How Will History Remember Erik Bedard?

Jeff Sullivan · July 22, 2013 at 4:23 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s extraordinary, what Erik Bedard did last Saturday night. It’s extraordinary that Bedard no-hit the scorching Seattle Mariners into the top of the seventh inning. It’s extraordinary that he managed to rack up so many strikeouts. It’s extraordinary that he was removed, and that he wound up with the loss, without having surrendered a hit. And then, more than anything, it’s extraordinary that he pitched. That he even pitched in the first place. That much is extraordinary in two ways.

Other fans don’t have the relationship with Bedard that we do. He’s pitched for a whole bunch of teams, but they haven’t gone through the same ups and downs. Other teams didn’t invest so much into an Erik Bedard acquisition. Other teams didn’t start Erik Bedard over Felix Hernandez on opening day, and other teams didn’t go through the same drawn-out Erik Bedard experience. Bedard is not remembered fondly in Seattle, and something about the Saturday performance felt uniquely appropriate — here’s a guy, talented, hitting the wall and all but removing himself despite the circumstances. Twitter was littered with jokes, and that was even before the Mariners closed out their incredible win.

Think about Bedard’s reputation these days, and think about the stories we’ve all heard. Bedard has never come off like a leader, and he’s never seemed like one to hang around the practice fields after hours. Bedard has appeared to exhibit disinterest, and not just with the media — he’s never seemed that committed to the game, or to his team, and it’s because of Bedard that I’m familiar with the expression five-and-dive. You think of Bedard and you think of a guy who’s toast after five innings or 100 pitches, whichever comes first. And, naturally, you think of the aches and pains. Bedard’s always been fragile, and he’s seemed to take his time. He’s seemed to demonstrate an unwillingness to work through much in the way of discomfort.

I’m not here to say that anyone’s wrong. Bedard is written about in a certain way for reasons. Departing coaches, in the past, have taken parting shots at Bedard, accusing him of not giving enough or caring enough. Bedard isn’t Derek Jeter, and there’s no way to twist the tale such that a comparison fits. Bedard, often, has disappointed in a variety of ways, and that colors the way that he’s covered. But, for not my first time, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge the rest of the story.

Bedard had his first taste of surgery in 2002, when he had his UCL replaced. The first taste wouldn’t be the last, as Bedard had different shoulder surgeries in 2008, 2009, and 2010. You can’t fake or exaggerate a needed surgical procedure, and Bedard cited those surgeries when explaining why he was okay with coming out of his no-hitter. To quote:

“I’ve had three shoulder surgeries, so I’m not going over 110. I’d rather pitch a couple more years than face another batter.”

Look at that quote, examine it. It’s not just Bedard trying to quit his day’s work. When he came out, he’d walked four of seven hitters. His last fastball came in under 87 miles per hour. Bedard was finished, and he knew it better than anyone. Then there’s the last bit. “I’d rather pitch a couple more years.” For a guy who’s long been accused of disinterest, Bedard seems pretty damn interested in sticking around as a major-league pitcher.

Which might explain why he’s been pitching for the Houston Astros after signing as a free agent. Bedard re-signed with Seattle in December 2010 after all his shoulder surgeries. He pitched pretty well, he got traded to Boston, and he got hurt. Then, in December, he signed as a free agent with the Pirates. 13 months later he signed a minor-league contract with the Astros. Bedard made $7 million in 2008. He made almost $8 million in 2009. Bedard didn’t need to keep pitching, but he kept getting hurt and he kept coming back, signing with teams that wouldn’t be good. Let it not be said that Erik Bedard doesn’t care about baseball.

And as for his toughness? In 2009 he pitched through a torn labrum. Though he was dropped by the Pirates in late August 2012, to that point he’d missed just one turn, with back spasms. And there’s the reality of Bedard overcoming all of those operations. Sometimes one shoulder surgery can mean the end of a pitcher’s career. Bedard had three in three seasons, and since then he’s thrown 353 innings, with 332 strikeouts. Bedard, in the past, has pitched through pain, and he’s started regularly, and he’s fought back from being hurt and virtually forgotten.

He hasn’t always pitched through pain, or fatigue, as he’s famously racked up a bunch of short outings. But how much of that is weakness, instead of intelligence? We know beyond a shadow of any doubt that Bedard is injury-prone. We know that pitchers tend to perform worse when they approach a triple-digit pitch count, such that it might be in everyone’s best interests to go to a reliever. When managers ask starting pitchers how they’re feeling, the pitchers almost always respond as if they’re good to keep pitching. Much of the time, they’re not. Injuries and ineffectiveness happen when a pitcher goes too long. Bedard’s gotten crap for seldom putting up much of a fight. He even took the ball out of his own hands in a no-hitter. Why is that weakness? Why is that not refreshing, helpful honesty? I get that there’s a balance, and you want a guy to want to keep pitching, but maybe Bedard’s just deeply aware of his own limits. That would be good for a team, not bad for it.

So Bedard doesn’t go deep enough. So he has one career complete game. He’s thrown more pitches per plate appearance than average, because he’s been so difficult to hit and because he’s never had pinpoint command. And, of course, Bedard isn’t any kind of work horse. To complain about this is to say “you should be better and more physically blessed.” Everyone in baseball could be better, and Bedard wasn’t blessed with a work horse’s body, but he was blessed with a body that could spin a hell of a curveball, sometimes, and even though that meant sometimes he’d be inefficient, Bedard could at least get outs, for five or so innings at a time.

What I personally can’t know is how much effort Bedard has put into making himself better. I don’t know if his injuries could’ve been avoided with, say, more or different conditioning. I do know you don’t just recover from three consecutive shoulder surgeries by accident overnight. I know you don’t just luck into being able to retire major-league batters, especially after all those times being knocked unconscious in a hospital. We’ll never be able to know what Erik Bedard’s career might’ve looked like had he possessed Raul Ibanez’s work ethic and leadership skills. You’re left feeling like he could’ve and should’ve been more, and you wonder if he could’ve been more durable. But the career Erik Bedard has actually had has been remarkable, and it seems like he’d like to extend it, even though he doesn’t have a need. Maybe he likes pitching away from the spotlight, in places like Seattle and Pittsburgh and Houston, but he wouldn’t be the only such player.

It’s tradition in sports to play through pain until someone pulls you off the field. Erik Bedard has done that. He’s also not done that, on purpose, but there’s a balancing point beyond which it’s stupid to play through pain, both in the short-term and the long-term. Maybe if Bedard were more conventionally “tough,” his career would already be over. With luck, attitudes will change over time, and with luck, athletes will come to better understand their own physical limits. Bedard gets his, even if we all wish his limits would’ve been higher.

The headline question is a dumb one. History will remember Erik Bedard the way it remembers everyone: too simply. Bedard will have been a talented but fragile pitcher who sadly could’ve been more than he was. The reality of Erik Bedard is the reality of everyone: it’s complicated. Erik Bedard might just be baseball’s toughest weak player.

Comments

20 Responses to “How Will History Remember Erik Bedard?”

  1. thehemogoblin on July 22nd, 2013 4:28 pm

    Maybe his perceived lack of work ethics falls into him seeming to know and acknowledge the limits of his body more than other pitchers.

  2. chrischris on July 22nd, 2013 5:09 pm

    Good points. I think Bedard falls somewhere between a health conscious professional who knows his body and the arrogant, distracted, lazy player who he is commonly labeled.

    I’m ok with him only going 100 pitches, but I just wish his attitude exhibited more drive. It always seemed like he was ok losing, unlike other professional athletes that got to this level by being competitive.

  3. Kazinski on July 22nd, 2013 5:10 pm

    I always liked Bedard. So what if the writers don’t like him. I always liked Steve Carlton cause he wouldn’t talk to the press.

    People are different on how they react to things. For every Brendan Ryan there is an Eric Bedard.

  4. TIFO on July 22nd, 2013 5:12 pm

    I think a lot of fan perception on him is heavily colored by the way the media portrays him, rather than perhaps actually how he is. Obviously he seems to treat the media somewhat rudely, though I can’t say I blame him for that per se, so they in turn are more than happy to point out any and all flaws he may or may not have. A player who treats them well, the media tends to go out of their way to say what a great guy he is when he’s struggling, rather than harp on the struggles or that player’s deficiencies.

    But really, I can’t imagine how awful it is to day in and day out have people sticking their recording devices in your face just to get some stupid canned quote that will fit in their often already mostly written article. Kind of comes with being a professional athlete, and you’d think one would learn to at least fake it just to avoid the bad press, but really even that is somewhat refreshing about Bedard as opposed to many others. He’s honest with the manager about when he knows he’s done and it would be best for the team to put someone else in, unlike pretty much every other pro athlete out there, and he’s honest with the media in terms of letting them know what he thinks of them and their bullshit questions which are often framed in the form of “talk about XYZ” where XYZ is the little snippet of a quote they need to complete the article they just wrote.

  5. djw on July 22nd, 2013 5:15 pm

    Bedard is smart enough to know his bodies limits, and not pretend they don’t exist. Not only is he smart enough, he’s also secure enough to not buy into the macho bullshit conception of masculinity that permeates our society at large and sports culture to an even greater degree. Good for him.

  6. TIFO on July 22nd, 2013 5:23 pm

    Bedard also seems kind of cool guy with regards to his home life. Despite the riches, in the off season he practices and trains with the help of his brother, an elevator repairman like his father, in a large chicken barn to avoid the cold.

    Up until just before his time with the Mariners, he lived in his parent’s basement in the off-season. Then when he finally built a house, he built it such that his brother could live in half of it and Bedard in the other half. Seems like a pretty down to earth guy, unlike most of the athletes who generally seem quite full of themselves, even if they are also really nice guys aside from that.

  7. TIFO on July 22nd, 2013 5:26 pm

    I also love this quote from him, in regards to his 15 strikeout complete game against the Texas Rangers: “I showed the most emotion I ever have in my life during that game. I pounded my fist.” :-)

  8. PackBob on July 22nd, 2013 5:40 pm

    And then too there’s the other side of the coin that doesn’t get much air time: players that play through pain and make whatever they had wrong worse. The player is taking one for the team, seen as a good thing, even if it may be more damaging to the team in the long run.

    Perception and peer pressure come into play, as no player wants to give the impression that they are not giving everything they have for the team. A player like Bedard is an anomaly, as I believe that he did give everything he had, but just didn’t say the right things.

    Ichiro was blasted for a very similar thought process of not risking injury and the possibility of missing many games to get a single out by crashing into the wall to *maybe* make a catch. Bryce Harper runs into walls and ends up on the DL.

    The attitude of taking risks with injury for the possibility of short-term gain doesn’t seem particularly smart.

  9. Westside guy on July 22nd, 2013 6:11 pm

    This Eric would never last on a team managed by our Eric.

  10. MrZDevotee on July 22nd, 2013 6:21 pm

    PackBob-
    Or Danny Hultzen… I’m sure missing so much time, he put pressure on himself to get back out there, and work through it, and perform…

    And he got shut down his first day back on the mound.

    That would also be the flip side of how Bedard goes about things.

    Perspective is everything in these sorts of matters, and Jeff’s perspective was an interesting take on Bedard.

  11. Dobbs on July 22nd, 2013 8:43 pm

    Well done Jeff. I really think that all needed to be said. People’s perceptions of others are usually skewed badly if they don’t know the person, haven’t had a chance to walk a mile in their shoes. Doesn’t matter how easy you think someone has it, it all becomes relative on some level. (doesn’t mean he has it harder than someone starving obviously)

  12. Steve Nelson on July 22nd, 2013 8:49 pm

    @ chrischris on July 22nd, 2013 5:09 pm

    I’m ok with him only going 100 pitches, but I just wish his attitude exhibited more drive. It always seemed like he was ok losing, unlike other professional athletes that got to this level by being competitive.

    Really?? How do you know what is going on in his head? How do you know how much drive he feels or doesn’t feel?

    Just because he doesn’t emote the way that you seem to think is correct way to emote doesn’t mean a damn thing about what might be ticking inside him.

    And to imply that his attitude “lacked drive”. Really now? Someone who works to come back to pitch at an MLB level after three – count ‘em, three – shoulder surgeries is a person whose attitude lacks drive?? A person who labored on the mound with a torn labrum that would have sent most pitchers to the sideline is someone whose attitude “lacks drive”? Doing so because the his team was counting on him to play a significant role?

    Oh – but he wasn’t screaming and shouting. What the hell difference does that make?? I’ve been with my wife for forty years and in that time never once has she screamed or shouted – except in pain a couple of times. It’s just not in her nature. But let me assure you that is one of the ten most intensely driven and focused people I have met in my life.

    A lot of people get fooled by her, thinking she’s less driven then she is. Seems there are a lot of people who get sucked in that way, wouldn’t you say?

  13. djw on July 22nd, 2013 9:37 pm

    It always seemed like he was ok losing

    Few things are more baffling to me than the casual confidence some sports fans have that they can look into the minds and hearts of baseball players through the teevee screen.

  14. SeattleNative57 on July 22nd, 2013 11:09 pm

    “…baseball’s toughest weak player.” OK, that’s faint praise for a multimillionaire pitcher with one CG for his career. So he knows his limits. I still don’t want him on my team.

  15. lightbat on July 23rd, 2013 12:46 am

    “I still don’t want him on my team.”

    Why not? I’m asking from just an analytical standpoint.

    Begrudging him the money is useless, and counting CG’s seems like a useless stat.

  16. Steve Nelson on July 23rd, 2013 1:38 am

    @ SeattleNative57 on July 22nd, 2013 11:09 pm

    So he knows his limits. I still don’t want him on my team.

    That’s the kind of thinking that smart GMs exploit. Billy Beane did pretty well acquiring fat, slow, players who know their limits that other GMs didn’t want on their teams.

  17. Dobbs on July 23rd, 2013 10:36 am

    Player A: 1255 IP, 1153 Ks, 0 CG
    Player B: 1175 IP, 1133 Ks, 1 CG

    1 is a hall of famer for throwing 1 inning at a time. The other has spent more than half his career on the DL.

  18. amnizu on July 23rd, 2013 11:08 am

    We also measure players by their cost. Both in salary and assets paid to acquire a player. Players that are traded for each other are forever evaluated against each other both during and after their playing career. So from this perspective of measurement, which is especially relevant to fans of both the Mariners and the Orioles; Bedard will always be the losing end of a trade.

  19. TheMightyMariner on July 23rd, 2013 1:10 pm

    I thought Bedard was ok if we had just signed him for cheap and let him work through his issues. It didn’t happen that way. We gave up some great pieces (man, what I wouldn’t do to have A. Jones and Tillman here) in a horrible deal.

    I have no idea how Bavasi kept his job for so long. He set this franchise back several years. I guess the people that let him keep the GM job are still here; no wonder we’ve been floundering for so long.

  20. 6-4-3 on July 23rd, 2013 1:58 pm

    It seems to me that Franklin Gutierrez is very similar to Bedard, yet he seems to get much more of a pass than Bedard did/does. I think part of the problem is you get the perception that a CF is “playing hard,” but not so much for a pitcher. When an outfielder runs into the wall it’s easy to see how he could be injured, but a pitcher’s injuries are much more subtle. Because of this an injury-prone pitcher is seen as lazy and disinterested where a position player may not be.

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