A couple nights ago, with New York clinging to a 3-run lead, Jeff Nelson, donning pinstripes to begin his second stint with the Bronx Bombers, strutted out to the mound to do his job and get some outs.
“It was almost like my first time in the big leagues, coming back here again. I was like a little kid on Christmas waiting for a present,” said Nelson in the New York Daily News. “I guess it was better to get that one out of the way against the Rangers instead of the Mariners.”
After replacing ancient bullpen sage, Jesse Orosco, in the eighth inning, Nelson’s jitters almost did him in during his first game back in the Big Apple after being traded on Wednesday by the Mariners for closer Armando Benitez.
Though Nelson felt a little weak in the knees, playing for the most feared and hated team in baseball history, he did his job. After a walk to A-Rod and an error by Giambi loaded the bases with two outs, Nelson wriggled off the hook and burroughed his way back into the hearts of Rotten Applites everywhere.
Yankee faithful treated Nelson, or “Nellie” as he’s affectionately refered to from the Space Needle to the Statue of Liberty, with a standing ovation. And he only retired one batter.
That’s how much they missed the blonde haired, 6’8”, side-armed, set-up specialist who signed with Mariners after winning four World Series rings(’96, ’98, ’99, and 2000) in five seasons with the Yankees.
Sure, the Mariners received Benitez, who is younger than Nellie by six years, can throw harder than Nellie (his velocity is down this year, but he still brings it in mid to upper 90’s) and has more experience closing than Nellie (197 career saves). He very well may be the answer with Sasaki’s arm in doubt, but how would we know. While Nelson pitched last night, Benitez didn't join the club until Friday when the Mariners faced-off against their old nemesis for a three-game series.
Still, Beni is no Nellie, who will be missed by fans and teammates, but probably not management.
The lanky right-hander left the Mariner organization under a cloud of conflicting ideologies and bruised egos. He trashed Pat Gillick and Howard Lincoln when they failed to make an impact trade by the deadline of July 31, questioning the front office’s commitment to winning a World Series in this the final year of his three-year contract with Seattle.
The next day, Nelson held a closed door meeting with Lincoln and Gillick. He reportedly apologized for his public tirade, but not his comments and the two parties left without shaking hands. That was the beginning of the end for the Maryland native, who resides in Issaquah in the offseason, whether he’s a Mariner or a Yankee.
Never one to bite his tongue, Nelson has been vocal and brutally honest when it comes to addressing the media. His stellar career over the past decade has been highlighted by a handful of relationship-bending comments that have lit up reporters notebooks and infuriated many of whom the comments were directed at.
After bouncing around the minor leagues for eight wild seasons, Nelson hit the Bigs for the first time on April 16, 1992. He began to harness a devastating fastball, while perfecting a sweeping slider that seemed to move in an almost boomerang-like fashion. Many a right-handed batter has broken a proverbial knee while buckling under a Nellie breaking ball.
Nellie’s improvement in the early ‘90’s mirrored that of the entire Mariner team, especially the bullpen. During their magical division-championship run in 1995, Nelson was nearly unhittable as he set up the table for The Sheriff, Norm Charlton. He went 7-3 that year with a 2.17 ERA, the best regular season ERA of his career.
The Mariners rewarded Nellie by trading him in the offseason along with rising star, 1B Tino Martinez, to the Yankees for 3B Russ Davis (bust) and P Sterling Hitchcock (pretty much busted).
History speaks for itself. The Yankees win four championships, including 1996, over the next five years thanks in large part to the contributions of their Mariner imports. On the other hand, the Mariners have been up and down, making the playoffs every now and again, staying “competitive,” but never making it to the big dance despite boasting some the best talent in the league.
In 1997, following trades that saw the Mariners, in a desperate attempt to acquire relief pitching, deal Jose Cruz Jr., Jason Varitek, and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb, Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric, Nelson returned for a series against the Mariners. He was not afraid to weigh in his objections to two of the worst trades in Mariner history.
“They had what they're looking for now, and they got rid of it," he said, according to the Seattle Times. "It's like, why? Why did you get rid of it? Why make the playoffs for the first time in '95, win the division and go as far as we did - and I think in my view and a lot of other guys', we could have beat Cleveland and gone to the World Series - and then the next year, they deplete us.”
Eventually, the Mariners got wise to the Yankees strategy and assembled a bullpen that matched up with their Gotham counterparts. The Yankees bullpen was a centerpiece to their four championship seasons and the Mariners followed suite, signing Japanese closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki and lefty flamethrower Arthur Rhodes in 2000.
It was also in 2000, that Nelson, enjoying perhaps his finest season as Yank, created a small controversy that upset his manager and the big man upstairs, George Steinbrenner. He expressed to the ravenous New York media his extreme disappointment with Joe Torre after the Yankee manager left him off the All-Star roster despite his 6-2 record and 1.74 ERA at the break.
Torre and Nelson claim there is no bad blood, but it was no coincidence that they did not attempt to resign the excitable relief pitcher in the offseason.
Instead, the Mariners picked Nellie up and paired him opposite Rhodes to created the nastiest righty-lefty combination since the Reds’ Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton.
Consequently, the Mariners, buoyed by the signing of Nelson, Bret Boone and Ichiro, tied the major league record for wins. Nellie was particularly dominant, earning his first All-Star game appearance at the age of 34.
Since 2001, Nelson has performed well, but has looked vulnerable at times. He’s lost velocity on his fastball and his slider doesn’t quite move with the video game-snap it used to.
Regardless, he doesn’t shrink from blame when he fails to hold a runner or gives up a big home run. Even during a June funk, when he had an 0-1 record and 7.71 ERA in 12 appearances, he wanted the ball in his hand with the game on the line. Eventually he turned it around and pitched nearly perfect during July.
That’s the real Nellie. He’s a gamer. Nellie comes into games, shuts down rallies and then spears his fist into the air, while spinning off the mound, pumping up the fans, spurring on his teammates and inspiring columnists. That’s why we love him.
He knows what it takes to win and he’s done so for the Mariners and the Yankees, who, without Nelson have failed in their past two attempts to regain the title. The Mariners, with Nelson, defeated the Yankees in the 1995 division series. They haven’t beaten New York in a postseason series since.
Coincidence? We here at insidethepark.com don’t believe in them. We believe in fiery, outspoken veterans, who want nothing else than a World Series Championship.
In 2001, Nelson received his 2000 championship ring in a ceremony at Yankee stadium. Afterwards, he used that experience to encourage his new-old team, the Mariners.
“I hope the ring will show our guys what we’re shooting for,” Nelson said, according to the Seattle Times. "Each one was special in its own way. That’s what we want in Seattle.”
I think Nellie speaks for all of us.
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