By LARRY LaRUE
The News Tribune
The News Tribune
SEATTLE – Two days short of five years ago, Jeff Nelson was traveling in Alaska with teammate Dan Wilson as part of the Seattle Mariners’ winter caravan when word came that he was a New York Yankee.
It was 37 degrees below zero, and the Mariners offered to fly Nelson home immediately to begin the process of changing teams.
Nelson stayed in Alaska another 36 hours, finishing off a series of clinics for kids who didn’t know that he was no longer a member of the team he was there to represent.
“Why punish them?” Nelson said at the time. “It wasn’t their fault.”
The Mariners never forgot that trip – or Nelson’s classy reaction to a trade that surprised him – and on Monday they made it official. The right-handed reliever is home again, and will spend the next three seasons at Safeco Field, about a 25-minute drive from his Issaquah home.
His plans to celebrate signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract were typical of Nelson: He was scheduled to referee a local high school basketball game Monday night, during which he would be wearing a pager.
“My wife’s due any day with our fourth child,” Nelson said. “They’re all girls, and I’ve got a World Series ring for each one of them. Now I need one for myself – and I want to get it with Seattle.”
A product of the Mariners farm system, Nelson was traded to the Yankees in December of 1995, where he became one of the American League’s best setup men. On Monday, he joined what general manager Pat Gillick called “one of the best bullpens in the league.”
“If we get through six innings with a lead, we want to be able to lock that game up,” Gillick said. “With Jeff Nelson, Jose Paniagua, Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki, we think we can do that.”
Though no Mariner official mentioned the name Alex Rodriguez, Nelson did, making a personal appeal to the free-agent shortstop.
“What the past few years in New York have proven is that it takes 25 guys to win a World Series, and I’d love to see Alex come back and be part of this,” Nelson said. “This is his team, and I’d hate to see him make the same mistake Ken Griffey Jr. made. Junior demanded a trade and the Mariners got to the American League Championship Series.
“How would Alex feel if he goes somewhere else and watches this team go to the World Series?”
Nelson’s homecoming was the flip side of that argument. He loved Seattle, never wanted to leave it but after being traded was part of a New York team that won four World Series championships. And all along the way, he thought about coming back to the Mariners.
“I lobbied for it every year, but this year because I was a free agent I lobbied harder,” Nelson said. “I have friends here, I live here, I love the ballpark and think this is a great organization. In the last five years, I probably did more things for the Mariners during the offseason than I ever did for the Yankees.”
At 34, Nelson isn’t the same pitcher or man he was the last time he wore a Mariners uniform.
“New York forces you to grow up, on and off the field,” Nelson said. “It was an adjustment, but after you stop reading the papers and listening to the radio, and once you realize the fans are going to boo you a few times a year, it was fine.
“I have nothing bad to say about New York. It was just time to move on, and I wanted to come home.”
Oddly, Nelson figures the ALCS matchup in October, when the Yankees beat the Mariners, worked out well for him. And not just because it led to his fourth ring.
“If the Mariners had beaten us and gone on to the World Series, they might have figured ‘Why do we need Nelson?’ ” he said. “I can help this team. And everyone knows how close this team was to getting to the Series last year.”
Though Nelson made a public plea to A-Rod to return, he wasn’t above poking a bit of fun at the shortstop’s offseason publicity. Asked why he’d agreed to a contract last week, then had to wait until Monday to announce it, Nelson brought down the house with his response.
“Well, I wanted a Lear jet,” Nelson said, turning to Gillick. “And I wanted Pat’s office, although I did offer to share it with him.”
On a more serious note, he said he hoped neither A-Rod nor anyone else talked the Mariners into changing the dimensions at Safeco Field.
“It’s perfect,” Nelson said. “Hitters want advantages and they have most of them, but the Yankees proved you win with pitching and defense, and Safeco favors that kind of game. Seattle’s pitching got it to the ALCS last year – why mess with that?”
For now, Nelson will stick to his offseason conditioning program, working two high school basketball games a week and awaiting the birth of his new daughter. And if the Mariners ask him to take part in another winter caravan, he said, he’ll be happy to accommodate them – with one caveat.
“I won’t go to Alaska again,” he said. “Alaska wasn’t good luck for me.”
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