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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Erik Bedard: Quiet ace won't be bragging

The raves come fast and furious, unreserved testimony that the Mariners have acquired, in Erik Bedard, an elite talent. "The Mariners just got...

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The raves come fast and furious, unreserved testimony that the Mariners have acquired, in Erik Bedard, an elite talent.

"The Mariners just got one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, an Orioles broadcaster. "We're talking about a guy who can be as good as Johan Santana."

And just as quickly, in any conversation about Bedard, comes the ancillary warning: Don't expect a warm and fuzzy fellow.

It's not that he's a bad guy, they hasten to add. Just intensely private, and occasionally stubborn. His own man, for better or worse — and he doesn't suffer fools. Or the media.

"He comes off as aloof, and I don't think he is at all," said Orioles broadcaster Buck Martinez, a former major-league manager and player in Toronto.

"He's a very genuine person, but he keeps things to himself. He gives you everything he has on a particular day, and when he's done, he doesn't want to give you much more.

"He doesn't like BS, doesn't like adulation. He likes meat and potatoes. It took a couple of years before he trusted me, and we had the natural tie of Canada."

Sam Perlozzo, the Mariners' new third-base coach, had an even more natural tie the past three seasons: Bedard's manager, until he was fired by the Orioles last June.

"He's not going to come off as real sociable early on, but he's much better than you think," Perlozzo said. "He has to learn to trust you. I personally think the last couple of years he's come around tremendously.

"As manager, it was easy to talk to him. You could kid with him. I saw him talking to teammates much more than he ever has. Socially and physically, he's made big strides the last two years."

Bedard, who turns 29 next month, hails from the Canadian province of Ontario. He's the most famous product of Navan, population 1,450, a rural village east of Ottawa.

His rags-to-riches tale is the stuff of a made-for-television movie. No high-school ball, cut twice from his 17- and 18-year-old select team, walked on to a junior college in Norwalk, Conn., where his fastball suddenly blossomed. Drafted in the sixth round by the Orioles in 1999, survived Tommy John elbow surgery in 2002 and other injuries (left knee, right oblique) to become a star.

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Did we mention that he still lives in his parents' basement in Navan, or that he honed his pitching skills throwing to his brother, Mark, in a barn at his cousin's poultry farm? Or that he grew up speaking French?

At his introductory news conference Friday, Bedard said he didn't sweat the swirling rumors of his on-again, off-again trade to Seattle.

"I didn't follow it," he said. "I'm in Ottawa, so there's not that much news on baseball. I mostly heard from family and friends. I was just waiting for my agent to call me and say, 'You're going to Seattle.' "

And now Seattle expects to get a No. 1-caliber pitcher. Bedard broke out in 2006 (15-11, 3.76 earned-run average) and continued his ascension in 2007 (13-5, 3.16 ERA, 221 strikeouts in 182 innings).

Bedard, who thrived on Orioles teams that lost 92 and 93 games the past two seasons, is at the precipice of superstardom, in the opinion of many baseball people.

One of those is Leo Mazzone, who spent the past two seasons as the Orioles' pitching coach, after a long and fruitful career tutoring the great Atlanta staffs of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

"Probably the best compliment I could give Erik is that he would fit on those great Braves staffs I had the privilege of coaching," Mazzone said.

Like every pitching coach before him, Mazzone had to earn Bedard's trust. It has been reported that they had friction, but others close to the situation disagree. Bedard on Friday credited Mazzone with hastening his development.

"We had long conversations, just the mental part," Bedard said. "He helped me a lot."

Former Orioles general manager Jim Beattie called Bedard "a guy who studies his craft; he's not just a yo-yo out there."

But Beattie added, "He's got his own ideas of how to pitch, his own mind-set. He knows what he wants to try to do, and sometimes that's better than having no idea and leaning on the pitching coach too much."

For his part, Mazzone is 100 percent positive in his assessment of Bedard — right down to his reluctance to open up to the media.

"He's a guy that doesn't want a lot of accolades, a guy that always gives credit to his teammates," Mazzone said. "He reminds me of someone else I coached. Ever hear Greg Maddux talk about himself?

"I think Erik just wants to go out and do his job, and then leave him alone. I don't see anything wrong with that. He's his own man, and that's what makes great pitchers."

Palmer has a different comparison for Bedard's pitch-well-and-recede style.

"Steve Carlton was that way, and he's in the Hall of Fame with 329 wins," Palmer pointed out.

Bedard acknowledges that he finds dealing with the media — as he did, amiably, at his news conference Friday — "a little uncomfortable, but it's getting better. Hopefully, it will get better and better."

Jim Duquette, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations the past two years, said the team talked to Bedard periodically about the need to make himself more available. They pointed out that if he didn't talk to the press, it put more stress on teammates to talk for him.

"That seemed to help," Duquette said. "He's very strong-minded. You can't tell him what to do. Usually, he does the opposite."

Reporters from Baltimore confirm Bedard's status as a reluctant interview.

"If it came down to choosing between a root canal or talking about how he pitched, he'd side with the dentist," said Roch Kubatko of the Baltimore Sun.

"That said, he's much more personable during one-on-one conversations or interactions with small groups. He's not a bad guy. But once the cameras roll and the tape recorders are turned on, he turns off."

Kubatko said that early in Bedard's major-league career, when he was rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery, "he was one of the friendliest athletes I've ever dealt with."

While rehabbing in Sarasota, Fla., Bedard would stop by the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field in Tampa whenever the Orioles were playing the Rays.

"He'd always engage in conversation and gladly provide updates on his health," Kubatko said in an e-mail. "But he gradually changed once he joined the Orioles, and we've been told it has something to do with him believing the media questioned his toughness when he was shut down late in the 2004 season."

That season, Bedard didn't start after Sept. 8, and pitched just once after that.

Bedard also missed the last five weeks of 2007 with an oblique injury, but Duquette doesn't think durability will be an issue. The oblique injury is thought to be completely healed, and his arm has been healthy since 2005.

"There's a lot of talk about the fact he has been injured over his career," Duquette said. "But if you look a little closer, last year he would have pitched 220 innings if he didn't come up with the oblique strain.

"He really built up to 200 innings. He's going in the right direction. The majority of his injuries were early in his career. In my opinion, they're behind him. Looking at it objectively, he's one of the top six pitchers in the game. I put him with Santana, [C.C.] Sabathia, [Roy] Oswalt, [Josh] Beckett, [Jake] Peavy — that's the category of pitcher Seattle is acquiring."

Beattie, in fact, believes that Bedard is entering his prime.

"If he's healthy, he doesn't have a ton of innings under his belt," Beattie said. "He's always been shut down a little here and there, and he started late coming from Canada. He should have a fresh arm.

"I think he has a chance to be better than he's been, and he's one of those guys, when you needed a good game from him and he was ready to go, he gave you a big game."

Added Mazzone, "There's no reason to think he's not one of the elite pitchers in the majors. I have every confidence in the world he'll continue that. With Felix Hernandez, you're talking about a one-two knockout punch. Seattle has put itself in an outstanding position to compete for the pennant."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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