The life of a Yankee

The starting pitcher is beginning to struggle in a crucial World Series game, and the manager makes the call to the bullpen.

The relief pitcher comes into the game surrounded by 55,000 fans in Yankee Stadium cheering for him as he tries to continue the rich winning tradition of Yankee baseball.

For most people this is a dream, but for right-handed pitcher Jeff Nelson, this is his job.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, he cheered on the Orioles and despised the Bronx Bombers. "I hated the Yankees; I was always a Orioles fan," Nelson said.

He never dreamed that he might someday where the pinstripes and play in New York. "I dreamed of being an Oriole. I never thought in a million years I’d play for the Yankees," Nelson said.

The path to becoming a Yankee and experiencing success has taken him through a few different cities.

In 1984 at age 17, Nelson was chosen by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 22nd round of the free-agent draft. Two years later he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners in the Rule 5 minor league draft.

As much as he has loved the major leagues, Nelson also enjoyed many things about his time in the minors.

"It’s a fun time because everybody’s in the same boat as far as everybody wants to make it to the big leagues," Nelson said.

The camaraderie among the teammates is something he really enjoyed. "I think the friendships are stronger than in the big leagues. You might have four or five guys living in the same house. You’re trying to cut down on rent and save as much as you can so you can eat. In the big leagues you don’t have that," Nelson said.

Being in the minor leagues is something that can’t be understood by those who’ve never experienced it. "I think "Bull Durham" is the closest movie out of any that describes the minor league. You’ve got long bus rides, and sometimes you do pray for a rainout," Nelson said.

His long bus rides ended in 1992 when he was called up to the Seattle Mariners and spent his first full season in the majors. That first season may have seemed longer than the minor league bus rides as the team lost 98 games and avoided 100 losses by sweeping the White Sox on the final weekend.

After the season, the Mariners brought in Lou Piniella, and the team gradually started to get better.

The experience that season made him appreciate winning and the playoffs when he experienced it for the first time with the Mariners in 1995.

"You go from one aspect of 98 losses to going to the playoffs for the first time, and I don’t think you ever will forget that," Nelson said.

The ’95 playoff series against the Yankees that year is "probably still the best playoff series in baseball so far," according to Nelson.

In the off-season that year, he was traded by the Mariners along with first baseman Tino Martinez and pitcher Jim Mecir to New York Yankees for pitcher Sterling Hitchcock and third baseman Russ Davis.

Over the past five years with the Yankees, Nelson has won three consecutive World Series titles and four of the last five.

"You know you’re going to win, because Steinbrenner’s going to put a winner on the field every year," Nelson said.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, despised by many outside of the Big Apple, isn’t all that bad, according to Nelson. "He’s a great person, and he’s really interested in your family," Nelson said. That doesn’t mean Steinbrenner never criticizes players or gives them a hard time.

"He’s a fan, so he’ll let you know if you’re not doing well," Nelson said. According to Nelson, the key to dealing with him is to give some of it back when he dishes it out. "I think he has more respect when he knows that he can’t walk all over a player," Nelson said.

Steinbrenner also understands that baseball is a hard game and treats his players pretty well. If the team goes through a losing streak, it is the people in the front office who often take the heat.

"If we go through a losing streak he takes it out on them," Nelson said about the front office people.

The biggest problem for a lot of players that come to New York is not Steinbrenner, but the intense press scrutiny.

"The rookie guy or the most experienced guy, they’re going to jump on you if they have a chance," Nelson said.

When Nelson was with Seattle there were only three or four reporters that covered the Mariners. In New York there are between 30 and 35 in the locker room every night, 12 of whom travel with the team.

Each reporter is in competition with the others, and they love controversy. "New Yorkers only want to read what’s bad; they don’t want to read that the Yankees won again. 1998 had to be the worst season for the media because we won 125 games," Nelson said.

"There are some good guys, but there are some guys who won’t give anybody a break and all they care about is writing controversy. You can’t blow them off or they’ll eat you alive," Nelson said.

For those who are accustomed to success and being treated well by the media and home fans, they can experience trouble adjusting to playing for New York. "The fans and the media are in their head so much that that’s all they think about," Nelson said.

Standout players like Kenny Rogers and Cecil Fielder have struggled upon arriving to the New York Media circus, and players like Roger Clemens who won Cy Young Awards in Boston and Toronto experience what it’s like to be booed by the home crowd.

"Roger’s (Clemens) probably never been booed in Boston or Toronto. That’s hard for guys to accept," Nelson said in regard to the occasional boos that Clemens heard from the Yankees fans the past two years.

Even when you’re winning a World Series, the fans and media can turn on you. This year during the "Subway Series" between the Mets and the Yankees, the crowds and radio stations started out pro-Yankee.

That changed as the Yankees began to dominate the series. "All of a sudden the radio stations started turning and started rooting for the Mets," Nelson said.

Losing the all New York Series would have been embarrassing. "I don’t think I’d want to be on the losing side in New York and have to come back there and show your face knowing that you lost to the Mets," Nelson said.

Nelson doesn’t know what it’s like to lose in the World Series, having won all four times he’s gone with the Yankees, often playing a significant role.

He was the winner of game 4 this year, and in 1998 appeared in all four World Series games as the Yankees swept the San Diego Padres.

World Series rings and being a professional baseball player do not come without sacrifices. The season takes its toll on the players. "Once the season starts, one part of your body is going to hurt every single day. Whenever I do retire, that’s the first thing I’m going to miss, and probably the only thing," Nelson said.

Nelson is more than just a baseball player. "Being an athlete and you’re in the spotlight all of the time, people don’t know how you really are," Nelson said."

In addition to being a pitcher, Nelson takes his role as husband and a father seriously as well. "I think I’m a great father; I love my kids," Nelson said.

The toughest thing for Nelson has been sacrificing time with his family. "The toughest part is obviously when you have a family and you leave your family," Nelson said. Before this season, his family often traveled with him on the road.

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Title: The life of a Yankee | Author: John Fure | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2000-11-29 | Internal ID: 1691