OFFICIALLY, HE was the Orioles' "video coaching assistant," the young man who recorded and logged videotapes of baseball games as a way of helping players with their hitting and pitching. But unofficially, Jeff Nelson was a lot more than that. In a short span -- the 1995 season through 1998 -- he became a clubhouse spirit, a friend of players and even a source of inspiration. His death the other day -- of complications after surgery -- shocked and saddened a whole lot of Orioles. Many of them will attend his funeral today in Randallstown.
"Great guy," says former pitching coach Mike Flanagan.
"Wonderful young man," says bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks.
"One of my closest friends on the team," says designated hitter ** Harold Baines.
"One of us," says Lenny Webster, the catcher.
"Amazing kid," says Orioles spokesman John Maroon.
"The most generous person I knew,"' says his friend from college, Gerard Desir.
"I was very proud of him," says his mother, Audrey Nelson, of Riverside, Calif.
She gave birth to Jeff Nelson on Oct. 21, 1972. Early the next year, she learned her baby had sickle cell anemia, the inherited blood disorder found mainly in African-Americans. (A 1973 study found that half of American children with the disease died by the time they were 14; the survival rate has improved considerably since then.)
When Jeff Nelson reached his teen years, his rate of growth slowed dramatically, a common occurrence in the life of people with sickle cell. Given hormone treatments to accelerate his growth, Nelson ended up with a right leg 6 inches longer than his left. He developed a profound limp.
"He was always small for his age," says Audrey Nelson. "But he did things, he was determined." He had a paper route when he was 12. At Valencia High School in California, he was a member of the varsity basketball team and even won the coach's trophy as a senior.
He went East for college, landing at Morgan in Baltimore. He majored in communications and developed an interest in video production.
"We met during a pillow fight," says his young wife, Karen. She'd been a student at Stockton State College in New Jersey. He was a member of Iota Phi Theta at Morgan. She smacked him with a pillow at a fraternity party in Philadelphia, fell in love with the guy, moved to Baltimore, married him. They have one child, a boy named Geoff.
While a student at Morgan, Jeff got an internship with the Orioles. From that developed a part-time job running videotape machines. From that developed a full-time job he loved. Eventually, Nelson traveled with the team, recording and creating video files for each pitcher and batter. He was a video librarian; if a player or coach wanted to review an earlier performance -- a month earlier or a half-inning earlier -- Nelson had it. If someone needed an advance look at an opposing pitcher, Nelson would have the tape or get it. Players counted on him.
He was diligent, efficient and steady, one of those people who worked with a happy heart, no matter what. He was generous with his time, content to play a supporting role to celebrated men.
"I spent hours in that room with him, watching tapes or games or just hanging out," says Baines. "He took a lot of pride in his work. He'd really go out of his way for you. If I wanted to see my last at-bat between innings, he'd have it ready for me. He was just a great person. He was very well liked."
But Nelson was in a lot of pain, too. Pain is the principal symptom of sickle cell anemia.
"Every day," Baines says. "Sometimes he was in so much pain, he'd have to remove his shoes."
"This past year his feet were swollen a lot," says his wife. "He was in a lot of pain. And he was tired of the pain. ... For as long as I've known him, Jeff had talked about having the operation [to correct his limp]. 'As soon as I get my insurance,' he would say."
He qualified for insurance coverage in September and had the operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in October, the day he turned 26. Nelson came out of the hospital with a surgical break in his left femur and a half-dozen pins in his leg. As new bone regenerated, the leg would lengthen and alleviate Nelson's limp. That was the hope.
By early December, however, he needed more surgery to reset one of the pins. As was the case in October, Nelson got a blood transfusion to keep his red-cell count at a safe level during surgery. But, says his wife, six days later, his body rejected the new blood. He died early last Friday.
"Since he was 17 he'd lived with the [shorter] leg," says his mother. "I didn't want him to have the surgery -- too many risks."
"Jeff knew what the risks were," says his wife. "As long as I've known Jeff, he's talked about getting his leg fixed."
Hendricks had heard Nelson express the same wish in the Orioles clubhouse, where he was surrounded by great athletes.
"We never looked at him as being handicapped," he says. "He fit right in, a very warm-hearted person. He was the most polite young man I've known in a long time. It was always 'Mr. Hendricks' or 'Mr. Miller' or 'Mr. Flanagan.' Harold [Baines] really embraced him. He was like a big brother to him."
"We'd be on the road and go into a restaurant," says Baines, "and Jeff looked so young, people thought he was my son."
Hendricks and Flanagan recalled an exquisite moment in what turned out to be Nelson's last summer with the team.
"It was early batting practice in Toronto," says Flanagan. "Early BP takes place between 1 and 2: 30 in the afternoon, and it's usually pretty boring. It's for guys who want extra hitting or minor-leaguers who might be up with the team. And anyway, Jeff's there with us."
"Eddie [Murray] had given him his first-base mitt," says Hendricks.
"Eddie'd given him the glove so he could shag some balls. So someone, one of the minor- leaguers up with the team -- [Jerry] Hairston, I think -- hits this lazy fly ball, and Jeff, with his heavy limp, comes up and catches it. It was the first time he caught one, and it was great."
"We gave him a standing ovation," says Hendricks.
Pub Date: 12/23/98