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Not sleepless in Seattle

The Baltimore Sun

SEATTLE -- Two boys and a girl stand next to a massive promotional photo outside Safeco Field and smile widely for their father's camera.

Five feet to the right of them looms a similar-sized picture of Ichiro Suzuki, currently the most popular athlete in the Emerald City.

But Ichiro's pensive mug doesn't get a second glance.

On this morning, the father wants to forever preserve the moment in which his kids first stood beside Erik Bedard's Seattle Mariners mural.

In a city that hasn't tasted a World Series in the club's 31-year history, Bedard isn't just the new face, a quality left-handed starter acquired from the Orioles in February.

Here, Bedard is undeniable hope, that elusive ticket for the Mariners' October odyssey. Or, as one Seattle columnist referred to him, he's "a reluctant pitching messiah."

"I definitely have noticed it," Bedard said of the city's exalted expectations. "Everyone is talking about it."

And how does that sit with the reticent, small-town Canadian? "I ain't God. I ain't going to do miracles here," said Bedard, who makes his second start of the season for Seattle Sunday against his old teammates at Camden Yards. "I am going to do my best and try to do what I did last year and if it happens it happens."

Seattle fans, of course, are banking that it happens. After all, their organization dealt away five promising players for Bedard including potential All-Star outfielder Adam Jones and rock-solid reliever George Sherrill.

"Everybody is viewing how the trade went down and how many guys [were involved]. People put pressure on that just because there were five guys," Bedard said. "But, for me, I don't feel like that. I just see it as an opportunity to win ballgames."

The excitement was palpable when he took the mound Opening Day and received an ovation that nearly rivaled Ichiro's. Bedard struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches and the Safeco Field crowd went giddy. Ultimately, he struggled with his control and lasted only five innings, surrendering one run in a game the Mariners eventually won. Yet it seemed to be a disappointment.

It's as if the only walks he is allowed are on water.

"When you make a trade of that magnitude, the fans are expecting an excellent result all the time," said Mariners manager John McLaren. "They want perfection every time. Fair or unfair, that's the way it is."

The good news for Seattle is that Bedard won't get caught up in the frenzy.

"There is definitely a lot of pressure being put on him and he is being viewed as the savior," said Mariners starter Jarrod Washburn. "But I don't think he cares. I don't think he pays attention."

Does he? "No," Bedard said without hesitation.

Taciturn and even-tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism sprinkled in, does he have the perfect personality for dealing with such expectations? "I guess you could say that," he said with a shrug.

That's the Bedard Baltimore knows, the one the city watched grow from project to ace. He doesn't want to overanalyze. He doesn't want to be bothered by probing questions from the media. He just wants to pitch.

He illustrated that point in his second start of the exhibition season when he greeted Seattle media members in Arizona with the instruction that they could ask only four questions. When one veteran scribe countered, "Why four?" Bedard responded with "That's one. You've only got three left."

He then answered four full questions, but as soon as No. 4 was complete, he said, "That's it. Four. Later." And he walked away.

Bedard laughed playfully while recounting the incident and said, "I'm not going to change. Same old Erik."

That's what Seattle is hoping for - on the field anyway.

Last season, Bedard, 29, emerged as a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate with a 13-5 record and career highs in ERA (3.16) and strikeouts (221). The elevated status made him the key to the Orioles' rebuilding effort, and he was shipped off to the highest bidder two seasons before free agency. Like everything, Bedard took the trade in stride.

"No one wants to be a part of [rebuilding]," Bedard said. "It's not that I didn't like it over there, it's just that's what they were trying to do and I respect that."

Drafted by the Orioles in 1999 and a major leaguer by 2002, Bedard said he wasn't looking for a change of scenery. But now that he's on a team that won 88 games in 2007, he has embraced the move.

"It's different because you actually have a chance to win, a chance to make the playoffs. That's a huge difference because you're all competing and everyone is upbeat," Bedard said. "It's just hard to explain. There's just a different vibe in the clubhouse."

Like in Baltimore, he's fitting in just fine.

"He kind of stays to himself, but everybody gets along with him," said Mariners reliever Roy Corcoran, who immediately bonded with Bedard this spring. "He doesn't open his mouth a whole lot, which a lot of people like."

Although introverted, Bedard made plenty of buddies on the Orioles. He admits it will be strange for him to be in the visitors' dugout this weekend.

"I played with those guys for a couple years and they are good friends. It is going to be fun to go back and pitch against them," Bedard said.

The toughest part Sunday, he said, might be keeping a straight face while competing against ex-teammates such as Aubrey Huff and Kevin Millar. Especially Millar, the Orioles' clubhouse clown.

"I'm going to try not to laugh, because I know he is going to be saying something, yelling at me," Bedard said.

He's not sure, however, what the reaction will be from the Camden Yards crowd. For now, he is the enemy, trying to take down the Orioles.

"I don't know if they're going to boo or cheer," Bedard said. "You never know."

In Baltimore, Bedard will be remembered as the best homegrown pitcher since Mike Mussina, and as a guy the club had to sacrifice to get better in the future.

In Seattle, for now anyway, he's much more. He's the mystery man being asked to steer the Mariners into the uncharted waters of the World Series.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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