PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays left-hander Erik Bedard said he easily could be an elevator mechanic right now had it not been for a spontaneous, seven-hour road trip he took with a buddy almost 17 years ago.
Repairing elevators is the family business. His father, Normand, did it for 35 years, and his brother, Mark, is still working the trade in Bedard's rural hometown, Navan, Ontario, 20 miles outside of Ottawa.
Bedard, 34, never thought about playing college baseball, much less playing in the big leagues. But when his friend, catcher Rock Seguin, said in the summer of 1997 he was heading for a walk-on tryout with a Connecticut community college, Bedard asked if they needed a pitcher.
"If they liked me, fine," Bedard thought. "If it doesn't work out, no big deal."
Back then, Bedard was a 6-foot, 150-pound string bean, and his fastball topped out at 78 mph. But the coaches at Norwalk Community College saw potential.
Turns out, they were right. Bedard, in his 10th big-league season, is competing with Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome for the fifth spot in the Rays' rotation.
"Where I'm at right now, there's a lot of luck involved," Bedard said. "Right place, right time."
Not a lot went right in Bedard's Rays debut Friday against the Orioles. He allowed three runs, three hits and two walks in a 25-pitch first inning. Bedard said spring results aren't always indicative of how well a pitcher performs, saying he felt good and threw strikes.
And the Rays, who signed Bedard to a minor-league deal, believe brighter days are ahead. They looked beyond the numbers of Bedard's rough 2013, when he went 4-12 with a 4.59 ERA with the 111-loss Astros. Manager Joe Maddon said Bedard was "victimized" by a defense that committed a majors-most 125 errors and that pitching in front of the Rays' Gold Glove-caliber infield can make a huge difference.
Bedard, who has had three shoulder surgeries, feels healthy, and the Rays have ideas about how he can be better.
"If you look at the actual pitches and what they do, it's still pretty darn good," Maddon said. "So easily looking at a statistical analysis on the surface from last year, (you) would say, 'This guy had a bad season,' but we don't think he did."
Maddon has always been a big fan of Bedard, who spent his first five seasons in Baltimore after getting drafted in the sixth round in 1999. Maddon recalled how Bedard would navigate through the American League East lineups by being able to throw pitches other than fastballs in fastball counts.
"He was uncanny at that," Maddon said, "and that's why I thought he really ruled when he was in Baltimore."
Though Bedard's fastball sits in the low 90s, catcher Ryan Hanigan said the pitcher is not just a crafty veteran. His pitches have plenty of life, Hanigan said. If he doesn't crack the rotation, Bedard could end up the long man in the bullpen.
"I'd love to play here," Bedard said.
Bedard appreciates the opportunity. His phone was quiet until early February, when the Rays called because starter Jeremy Hellickson will miss the first six to eight weeks after elbow surgery. Bedard signed just before camp, and his gregarious personality and passion for hunting have helped him blend in.
"I think he fits in really well here," Maddon said.
Bedard said he still thinks about how it all started, that car ride with Seguin, who ended up playing just one year at Norwalk.
Bedard, who had grown 5 inches the summer before his freshman year at Norwalk, said his serendipitous growth spurt helped him add about 8 mph to his fastball.
"One of the scouts said, 'You need to hit 90 at least to get drafted,' " Bedard said. "I hit it one time, I think.
"The rest is history."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]