Welcome Back And Good Bye, Nellie

Jeff Nelson signed a minor-league contract with the New York Yankees Friday and then announced his retirement.  Wanting to retire as a Yankee, the 40-year-old Nelson ends his career as the pitcher with more post-season appearances than any other pitcher in the history of the game not named Mariano Rivera.

At the age of 25 in 1992, Jeffrey Allen Nelson, born in 1966 in Baltimore, Maryland, came up with the Seattle Mariners, where he logged a stout 81 innings in 66 games on his way to a 1-7 record and a 3.44 ERA.  The rangy pitcher went on to hurl four years in Seattle the first go-round, and got his first taste of the post-season in 1995, taking the loss in game one but advancing with his team as the Mariners knocked the Yankees out of the ALDS in five games.

In the ALCS, he appeared in three games and didn’t allow a run but Cleveland knocked Seattle out in six games.  Following the season, he was traded along with Tino Martinez and Jim Mercer to the Yankees for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock.  Thus began his contribution to a run of four World Series victories in five years.

Nelson saw a lot of work his first year in New York, with 74 1/3 innings in 73 games.  He went 4-4 and posted the worst ERA to that point of his career with a WHIP approaching 1.5.  In the ALDS with Texas, Nelson appeared in two games, throwing three and two-thirds innings.  He allowed two hits and gave up two walks, but also struck out five and didn’t allow a run as New York put Texas away in four games.

In the Game One of the 1996 ALCS against Baltimore, Nelson relieved Andy Pettite in the top of the eighth, retiring the side in order, followed by young Jeffrey Maier’s reach over the fence to assist Derek Jeter’s ball over the wall to tie the game in the bottom of the eigth, with Bernie walking off in the 11th.  Nelson took the loss in game two, coming on to replace David Cone in the Orioles seventh, giving up a two-run shot to Rafael Palmeiro after a double by Roberto Alomar.  He didn’t appear again as New York went on to win the pennant 4 games to 1.

Nelson pitched in games one, two and four of the World Series of the Braves.  He struck out five and allowed only one hit and one walk in 4 1/3 innings as New York one the series in six games.

His 1997 season saw even more work, with 77 games and 78 2/3 innings.  His ERA and WHIP dropped significantly, but his record fell to 3-7.  In the ALDS against Cleveland, he pitched four innings in four games, not allowing a run as the Tribe knocked the Yankees out in five.

Injuries reduced Nelson’s playing time in the 1998 and 1999 seasons.  In game two of the 1998 ALCS, Nelson gave up three runs facing only two batters as he took the loss.  However, he did not allow a run to score in his seven other appearances in the post-season on his way to his second ring, including working as a one-batter specialist in game four to strike out Greg Vaughn prior to Rivera coming in and closing out the sweep of the Padres in the WS.

Nelson was simply superb in the 1999 post-season, not allowing a run in nine games (5 innings, 3 hits, 2 walks) and appeared in all four world series games in the Yankees sweep of the Braves.

In 2000, Nelson saw his playing time back up to 73 games and though his walks were the highest total of his career, his ERA fell to 2.45 as he only gave up two home runs over 69 2/3 innings.  His post-season started off well against Oakland, where he didn’t allow a hit or a walk in his two appearances against the Athletics, and only 2 hits to go along with 6 strikeouts in games one and three of the ALCS against Seattle.  Things took a turn for the worse in the fifth inning of game five.  After the Mariners chased Denny Neagle on a bunt, a single, and a sac bunt to put runners at second and third, Nelson came on and promptly gave up a single to Alex Rodriguez to clear the bases, which was followed by back-to-back homers from Edgar Martinez and John Olerud.  Nelson’s day was done and he did not appear in the rest of the series as New York won the pennant in six games.

In the Subway Series against the Mets, Nelson gave up a hit and no runs in game one.  In game two, with the Yankees leading 6-0 on an incredible and controversial 8 inning, 2 hit, no walk, 9 strikeout performance (the one with the bench-clearing broken bat toss at/near Piazza) by Roger Clemens, Nelson took the ball for the top of the ninth.  Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a single.  Mike Piazza homered off the pole, and Robin Ventura singled to ceter.  Mo came on to shut things down, but the Mets wouldn’t go quietly.  Zeile almost homered but Clay Bellinger caught the ball at the top of the wall.  Benny Agbayani singled to advance Ventura, followed by a passed ball to advance the runners.  Lenny Harris hit a comebacker that Mo deflected to Jeter, who threw out Ventura at home.  Jay Payton homered, scoring Agbayani and Harris and bringing the Mets to within a run before Kurt Abbott was sat down looking to end the game.  Heart attack.

Nelson recorded the win in game four in relief of Neagle, which was Jeff’s last appearance on a winning World Series team as the Yankees took game five to secure the title.  After the 2000 season, Nelson was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.

During Seattle’s record-breaking 2001 season, Nellie was very effective out of the pen, compiling a 2.76 ERA and a 4-3 record, while making his first and only all-star appearance.  During the post-season, he continued to be excellent, appearing in five games and allowing only 2 hits and 2 walks over 5 2/3 while strking out 5, but it was not enough as the Yankees dashed Seattle’s dreams in the pennant.

In 2003, Nellie returned to New York in an early-August trade for Armando Benitez.  Not particularly effective in the regular season, the damage he could do was limited in that he appeared in just shy of 18 innings.  Against Minnesota in the ALDS, he walked the only batter he faced, Matt LeCroy, in game one.  The incredibly exciting ALCS against Boston saw Nellie get the ball in games 1, 4, 6, and 7.

In game one in the top of the seventh, he came on in relief of Felix Heredia, who had retired Bill Mueller for the first out of the inning.   After Nomar hit a dribbler that Posada rang up 2-3, Nelson gave up a single to Manny and then hit Ortiz, who advanced to second on a single by Kevin Millar that scored Manny.  Nelson was yanked for Gabe White.  A single by Nixon loaded the bases but the threat ended when Mirabelli hit into a FC; Boston already had enough offense and won the game 5-2

The Yankees took game two at The Stadium and game three at Fenway. Game four at Fenway saw Mussina facing Wakefield.  Moose was pretty good, but gave up 2 dingers. Wake was better.  Nelson came on after Heredia relieved Moose and inherited Heredia’s runner, but Nomar grounded into a double play to end the inning.  Scott Williamson came on for Timlin in the ninth and struck out Nick Johnson.  Ruben Sierra, pinch hitting for Aaron Boone, homered to bring the game to within a run, but Williamson retired Dave Delucci and Alfonso Soriano on strikeouts to record the save.

After New York took game five at Fenway, the ALCS headed back to Yankee Stadium with Alan Embree and Jose Contreras on the mound.  Holding a 6-4 lead heading into the seventh, the Yankees self-destructed on a throwing error by Matsui, a wild pitch, and a walk to Johnny Damon with bases loaded.  Nelson held serve in the eighth, but the damage was done as the Yankees did not score again and Boston added insurance with a Trot Nixon home run in the ninth off of White.

In game seven at Yankee Stadium, the series knotted up, my stomach completely destroyed, staff aces in Pedro and Rocket were on the mound.  Neither pitcher would figure in the decision.  Nellie pitched to Nomar in the seventh and Manny in the eighth, recording a strike out and ground out.  Wells gave up a homer to Papi to tie the game, which eventually went extra innings, and we all remember the 11th inning, fondly or horribly, depending on your perspective.

The Yankees lost every game (one, four, five) in which Nelson pitched in the Series against the Marlins, and though Nelson made it interesting at times giving up 4 hits and 2 walks, no runs were scored on his watch.  The Marlins went on to win the series, four games to two, as Josh Beckett pitched an unreal game six and captured series MVP honors for his two incredible starting performances, even though the first went for a loss.   That was the last time Nellie would see the post-season.

Free-agent stints in 2004 with Texas, 2005 with Seattle, and 2006 with Chicago (where he spent most of the season on the DL after a sign and release from St. Louis between the seasons) bring us to today.  By returning (in a rather non-standard fashion) to the Yankees, he comes back to the team where he cemented his reputation in history.  His 162 game averages over 15 seasons are respectable (68 games, 67 innings, 36 walks, 70 strikeouts, 3.41 ERA) but what he will be remembered for is his time in the post-season.  In twenty series, he appeared in 55 games, threw 54 1/3 innings, for a 2-3 record and a 2.65 ERA.

Is it worth spending this much time reflecting on a short relief pitcher?  I think it is.  In his time as a ball player, he found himself on the mound in the playoffs on more occasions except for the greatest modern reliever in the game.  It must have been a great trip, and I had a certainly had good time then watching, now reflecting, on the ride of Nellie.
Thanks, Jeff.

18 comments… add one
  • Are you pitching his bio AG? ;)

    walein January 13, 2007, 3:45 am
  • You forgot one great tidbit about Nelson. Remember when he auctioned the bone chips from his elbow off on Ebay?
    I’ll shall too miss him and his wacky delivery to the plate.

    Jason January 13, 2007, 4:08 am
  • …i don’t believe the retirement rumors…don’t be surprised if he winds up as a tag-team closer with timlin for the sox…

    dc January 13, 2007, 8:15 am
  • I think that we’ve stumbled onto a potential new revenue stream — “Retire as a Yankee” or “Retire as a Red Sox.” You could, for a fee, sign a minor league contract and then retire as a member of your favorite team.

    pastorsteve January 13, 2007, 8:30 am
  • It’s funny Walein. I started off just writing a paragraph, but when I started thinking about that wacky 2003 series against the Sox, things just spiraled out of control.

    attackgerbil January 13, 2007, 9:26 am
  • Awesome.

    YF January 13, 2007, 9:38 am
  • To me, you don’t retire as a (Insert team here) unless that team is the last one on your baseball card. I think in the long run, Nelson will be remembered as a Yankee, but not as a retired one.
    Though, who knows, it might give George an excuse to retire his number.

    Paul SF January 13, 2007, 2:10 pm
  • I agree with you in principle, Paul, regarding the retirement issue. It is a symbolic gesture that the Yankees agreed to and that is the part that I think is special. Nelson doesn’t deserve to have his number retired, but it’s obvious where his sentiment lies. He’s a fan of Yankees fans, grateful for what the team gave him the chance to do with his talent in hislife, and this is his way of saying so.
    Perhaps he sees an opportunity with the Yankees coaching organization and this is his way of saying, “Hey, remember me? Before Tino and I got here, you guys couldn’t do jack in October.” Seriously though, I think it’s a magnanimous move on both sides. He had a heck of a career and New York, for all the upset stomachs I remember him giving me, was fortunate to have him.
    Jason, I forgot about the bone chips. I’m glad you reminded me, because it’s just so silly. Didn’t eBay kill that auction because it was a body part? Hilarity.
    Some might say Nelson, if he was so enamored with the Yanks, should have taken New York’s 2001 offer instead of grabbing the money with Seattle. Fair enough, but then we would not have the fun of talking about Nellie’s Curse. And, Seattle offered a _lot_ more money for a middle-relief, short-work hurler. Living in the Pac NW, I can say that I tracked that 2001 Seattle run closely and watched a lot of games. That team was _really_ good, and so was he. What a thrill that season was.
    They’re not going to hang his number at Yankee Stadium v2.0, and I seriously doubt nor think he should qualify for a second year of HOF consideration when his turn comes. However, he is affixed in the minds of Yankee fans who got to see him pitch during that gripping five-year run. If he wants me to think he’s going out as a Yank, I can easily accommodate him.

    attackgerbil January 13, 2007, 3:04 pm
  • Sorry to be such a party pooper, but really, good riddance. I hated the guy and his stupid herky-jerky motion. The only good thing that came out of Nelson’s career was that idiotic “Cotton Eye Joe” thing a Nelson lookalike filmed for the Diamondvision at Yankee Stadium, hindering YFs’ abilities to critique any other stadium for having cretinous promotional videos.

    SF January 13, 2007, 3:13 pm
  • SF, you are not definitely not a party-pooper. Despite spending so much time (some may even reasonably think I’m doting) on him, I never liked him on the Yankees. He made me nervous. He made me sick. When Joe would call on him, I was always thinking, “I wonder how’s he gonna find a way to blow this one?”
    I got so petty that I began to despise him for his truly horrible mustache(?!). When he left, I was happy. When he came back for Benitez, I was PISSED, not that I liked Benitez, but come on? That’s the solution? He was like the cousin that I dreaded seeing at the family reunion. Now that it’s all said and done, I remember his time along the lines of, “you gotta dance with who brung ya,” and it was a good dance.

    attackgerbil January 13, 2007, 3:32 pm
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years the Yankees are doing a special “monument park” thing with the 98 team, etc… Boston will do it as well…again.

    walein January 13, 2007, 4:40 pm
  • Boston’s ’98 team wasn’t anything special, Walein.

    SF January 13, 2007, 4:48 pm
  • I’ve been living under the assumption that 98 were the salad days in Boston. I guess I was misinformed.

    walein January 13, 2007, 4:57 pm
  • Once again, great post gerb. Reading it made my night. Thanks
    And SF, ” The only good thing that came out of Nelson’s career was” the FOUR WS we won while he was here contributing. I agree that the “Cotton Eye Joe” routine sucks, though. It’s frickin’ embarassing…

    Anonymous January 13, 2007, 7:54 pm
  • that was me

    Andrews January 13, 2007, 7:56 pm
  • Any more embarassing then Sweet Caroline? (I am kidding, Cotton Eyed Joe is worse, but that’s like asking what’s worse a fanny pack or a members only jacket)

    Triskaidekaphobia January 14, 2007, 9:35 pm
  • LOL

    Andrews January 14, 2007, 9:57 pm
  • as much as jeff would like us to forget…. he spent the majority of 8 seasons in seattle, while spending parts of 6 seasons with the yankees. he should actually retire as a ’00 yankee. as long as he’s cherry picking he might wanna take his best year as well.

    sf rod January 15, 2007, 3:56 pm

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