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How Jason Kidd prepared Joe Nelson for his predicament

03.21.10 at 7:09 am ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — On Saturday, the dynamic of those competing for spots at the back of the Red Sox bullpen was suddenly altered. The arrival of Alan Embree meant that other pitchers trying to make an impression on team officials suddenly had to recalculate their odds.

Joe Nelson, after striking out the side in the ninth inning, made clear that he bore no ill will towards Embree, even though the veteran left-hander may ultimately cost him a job in the major leagues. Nelson stood up and assumed responsibility for his professional life. The only thing he could do was perform to the best of his abilities; if the Sox believed they had a superior alternative, then they had an obligation to pursue it.

“The Red Sox owe it to the people who own the team, Red Sox Nation, everybody on the team to exhaust every possible avenue,” said Nelson. “That’s their job, and that’s why they’re good at what they do. They’ll bring in a truck driver if he says he can throw 90 mph and throw a splitter. And if they check him out themselves and he can, they’ll probably keep him around for a little bit and look at him. They have to exhaust every avenue. That’s due diligence. I expect that from the organization that I’m with.

“I’m not rooting against [Scott Atchison] or [Brian Shouse] or [Embree]. We can only do what we’re capable of. In the end, the decision is going to come behind closed doors, and we’re not going to have any say in it besides what we do on the field,” he added.

That approach to adversity had been drummed into Nelson nearly two decades ago by an unlikely source. Nelson received an education in media communications as a high schooler when he played alongside future NBA star Jason Kidd in both baseball and basketball.

“The way he handled the media, press, pressure. Jason was the Gatorade player of the year. We played in front of 25,000 at the Oakland Coliseum when the Lakers weren’t drawing 25,000. The way he carried himself was a very good teaching tool for me as far as involvement with pro ball, how to deal with the media,” Nelson explained. “Jason was very accountable at a young age. When we lost, it was his fault. When we won, it was a team effort. That’s an admirable quality.”

Of course, Kidd’s skills were not limited to media management when he teamed with Nelson at St. Joseph’s Notre Dame High School in Alameda, Calif. (class of ’94). His athletic skills across sports were something to behold.

“He could have been a centerfielder in the big leagues or a running back in the NFL. Instead he chose to be a Hall of Fame basketball player. He was unbelievable. He was, without question, the best athlete I’ve ever been around. He was special,” said Nelson. “I watched him hit a ball about 500 feet and break an aluminum bat. The bat shattered in two, the ball went 500 feet. He was strong.”

Nelson played both baseball and basketball with Kidd. The 35-year-old pitcher acknowledges that his basketball skills lagged slightly behind what Kidd was capable of doing on a baseball field.

Nonetheless, Nelson received not only a fascinating lesson in professionalism from his high school teammate, but also became a footnote in history. Kidd owns the high school record for most career assists (1,155). And the player who made the shot that set the record was a certain two-guard who is now pitching for a job with the Red Sox.

“Unless I made a steal, I wasn’t involved in the offense too much,” said Nelson. “I hit the shot that broke the all-time assists record, one of about 10 buckets I made all year. Filling the lane, a little eight-foot bank off the glass. That was my job: playing defense, and filling the lane.”

Now, it is Nelson’s hope that his job in 2010 will be something more than that. He is hoping to continue a major league career that has withstood multiple year-long recoveries from labrum surgery.

He feels that he has found something in this camp, that he fixed a mechanical flaw that may allow him to regain the form that he showed in his career-best 2008 campaign, when he recorded a 2.00 ERA in 59 games for the Marlins. Nelson is convinced that he can contribute. And yet, as badly as he wants to make the Sox roster for Opening Day, he strikes the same professional tone that was taught to him before college.

“We all think we’re going to pitch in the big leagues. It may not be on our timetable, because we all want to be there April 4, and that’s probably not going to happen. Pitching now, I’m trying to make the team. If I don’t make it, I want to be the first one they call.”

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