Have a seat, exhale, and clear your head, because you might not hear another sentiment like this, uttered by a pro athlete, for, oh, maybe the next 23 years.

"A couple of people called us and told us we could have gotten more money," Chad Cordero said. "But I didn't want it. I didn't want more."

Wait. Check that. I didn't want more?! It's enough to have a membership to the club of professional athletes revoked. Yet as the words escaped Cordero's lips last week, they couldn't have sounded more genuine.

Cordero is the closer for the Washington Nationals. He has 31 saves, most in the majors, most at this point in the history of his franchise. He makes, in baseball terms, a pittance, though most 23-year-olds would be more than happy with a $346,500 salary. And tonight, in Detroit, he will suit up for the National League all-star team because, two years ago, he didn't want more money.

Consider the scene: On June 27, 2003, in the kitchen of the home of Edward and Patti Cordero, nestled in the working class town of Chino, Calif., the Cordero family hosted Tony Siegle, the assistant general manager of the Montreal Expos, and Tony Arango, one of the Expos' scouts. The oldest of Edward and Patti's four children, Chad, was there. One of his brothers and his sister, Ashley, were too. Yet there was no agent. Heresy, in the business of baseball.

"We didn't want an agent," Edward Cordero said. "An agent can basically tell you 'yes' or 'no.' We wanted to hear for ourselves."

Patti Cordero offered drinks.

"Water, please," Arango said.

"No thank you," Siegle said.

The simple interactions that began one of the simplest contract negotiations in baseball history.

The Expos selected Cordero with the 20th pick in the 2003 draft. Then 21, he pitched his school, Cal State Fullerton, into the College World Series. After the college season, the Expos gave him a week or so, "just to relax," Cordero said. Not that he wanted to.

"He kept asking me," Edward Cordero said, " 'When are they coming? When are they coming?' "

So Siegle and Arango finally arrived in Chino, where the Cordero family made up six of the 70,000 or so residents.

"Just a lovely family," Siegle said.

And here came Siegle's hard sell. The Expos, he told the Corderos, were owned by Major League Baseball. The team's finances were limited. They could pay him about what the 20th pick in the draft would normally earn -- a $1.35 million signing bonus -- but not a penny more. The attractions: The Expos' farm system was so bereft of talent that, if Cordero signed quickly, and pitched well in the minors, he could rise to the big leagues much more rapidly than with another franchise.

Siegle finished his presentation, and held his breath. "You never know how they're going to react," he said. "You hear kids are ready to sign, but when you get into the living room, that can all change."

By all accounts, the exchange that followed went something like this.

"Well, Chad, what do you think?" Edward asked.

"Dad," Chad said, "that's more money than I thought I'd ever see."

So he signed, right there.

"I had tears in my eyes," said Siegle, who has been in baseball for 40 years. "Even now, when I think about it. It was one of the most electrifying experiences for me to hear a young kid say that. I knew we had something. If nothing else, we had a quality human being here."

What they found, much more quickly than they expected, was that they also had a quality pitcher. When baseball fans across the nation are introduced to Cordero tonight, should he enter the game, they might be looking for an exploding 95-mph fastball that would warrant 31 saves, six more than anyone else in baseball. They better look elsewhere.

Cordero's best pitch is, in fact, his fastball. At one point, as he saved all 15 of his opportunities in June to tie a major league record for saves in a month, he said he was throwing the fastball almost exclusively. Except it doesn't explode up in the strike zone. It comes in at 91 mph, and darts a bit. Sometimes, when he reaches back and the radar gun is kind, he might hit 93. Not often.

So how can this happen?

"His fastball is deceiving," Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "It's where it comes from. He's a short-armer. Short-arm guys, they have that deception. It comes from behind the head, so the hitter doesn't see it till real late. When you get a long-arm guy, hitters see it for a long time. With Chad, you don't see it till the last minute."

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson first handed the closer's job to Cordero in June of last year, and he responded by saving 14 of 18 opportunities as an Expos rookie. The assessment throughout the organization -- which moved from Montreal to Washington in the offseason -- was fairly universal: Not bad. Yet when the club assembled for its first spring training as the Nationals, Robinson didn't want to just hand Cordero the job at 23.

"He needed to earn it," Robinson said. That he did, a feat at which Robinson wasn't surprised. But what has happened since?

"I don't think any of the people who saw him in spring training could envision him being at 31 saves at this time," Robinson said. "I couldn't. But I knew he was pretty good."

He got good on the fields in Chino, hopping the fence of his grandparents' backyard to go play baseball in a baseball family. Edward Cordero, a Chino native who drives a bread truck to this day, used to motor some 10 hours to San Francisco "just to boo the Giants," Chad said. Patti Cordero grew up in Chino as well, one of five girls, but was never far from a softball field. So it wasn't surprising when Chad, as soon as he started walking, picked up anything and turned it into a bat.

"A broom," Patti said. "A flyswatter."

And early on, on those fields in Chino, he showed some of the qualities he has displayed this year, a calm that belies the situation. Any serious Nationals fan remembers the June night in Anaheim when Cordero entered a 1-0 game in the bottom of the ninth, allowed a single, a walk, and a single to load the bases -- and even fell down on the mound in the process -- yet followed it all with a strikeout, a short fly ball and another strikeout. Ho-hum, another save.

"He's the same if we have a 10-run lead or a one-run lead," catcher Brian Schneider said. "The same if there's no one on or runners all over the place."

That all started in Chino. When he was 10, he played in Little League with 11- and 12-year-olds. Edward remembers one instance when he came in to pitch and allowed a grand slam to the opposing team's best hitter, a 12-year-old. The game ended up going to extra innings, and Chad had to face the same kid again.

"It didn't faze him," Edward Cordero said.

He struck him out.

"It takes a special person to be a closer," St. Claire said. "They don't get too high, too low. It doesn't matter who's coming to the plate. They pitch their plan. And he's got that special demeanor."

Off the field, too. Find something that's different about Cordero now that he's wealthy, now that he borders on famous, and it's a tough search. He and his roommate, fellow reliever Gary Majewski, stop every day on the way to the park for a Slurpee. He doesn't have a favorite flavor, so he mixes all of them together. A little kid.

"He's not a materialistic kid," Patti Cordero said. "He's just mellow." He bought a house, in Fullerton, and filled it with tenants -- his brother Matt, some former teammates with the Titans. He bought a new car. Now that he's a big leaguer -- an all-star, for goodness sake -- there must be other changes.

"He doesn't really know how much he has," his mother said. "Now, he has an agent handling it, so it's taken care of. I know he buys CDs. Even clothes-wise. I know he was into the plaid shirts," and, as anyone who wanders through the Nationals' clubhouse knows, he still is -- short-sleeve button-downs that he leaves untucked.

"Let me buy you some clothes," Patti has pleaded before.

"No, mom," Chad responds. "You don't need to buy me anything."

Because money could not buy the opportunity Cordero has, not only tonight, but for the rest of the season, closing games for a first-place team, a kid in the heart of a pennant race. What if he had held out for more money?

"This is where you want to be," Cordero said last week, sitting in the Nationals' clubhouse at RFK Stadium. "I could've held out, maybe signed for $2 million, but I might have been in the minor leagues for a couple years, and then I would've never made it up here.

"They told me I had a chance. I was like, 'I'll take it.' Why not?"

Washington Nationals 23-year-old all-star closer Chad Cordero leads the major leagues with 31 saves. In 472/3 innings, he has 42 strikeouts and a 1.13 ERA.