By: Jeff Bradley
Summer nights in Cleveland, it’s not quite dark when the eighth inning turns into the ninth. That’s life on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone. The sky remains a brilliant blue as Bob Wickman makes his way through the gate in the right-centerfield fence at Jacobs Field. With the sun still shining on the stadium’s third deck, it’s easy for the burly closer to follow his routine.
"Watch Bob when he comes into a game," says Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "Watch the way he takes a second to look around the ballpark. He looks to the upper deck. The people sitting up there are the ones who drive him. They’re Wicky’s people. He even looks like one of them. And I think that’s part of his appeal."
Even in this rusty factory town, Robert Joe (not Joseph) Wickman is the ultimate Regular Guy. This is a man who embodies—all 6'1”, 240-plus pounds of him—why baseball is as much a game as it is a sport. If he weren’t finishing off wins night after night for the up-and-coming Indians, Wickman might be making a run for the Triple Crown (in darts, foosball and shuffleboard) at his favorite tavern in northern Wisconsin, where he’s well known for buying rounds for the house. Or he might be kicking butt in the local bowling league. Or taking on all corners in a backyard game of horseshoes. You get the idea.
See, from Wickman's point of view—60 feet 6 inches away from home plate—baseball bears more of a resemblance to darts (or bowling or horseshoes) than to, say, track and field. It's just another game of skill. The pitcher doesn't need to outrun or out-jump the guy at the plate. He just has to get him out, and it doesn’t matter how. This is why, throughout baseball’s history, from Jumbo Brown to Bartolo Colon, we’ve seen first-rate pitchers who took like they’re better suited to beer-league softball. As David Wells once said, “I don’t have to walk the ball to the plate.” The 36-year-old Wickman is a closer, but he’s also very much a setup man: he sets up hitters by not looking the part. Like the golfer with the funky swing who rolls in every money putt, or the first baseman in your company’s league who couldn’t even make his high school JV but can dink the ball into short leftfield on cue, Wickman somehow gets the job done. Whatever it takes.
And sometimes it takes guile. On May 3 in Minnesota, Wickman was protecting a two-run lead in the ninth. Convinced the runner on second, Michael Cuddyer, was stealing signs from catcher Victor Martinez, Wickman intentionally balked Cuddyer to third before closing out the game. “The first balk of my career,” Wickman said afterward. “But he can’t call pitches from third, can he?”
Wickman does almost nothing the conventional way. He’s among the AL save leaders even though he can barely nudge his fastball past 90 mph. He’s a three-out pitcher who allows almost a baserunner-and-a-half an inning. He relies on a sinker some days and a slider on others. He can’t realty grip a four-seam fastball correctly (more on that later), but he throws one anyway. He missed the entire 2003 season and half of 2004 after Tommy John surgery, and was practically resigned to retirement. And, yeah, for whatever it’s worth, he could walk into your neighborhood Home Depot and jump on a forklift, and no one would check his ID.
“You know, it takes more than good stuff to handle the ninth inning,” Shapiro says, looking down at the field from the deck of his suite. “It takes strength and toughness. It may not always be pretty, neat, or easy with Bob, but you know he’s not scared.”
He certainly doesn’t look scared. He looks like he’s from my neighborhood,” says Joe Ladd, a postal worker and Cleveland native who heads up Wickman's Warriors (Local 26), a fan club that inhabits a chunk of the bleachers at The Jake and a piece of real estate on the web at wickmanswarriors.com. “And when you talk to him before a game, it’s like you’re talking over the fence to your neighbor. He doesn’t act like he’s any better than you. I think the fans here see Bob as a pure Midwesterner, a real meat-and- potatoes guy.”
Now that you mention it ... the subject of his diet is a sensitive one for Wickman, and has been since his early days with the Yankees, when George Steinbrenner put weight-related clauses in his contract and ordered mandatory weigh-ins. Like a wrestler trying to shed pounds for a competition, Wickman used to sit in the sauna wearing a rubberized jacket before stepping onto the scale. That was back when he couldn’t afford to ignore a $10,000 bonus—or risk the wrath of The Boss. Problem was, the heat sapped his strength and energy. Soon after he was traded to the Brewers in August, 1996 (which removed him from the Yankees’ run to their first World Series championship in 18 years), Wickman decided it was more important to feel good on the mound than to look good in his uniform.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” he says. “My weight is going to be an issue for the rest of my life. In my family, we’re just big,” And while he tries to take the fat jokes, catcalls, and criticism in stride, Wickman says he’d rather people call him a lousy pitcher than cast aspersions on his work ethic. “Say I stink or I’m not throwing well,” he says. “Just don’t say I don’t work hard. I promise you, I’m not the least bit lazy. But it seems with me, or any big guy, when things don’t go well, or if I get hurt, it’s always a weight issue. A lot of not-so-big guys don’t do well and get hurt too.”
much of a complaint as you’ll ever hear from Wickman. This is a guy who, as a
toddler growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, lost the last section of his right
index finger when he stuck it into a compressor. Scouts used to wonder aloud if
the shortened finger explained why he had such a natural sinker but couldn’t
manage to throw a true four-seamer. Wickman has never questioned the reason for
his sinker, but he did learn to throw the four-seamer by putting extra pressure
on the ball with his middle finger. “I throw it like a cut fastball,” he
says. “It just doesn’t cut. It goes straight.”
career has been built on making do. Before undergoing elbow reconstruction in
December, 2002, he couldn’t extend his arm with out losing the feeling for the
ball. He battled through much of the ‘02 season, taking the mound night after
night without his best stuff. “I basically just threw my slider,” Wickman
says, cocking his elbow to show how he could short-arm the ball to the plate.
“That didn’t hurt as much. I figured if this is how I’ve got to pitch,
then so be it.”
had signed Wickman to a three- year, $15.9 million contract before that season,
and when he finally went on the DL, he felt guilty about not being able to earn
his money. Last winter, after he saved 13 games in 14 opportunities in the
second half of the 2004 season, he discovered other teams were interested in his
services. But instead of selling himself to the highest bidder, Wickman called
Shapiro and said, “I owe you guys. He signed a one-year, $2.75 million
contract. “A one-year deal gave me more peace of mind,” he says.
are happy to have the big guy back. “He’s meant everything to this team,
especially this bullpen,” says setup man David Riske, who filled the
closer’s role at times in Wickman’s absence, not a good time for
Cleveland’s relief corps. Before the All-Star break in 2004, the Indians blew
21 saves. In the year since Wickman’s return, they’ve blown 17. Wickman is
looking sharp off the field, as well. “He told me he went out on a limb and
bought a second suit jacket for road trips,” Riske says. “For a long time,
he only had one.”
Will he be
wearing them in Cleveland? Not necessarily. Wickman, who will be 37 in February,
is taking it year to year. He and his wife, Sue, and their three young children,
Kaylee, Ryan and Ethan, will sit down this winter and decide whether to sign
another short-term deal. If not, they’ll settle into a quiet life of hunting,
ice-fishing, and baseball-watching at their home in Wausaukee, 45 minutes north
of Green Bay. “I got a taste of family life when I couldn’t play,” Wickman
says. “I’ll be fine with it.”
Because that’s what Regular Guys do.
He wasn't even sure if he wanted to pitch this season.
At the end of last season, he gave serious thought to retiring, he and his worn-out elbow trudging home to Green Bay, where he'd split time in the winter between ice fishing and watching the Packers.
In the summers, he would be a full-time father and husband. Just another neighborhood nobody. A regular guy next door.
Heck, he already has the perfect body for that. He's bald, chunky and he likes to laugh.
He's the uncle you always wished you had.
Bob Wickman would also make a perfect neighbor - when the time comes. But until then he'll just while away the hours by ... leading the American League in saves?
The Indians' player who most looks like an Indians fan is the Indians player most deserving of a selection to the AL All-Star team.
Just don't ask him about it.
"I never give it a thought," said Wickman. "I've got more important things to worry about - like being one game out in the wild-card race."
Two years after his career was possibly over, and one season after he missed half a season because his elbow had to be surgically reconstructed, Wickman is leading the American League in saves.
To this point in the season, he is the Indians' Most Valuable Player. He's the most valuable component in the most valuable segment of the team.
The Indians' bullpen has carried the Indians for most of this season, and Wickman's presence has carried the bullpen.
He went into Monday night's game with a league-leading 20 saves, and he's on pace to threaten Jose Mesa's single-season team record for saves, which is 46, set in 1995.
Wickman's return has given the Indians' bullpen an anchor, around which the front office has rebuilt the pen - much like surgeons rebuilt Wickman's elbow during Tommy John surgery in December of 2002.
The results have been spectacular. The Indians lead the league in bullpen earned-run average, and Wickman leads the league in saves.
Not bad for a 36-year-old, 240-pound, 12-year veteran with the body of a beer truck driver and a heart the size of, well, a beer truck.
Asked what makes Wickman so Wickman, Manager Eric Wedge said, "The No. 1 thing is the way he handles things on the mound. He looks everything in the eye. He's able to handle success and failure."
Of course, all closers can handle success. Who can't?
Learning to handle failure is what separates elite closers from John Rocker.
Elite closers have short memories. Blown saves quickly become yesterday's news.
Wickman hasn't blown many since returning from the operating room. But when he does blow one, he doesn't hide. He stands manfully in front of his locker following the game, waiting for the arrival of the reporters, wanting to know what went wrong.
It's almost therapeutic for Wickman to talk about a blown save, like it's the first step in turning the page.
Certainly, he's turned the page from those pain-wracked, pre-surgery days when his elbow groaned and barked every time he delivered a 93-to-95 mph fastball.
But those days are now gone. So is the pain and, unfortunately, the velocity.
"My stuff isn't the same as it was, but there's also no pain now," he said. "I don't throw as hard as I used to, and the slider velocity isn't what it used to be."
Because of that, Wickman no longer throws the slider, right?
"I still throw it," he says, matter-of-factly. "It's too late in my career to try to develop a new pitch."
That's vintage Wickman: admitting he lacks the bullets - but firing away, anyway. Damn the torpedoes!
Elite closers have two qualities that make them elite closers. They have short memories, and they are utterly fearless.
You can't close scared. Those who try eventually become middle relievers or minor-league coaches.
Wickman? He may go down, but it will be with guns blazing.
"In spring training every year," he said, "I figure out what I have to work with year to year, and I go with that."
Whatever "that" is.
Sometimes it's good "that" and sometimes it isn't. Either way, Wickman fearlessly goes with it.
Over and over and over again.
So far this year, it's working.
And he's working - perhaps towards a berth on the AL All-Star team, and maybe even claiming his own page in the Indians' record book.
The career? He now takes it year-to-year. He'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
To this point, however, it appears he made the right call in deciding not to retire last winter.
Or did he?
"Who knows?" said Wickman. "I've got to finish the season healthy before I can say that."
Whether that happens or not, when Wickman finally does decide to retire and go home to Green Bay, it will be only because he is out of bullets, not guts.
©The News-Herald 2005
For: MARK SHAPIRO February 3, 2004
First off, how's the Wickster?
Great. He's healthy, the elbow is strong, the body is good and he's ready to roll.
Is he here in Cleveland for his winter workouts?
Yeah, he's in shape and getting after it down in the weight room every day.
Is he over the Packers' loss to the Eagles in the playoffs yet?
(laughs) I think so because a team of the Patriots caliber won. No matter what I'll keep letting him know that my team won the Super Bowl and his team went home early.
Wick was throwing his fastball 255 days after going under the knife. Sounds like he's done a remarkable job on his rehab.
He stuck to the rehab to the letter and has done some extra things wherever possible to bolster his conditioning. He and we expect him to be 100% by opening day.
Tommy John surgery has really advanced in recent years to where it's a fairly common procedure.
Yeah, I think you can expect a guy to be throwing within 10 months and usually healthy in about 18 months. I think at some point late spring, early summer Bob should be 100%.
Most pitchers have the surgery shortly after being diagnosed with the injury, but Bob had to wait 4 months just for the swelling to subside. He quietly endured a lot of pain to save 20 games for a bad 2002 team. What's that say about his character?
There's no question about his heart or character-they've always been among his greatest strengths.
You and Eric Wedge must have tremendous confidence in Bob's ability to resume his role as closer. Even though Bob is still untested for 2004, you still had enough faith in him to let Danys Baez go. How difficult was that decision?
Some of the financial realities of the game and our team factored into that, but Bob's a proven closer. We have confidence in who he is as a person and what he's done in the past.
Then it wasn't strictly a money move?
No. It was a combination of monetary issues as well as Bob's track record.
Hindsight is easy, but do you regret not keeping Baez as a starter for 2003 and going "closer by committee" until Bob's return?
If Bob makes a full recovery and returns his 2001 form but the team struggles, will we begin to hear trade rumors come July?
There are provisions in his contract that would make it tough to trade him. I won't comment except to say if he's a veteran player that's reliable and dependable I'm sure teams will come calling with interest.
Will budget constraints and Bob's contract make it virtually impossible for him to return to the Indians in 2005?
I would not at all say that- we'll have a lot of budget flexibility next year. But it's not even appropriate to think about 2005 until we know how the 2004 team has developed. It's less about him individually and more about our team's progress.
OK, on to some of the other players:
I had a chance to see Grady Sizemore play in Akron while on the Wickman Rehab Tour last August. He really stands out, doesn't he?
He's a special player with the intangibles and athleticism to be a longtime major league player.
Do you have a timetable for bringing him up later this year?
No. Players that age determine their own timetable with the way they play.
The injury that Ricky Gutierrez sustained 2 years ago was frightening. What's his outlook for 2004?
He is beyond any expectations, committed to his rehab program and giving himself every possibility of making the team this year.
I can see a healthy Matt Lawton having a big year. What's his health status?
His health status is 100% he's in shape and healthy. He's going to hit-he's going to produce. He's been a proven hitter his whole career.
Will he bat leadoff?
I don't know. That will be up to Eric Wedge, not me. It's certainly one alternative.
Finding a solid leadoff hitter must be almost as tough as finding good pitching.
Very hard-the prototypical guy is hard to find in this game.
I guess there aren't many Kenny Loftons out there.
No, not at all.
I haven't heard a lot about Jody Gerut's injury during the off-season. Should we be concerned?
No. That's why you haven't heard a lot. It's relatively minor.
Last year at this time we were talking about Ricardo Rodriguez being the next Pedro Martinez. Then it seemed as though the Indians gave up on the steal of the Shuey trade overnight. Was there a problem with him behind the scenes?
It had more to do with how we felt about acquiring the player we acquired. Obviously there are always feelings about the player that was traded, but it never does any good to discuss those publicly, and you never make an effort to try and justify a trade. It was more about the player that we acquired than the player we gave up.
Which was Ryan Ludwick. How's he doing, by the way?
Good. He's a little behind, though.
Were you disappointed losing Brian Anderson to Kansas City?
Yes. He's a good guy-one of the best.
Did the Royals overpay for him?
You never know. Probably not, he's a dependable and reliable pitcher and a quality human being, but it was more than we could afford. I wouldn't say that they overpaid.
What role will John McDonald play in '04?
He'll be a utility player most likely. Spring Training will determine his role.
What's the catcher situation look like? Is Victor Martinez ready for a fulltime role?
I believe so but that will be determined in Spring Training also.
The Indians' cost -cutting the last couple of years has made you an easy target for your critics. Is it frustrating for you to hear charges that the team isn't doing anything on the trade and free agent front, or that Larry Dolan isn't spending enough for talent?
In my position I've got to put my head down and not listen to the critics and just focus on what we're trying to do and how we're trying to get there, and stay consistent and very patient because that's what this game demands to achieve success and stay on course. If we do that and we don't listen to our critics and focus on our internal plan then we'll achieve it and ultimately they'll jump on board in the end. This game is not about putting your finger in the air to see where the currents are going; it's about having a plan and a strategy and sticking with it. That's what we're doing.