Braves excited about      improved 'pen

 LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Braves pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training on Thursday, it had been 136 days since closer Bob Wickman put an end to a disappointing 2006 season in a perfect manner.

Wickman's perfect ninth inning against the Astros on Oct. 1 sent the Braves into the offseason feeling optimistic about the future. That optimism was taken to a higher level during the winter months, when much-heralded relievers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano were added to the new and vastly improved bullpen.

With little surprise, it was this new-look bullpen that was drawing much of the attention as pitchers, catchers and some early-arriving position players filtered into Disney's Wide World of Sports complex Thursday.

"I think everybody is excited to see how [the bullpen] looks," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It's certainly something [general manager] John [Schuerholz] worked hard to improve."

While Thursday was simply the day pitchers and catchers had to confirm they'd arrived in the Orlando area, many of them had arrived earlier this week. Tim Hudson, who is looking to bounce back from a mediocre 2006 season, took advantage of Wednesday's sunny skies by playing catch with some of his younger teammates.

Having seen their run of 14 consecutive division titles end in 2006, the Braves entered this offseason with a chip on their shoulder. Now, with a much-improved bullpen to support a starting rotation that is headed by John Smoltz, Hudson and Mike Hampton, they are confident that they can dethrone the Mets as National League East champions.  The Braves will open their exhibition season on Feb. 28 against Georgia Tech. Their Grapefruit League season will begin the following afternoon with a home game against the Dodgers.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Wickman himself gives the Braves the kind of proven, veteran stability in the closer's role that they lacked in the first half of 2006. "He made a world of difference, just one guy," Cox said.

In his 28 appearances with Atlanta, Wickman had a 1.04 ERA. He was happy to come to an organization with the Braves' stature, but he had some initial misgivings.

"I was doing OK in the American League last year, but in Interleague Play, I stunk," he said. "I got rocked against the Brewers, I got rocked against Cincinnati, so getting traded over here, I'm thinking: 'I'm struggling with the National League right now.' But things came together.

"Knock on wood, things were going good last year, I got into a good groove and was able to carry it through the end of the season, and it was pretty easy to sign back with these guys."

In fact, Wickman was offered a two-year contract by the Braves. Players simply don't turn down additional contract years in normal circumstances, but Wickman did in this case. That decision tells you something about Wickman, who does not put his personal interests before those of the organization.  

"I was offered a two-year deal here and I said no to it -- we're just going to go a year at a time," Wickman said. "If something happens with my age [38] and stuff like that, I've never had a track record of getting hurt, other than the Tommy John [elbow ligament replacement] surgery, but if I just don't feel good at the end of the season, I'm not going to go through the embarrassment, letting the organization down after signing a big contract. I felt guilty getting hurt when I had a three-year deal with the Indians. But if I'm healthy, yes, 100 percent, I'll keep playing."

  2-28-07  Wickman's schedule: Having spent each of the past 13 seasons as a Major League reliever, Bob Wickman has earned the right to personalize his preparations for the regular season. Thus, he's chosen not to throw batting practice yet and it's still unknown when he'll make his first exhibition-season appearance.

But Wickman, who converted 18 of the 19 save opportunities he had with the Braves last year, has made a positive impression with some of his bullpen sessions. From the first day pitchers and catchers worked out, Cox has been pleased with the precise mechanics his veteran closer has displayed.

"I'm amazed because anybody who has been around that long would throw that good the very first day that he got here," said Cox, after saying he was once again impressed with Wickman's bullpen session on Wednesday.

3-3-07: Closer Bob Wickman's preseason preparations are a little different than the ones utilized by most pitchers. He never throws off a mound until camp begins and often he doesn't pitch in Grapefruit League games until the final weeks of the exhibition season.

Two days ago, he decided to slightly alter his preparations by pitching in Friday's game. After surrendering the Pirates two infield singles in a scoreless inning, he proclaimed his satisfaction came from the fact that unlike many other pitchers, he truly does concern himself with the results he produces in the exhibition season.

"Luckily the outcome was good," Wickman said. "You don't ever want to give up a run. I don't play that [stuff] where people say it's just Spring Training or anything like that. I'm working on stuff right out of the shoot."

Wickman, who showed the Pirates a number of curveballs, has been using his pre-camp approach for about eight years. The 38-year-old right-hander believes throwing on flat ground prevents the added wear and tear his arm might incur while throwing off the mound.

"I don't know if it helps me," Wickman said. "But it sure saves my arm for the long road ahead."

<3-14-07: Bobby finally gives one up: Entering Wednesday, Bob Wickman had provided four scoreless appearances. But his 0.00 ERA was erased in the fifth inning, when Lance Berkman drilled a down-and-in fastball deep over the right-field wall for a solo shot.

When reporters approached Wickman, he was agitated by the belief that they were only talking to him because he'd finally allowed a run. Just two weeks ago, he'd said that he wasn't one of those pitchers who doesn't care about the results he garners in Spring Training games.

"I made a mistake, and he jacked it on me," Wickman said. "I definitely care every time that I pitch. What if I wake up sore tomorrow and can't pitch again? That's what I hope to tell every young kid: 'Every game you go out there could be your last game.'"

3-19-07 :Rock solid relievers: When the regular season begins, Bob Wickman will most likely be the one ending games. But on Monday against the Indians, he began a streak of perfection that the Braves hope to see on a regular basis this season.

After Wickman tossed a perfect sixth inning against his former team, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez came on to provide further perfection in the seventh and eighth innings. In the regular season, Soriano and Gonzalez will serve as Wickman's primary setup men. Bobby looks confident on the mound as he picks up his first preseason win. Braves 6, Indians 0

Bob Wickman, RHP, Braves
Because they sit in the bullpen and work one inning at a time, it's not often that closers are team leaders. But there are many things about Wickie that his teammates admire. He cares more than most, he knows more than most and he makes sense when he speaks. Plus, he has overachieved with mediocre stuff.

                    

 Wickman's fans are real warriors

  
   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Published on: 08/13/06

Once Bob Wickman began converting save opportunities with the Atlanta Braves, the president of his Cleveland Indians fan club decided something else deserved converting and saving: the Wickman's Warriors Web site with the slogan "In Bob We Trust" and the "Bobzilla Zone."

At wickmanswarriors.com a fan can click on the Atlanta link to see pictures and stories about Wickman since his July 20 trade to the Braves.

"I'm going to try to get some people involved from down there to send some stuff in," said Joe Ladd, the club president. "My wish now is that Braves fans everywhere can use it to get to know what a fine ballplayer they have in Bob Wickman. He's one in a million."

Before the trade, there were more than 250 Warriors on the club roster, including four from the Atlanta area and a couple from England. Each paid $26 (for Wickman's former number) to the Cleveland Indians' Charities and got a T-shirt decorated with an eagle, two American flags and Local 26.

"Local 26 is a union thing," Ladd said. "We're a blue-collar town and I thought that fit."

Since Wickman changed his number with the Braves, the Atlanta page is "Local 28."

"Joe wouldn't let it end," Wickman said of the Web site. "He has too much pride in everything he's put together. All the money goes to Cleveland Indians' Charities, and we've made some pretty good money over the past few years for it."

Wickman's Warriors officially began in 2001. After Sept. 11, 2001, Ladd saw it as a novel way to raise funds for charity. The T-shirts were as much for Wickman as for the fans.

"He started up Wickman's Warriors because whoever makes up T-shirts for all the ballplayers would never make up a T-shirt for me," said Wickman.

Why not? "I wasn't one of the big boys on the team," Wickman said. "Whoever was in charge of that I think dropped the ball."

But Ladd was there to pick it up. Before starting the club, the 44-year-old postal worker sought permission from Wickman and the Indians, something he didn't have to do but which earned Wickman's participation.

Club members sent in photos and anecdotes for posting on the site. On a couple of group outings to the ballpark, about 40 of them sat in the "Warrior's Den" in the bleachers.

"He's an icon in Cleveland, from what I understand," Braves pitcher John Smoltz said. "I think they like the way that he is who he is, his appearance and he just goes after hitters."

Ladd said that when "the trade first hit, it kind of sucker-punched me," but he acknowledges that it was best for Wickman, who had veto power. When the trade caused the burly closer to miss a scheduled appearance at a luncheon at the Winking Lizard, "We were all so bummed out," Ladd said, "it turned into a big therapy session instead of a luncheon."

Ladd met Wickman soon after he was traded from the Brewers to the Indians in 2000.

"I said, 'Hey, Wickman,' and I wave to him, and he comes running from halfway across the field and shaking our hands and talking to us," Ladd said. "We struck up a friendship from there."

Ladd drove two hours to Pittsburgh to see Wickman pick up save No. 4 with the Braves and said Wickman was surprised to see him before the game. He also paid $130 for a half-season television package and may come to Atlanta for a game since his brother Lou lives in Doraville.

"He's jumping up and down; he's excited because they finally got a closer," Ladd said. "I'm crying in my beer over here: You got my guy."

Thanks to Bob, GS #229 not so sad after all

Back in April of last year, when Bob was nearing Doug Jones all time Indians save record, I asked Bob for a baseball. About the only thing I hadn’t gotten from him in his 6 years with the Tribe was a ball from one of his saves. I knew that he almost always threw them to one of the little kids behind the dugout after he closed out a game, and when I asked him what he’d do with the ball that tied his buddy Jonesy, he said, “Just toss it to a kid, I guess.” When I told him I knew a 44-year-old kid that would love to have it for his Wickman collection he agreed to save it for me. I figured it wasn’t that significant a ball to ask for as say, the next one that broke the record.

Well, true to form, Bob’s April 28th save against the Rangers at Jacobs Field that tied the record was once again a drama filled nail-biter until Ronnie Belliard snow-coned the final out. I saw Bobby tossing balls to the kiddies afterward and figured that he forgot. Oh, well - understandable under the circumstances.

The next day when we talked about the game, I mentioned that I guess he forgot the ball in all the excitement. “I got it,” he laughed. “I put in my glove for you. Don’t worry, you’ll get it!” I felt dumb for doubting him.

After that the season started going downhill for the Tribe at an alarming rate. They could hardly get the ball to Bob in May, and then he had an awful June with horrific blown games against Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincy. Then with the trade in July, I kind of forgot about the ball altogether.

My “Great Save #229” article of July shows the bitterness that I felt writing of my friend’s last save in an Indians uniform:

 

To top it off, it was in stinkin’ California. I couldn’t even be at his last game.

Anyway, so I get this little box in the mail the other day. People are always sending me Wickman stuff, and I wondered what this was.

The note inside said, “Joe, this was all I could come up with. Bob.” The ball from the April 28th game must have gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere along the line.

Talk about shock and awe when I unwrapped a baseball from Bob-The one from his last save and last game as an Indian! All decked out with the July 19th date, 255th and final appearance designation and game score in red, white and blue ink! It even had a big scuff mark on it where his last pitch hit the dirt-the one that Vladamir Guerrero swung at for strike 3 and was thrown out at first base!

I felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” unwrapping his official Red Rider BB gun on Christmas morning. ALL HE COULD COME UP WITH?! This should be in his trophy case- I would have never asked him for such a memento of his career. There are just too many milestones wrapped up in this baseball.

So with this, I guess I’ve turned the page on my anger and resentment over Bob’s trade. With the pictures coming out of the Braves camp this year, I can see the smile that was missing from his face at last year’s spring training is back where it belongs.

Through all the major upheavals that he went through in his life last year, Bob Wickman never forgot a small promise he made. One that will always be huge to me. The Greatest Ballplayer Ever strikes again. J. Ladd 2/26/07