The Cleveland Indians can say they weren't surprised that a
21-year-old pitcher who had a mere 16 major league starts would
evolve into the ace of their staff in the space of four
pressure-packed playoff games last week. Of course, the Indians
Cleveland began its American League Division Series against the
New York Yankees desperate for good starting pitching. By the
time the Indians had upset the defending world champions in five
games, clinching the series with a 4-3 victory at Jacobs Field
on Monday night, rookie righthander Jaret Wright had eradicated
that desperation and, in the process, become the unlikeliest of
After starting this season with Double A Akron and moving up
quickly to Triple A Buffalo, Wright was promoted to Cleveland on
June 24 and went 8-3 with a 4.38 ERA while helping the Indians
win the Central Division title. Then he swaggered into Yankee
Stadium last week, heard the earsplitting playoff atmosphere in
the Bronx Zoo for the first time and said, "Seems like a nice
place to pitch."
Was he so naive he couldn't comprehend the pressure? Was he
evincing the same what-me-worry? attitude that his dad, former
major league pitcher Clyde Wright, had been known for? The
answer to those questions was yes. Both times the 6'2",
230-pound Jaret took the mound against New York--in Games 2 and
5--he outdueled lefthander Andy Pettitte, an 18-game winner this
year and the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award in
1996. He walked three of the first four batters he faced and was
behind 3-0 after one inning of his postseason debut, but Wright
allowed just three base runners over the next five innings and
left with a 7-3 lead. Then he won Game 5, pitching 51/3 strong
innings and yielding two earned runs. Besides his solid work, he
also provided the Cleveland staff with some badly needed
audacity, in glaring contrast to 15-game winner Charles Nagy's
nonstop nibbling in a 6-1 loss in Game 3 and the awful Game 1
performance of 39-year-old Orel Hershiser, whom manager Mike
Hargrove accused of not "trusting his stuff" after being handed
a five-run first-inning lead.
Even if Wright's 95-mph fastball and nasty slider didn't make
him a logical candidate to emerge as the Indians' best playoff
starter, maybe his 7-0 record in regular-season games he started
after Cleveland losses should have. "He's shown me that he has
no fear," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "He doesn't screw around.
He goes right after hitters. A guy like that is what we need."
Indeed, Cleveland had been hunting for an ace since the end of
the 1996 season, when it was surprisingly knocked out in the
Division Series in four games by the Baltimore Orioles. Last
winter Indians general manager John Hart tried in vain to sign
top free agents like Roger Clemens, Alex Fernandez and John
Smoltz. The need became more acute as eight pitchers went on the
disabled list this season, including veterans Jack McDowell and
John Smiley, who was acquired in July from the Cincinnati Reds
to add a dependable lefthander to the rotation.
So Hargrove had little choice but to choose Wright, Cleveland's
first-round draft pick in 1994, as his Game 2 starter against
the Yankees, knowing full well that Wright would also have to
pitch Game 5, if a fifth game was necessary. "I'd worry if he
was any rookie but Jaret Wright," Hargrove said before Game 2.
"To me, he's got the same arrogance, the same belief in himself
that his father had, except"--and here Hargrove laughed--"I see
a lot better stuff from the kid than I did from his dad."
Though Clyde Wright won 100 games in the majors from 1966
through '75, he was a late bloomer who didn't have an arm as
powerful as his son's. After four unremarkable years in which he
won a total of 20 games for the California Angels, Clyde learned
to throw a screwball in the Puerto Rican winter league in '69,
and the effect on his career was dramatic: The following year he
pitched a no-hitter against the Oakland A's, won 22 games and
made the American League All-Star team. By '73, however, he was
backsliding toward mediocrity, and in the next two seasons he
played briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Texas Rangers.
After the '75 season he went off to play for the Yomiuri Giants,
leaving his wife, Vicki, and infant Jaret home in the U.S. While
in Japan, Wright began to drink too much, a problem which got
worse in the next few years. Last year he told the Los Angeles
Times that in '79 Vicki warned him "either I stop [drinking] or
she was leaving me. I went golfing one day and then drinking and
when I came home, she was gone. When she came back, Jaret was in
the van. I went to open the door and he pushed the lock down. He
was 3 years old." Now, says the 56-year-old Clyde, "I haven't
had a drink in 18 years."
These days he runs the Clyde Wright Pitching School for kids out
of a one-room shed at a recreational baseball facility in
Anaheim. He and Vicki were in the stands for Game 2. After that
game, Clyde walked around Yankee Stadium like the proud father
he was, shaking hands, slapping backs and accepting
congratulations for his son's performance. Then he cracked up
onlookers during television interviews and later with a group of
writers. But when asked what pitching advice he had given to
Jaret, Clyde turned serious and said, "There's nothing I could
tell him. I would love to have his stuff for just a day."
As coming-out parties go, Jaret Wright's was nearly perfect.
Here was a kid cackling at the pressure that left many veteran
pitchers in this series cotton-mouthed and timid. Here was a
first-year player who wanted the ball with the series on the
line--"That's the thrill of competition," he said--yet admitted
that his nerves were clattering like pot lids when he first took
the mound against the Yankees. "How did I get through it?"
Wright said. "I just threw up a big wall. I think that's what
you've got to do--just think about you and the catcher."
Until someone proves otherwise, the Indians have a new ace. When
Wright thought about what he had accomplished, he grinned and
said, "Now I've got to do it all over again."
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON After beginning the year in Double A, Wright developed into Cleveland's stopper. [Jaret Wright pitching]