Despite what Bull Durham might have you believe, there's more to
a wild pitcher's finding his control than teaming with a veteran
catcher, bedding Susan Sarandon and bouncing the occasional
heater off the mascot. Which explains why defrocked Atlanta
closer Mark Wohlers took the hill last Thursday for the Triple A
Richmond Braves in front of 6,060 spectators--including 36
citizens of Left Hand, W.Va., who were bused in by Richmond in
honor of International Lefthanders Day.
The daftness of the promotion was probably lost on Wohlers.
After all, how could there be room in his head for a fresh
thought? In the past three months, after his ability to throw
the ball over--or near--the plate abandoned him, he has been
besieged by scores of well-wishers suggesting, in Wohlers's
words, "mechanical changes, hypnosis, all kinds of crap." Since
Braves manager Bobby Cox stripped him of his closer's role in
June, Wohlers has been picked at, probed and deconstructed by
four pitching coaches, not to mention various so-called
performance consultants, including Walter Herbison, with whom
Wohlers had worked as a minor leaguer in 1990. It should come as
no surprise that they have pulled him in opposite directions.
"They were telling Mark it was mechanics," says Herbison, "but
Mark told me, 'That's bulls---. You know it's in my head.'" Alas,
Herbison's approach, which encouraged Wohlers to "pitch from his
right brain," ran afoul of pitching instructor Guy Hansen's
analytical, left-brain methods, and Herbison went home. As if the
great cerebral hemisphere debate hadn't given Wohlers enough to
worry about, his wife of five years, Nancy, filed for divorce on
Aug. 5. "It's so frustrating," Wohlers says. "I can't put into
words how frustrating it is."
Wohlers's first stint with Richmond was a horrible (21.12 ERA)
17-day stay in late June and early July. Predictably, upon his
return to Atlanta, he was wilder than Charlie Sheen on his
birthday. Of the 112 pitches he threw in the bigs in July, only
43 were strikes. And when he missed the plate, he really missed
the plate. Still, he fought making another trip to Richmond,
saying he needed to have success at the major league level to be
cured. He finally relented on Aug. 11. "The only reason I'm
here," he says of Richmond, "is that I'm worried about a spot on
the playoff roster."
But time is short. Postseason rosters will be finalized on Aug.
31, which leaves Wohlers precious little time to regain Cox's
confidence. Through Sunday nothing he had done during his latest
trip to Richmond indicated that he was close. In his first three
appearances he walked seven hitters in 2 1/3 innings and threw
six wild pitches, most of them fastballs.
Overcoming wildness is nothing new for Wohlers. His first
pitching coach, Matt West, remembers a lanky 18-year-old with
horrible mechanics and bad control. "We totally undressed him
mechanically and gave him new clothes to wear, so to speak,"
says West. The makeover took, and Wohlers emerged as one of the
most accurate relievers in baseball. In 1995 and '96 he saved 64
games, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.2 to 1 was second
only to Dennis Eckersley's among closers. In '95 he got the
final three outs in the decisive sixth game of the World Series.
The fact that Wohlers has gone from wild man to World Series
hero once before augurs well for a recovery, according to Jack
Llewellyn, the Braves' sports psychology consultant. "He's not
trying to go somewhere he's never been," said Llewellyn during a
visit to Richmond last week to work with Wohlers. "He's just
trying to get back."
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT K. BROWN Lost in Richmond Does Wohlers's left brain know what his right brain is doing? [Mark Wohlers pitching]