Bob Wickman thought he was done. With the Indians scheduled to finish the season in Minnesota last October, the Cleveland closer invited a dozen or so family members from his hometown of Wausaukee, Wis., 300 miles away, to watch what he believed was going to be his final series as a major leaguer. But something unexpected happened when he took the mound in the Indians' 2004 finale: Wickman, who had missed the entire '03 season after Tommy John surgery and the first half of '04 with a strained right elbow, threw as well as he had in years. He had extra zip on his fastball, and his sinker moved more than it had all season. "That's when I began to think, You know what? I can still pitch. I can't let this go," says Wickman.
Spurned by free agents Troy Percival and Armando Benitez in the off-season, the Indians re-signed the rotund Wickman to a one-year, $2.75 million deal in November. The 6'1", 240-pound righthander has rewarded the club with the finest season of his 13 in the majors, making the All-Star team and leading the league with 32 saves through Sunday to stabilize a bullpen (an AL-best 2.87 ERA) that's the main reason Cleveland is in playoff contention. Despite being swept by the Devil Rays over the weekend, the Indians had won 11 of their last 16 games through Sunday; in that span Cleveland relievers allowed a combined 13 earned runs and Wickman notched seven saves.
The former Yankees and Brewers pitcher says that this season his arm feels as strong as it has since 2001, when he began to develop the elbow problems that would lead to his surgery in December '02. Wickman didn't return to the Indians until last July, when he rescued a beleaguered bullpen that had blown 21 saves and had a major-league-worst 5.60 ERA before the '04 All-Star break; he converted 13 saves in 14 opportunities over the last three months of the season.
Though Wickman, 36, is again pondering retirement--"It would be special to finish my career at the top of my game," he says--he hasn't committed to calling it quits. "I've learned better than to do that," he says.
PAUL BATTAGLIA/AP (WICKMAN)
Wickman is a big part of Cleveland's 2.87 bullpen ERA, best in the majors.