Wild Days Still Haunt Indians Relief Pitcher - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Wild Days Still Haunt Indians Relief Pitcher

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - His control returned. His life got back to normal. Still, Mark Wohlers takes nothing for granted.

Even now, Wohlers looks at a baseball and wonders where it might go when he throws it. He's still haunted by the wildness that almost ended his pitching career.

"I think about it every day," said Wohlers about to begin his first season with the Cleveland Indians. "Until I pick up a ball, throw it and see everything is OK."

It's been so far, so good with the Indians for Wohlers, who signed a two-year contract with Cleveland in January after spending last season with Cincinnati and the New York Yankees.

He hasn't had the best spring camp, allowing 17 hits and seven walks in 9 2/3 innings before consecutive scoreless outings his last two times out.

After retiring the Reds in order on Sunday, Wohlers waited near the mound for the ball and then stuck it in his back pocket.

"I didn't get a guy out for a month," he said with a laugh. "You never know when you're going to need it."

And then on Tuesday, he had just finished pitching a perfect inning against Houston, when the clubhouse attendant in Kissimmee asked Wohlers if he wanted to keep his cleats.

"Yeah," Wohlers said. "I got a couple guys out in them."

Whatever works. Wohlers had to learn that the hard way.

From 1995-97, he was one of the NL's top relievers, averaging 32 saves per season for Atlanta. He even got the final out in the decisive Game 6 of the '95 World Series when the Braves beat the Indians.

He was on top -- and about to sink into a dark abyss that changed his life.

Wohlers' lost control of his pitches. It was just like what happened to Pittsburgh's Steve Blass in the 1970s, and what St. Louis' Rick Ankiel and Tampa Bay's Nick Bierbrodt are going through now.

Wohlers started the '98 season with the Braves but got hurt and was sent to Triple-A Richmond. There, his career spiraled downward, out of control.

In 16 games, he went 0-3 with a 20.43 ERA, walked 36 and threw 17 wild pitches -- in just 12 innings. The next year, he had ERAs of 27.00, 108.00 and 16.20.

He was eventually diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder. Wohlers calls it something else.

"Going through it was hell," he said.

Looking back, he said his mind played tricks on him. One minute, he was thinking that there was something physically wrong that was making his pitches soar over the catcher's head and to the backstop screen.

"I had to convince myself it wasn't mental, it was physical," he said.

Then, other thoughts would creep into his mind.

Wohlers finally caught a break. If that's what you call tearing a ligament in your elbow.

"I blew it out," said Wohlers, who underwent reconstructive "Tommy John" surgery on his elbow in 2000. "It allowed me to get away from the game, step back and start over."

His comeback was slow. He went 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA for the Reds in 20 games for the Reds in 2000 and was 3-1 when Cincinnati traded him to the Yankees last June.

Wohlers appeared in 31 games for the AL champions, posting a 1.69 ERA in his last nine games.

More importantly, he pitched well in the pressure of a pennant race with the notoriously tough New York fans breathing down his neck.

"I loved it," he said. "As a Yankee you're treated differently. There's major league baseball, and then there's the New York Yankees. It's the truth."

Wohlers' experience with wildness has given him a perspective he hopes Ankiel, too, can one day appreciate.

When the Cardinals' young lefty was struggling last season, Wohlers e-mailed St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to offer help.

He never got to talk with Ankiel, but he continues to root for him.

"I know what it's like," Wohlers said. "You just want to be left alone."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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