The Mad Hatter Of Pittsburgh

Some baseball men may wonder if John Candelaria's head is on straight, but no one questions his pitching ability
June 13, 1982

The Pittsburgh team bus was rolling through the streets of New York en route to Shea Stadium one day last season. Everybody was relatively quiet except John Candelaria, who caused a commotion the entire trip. "Would you look at that?" marveled a teammate. "There's the starting pitcher for tonight, hat on backward, leaning out the window screaming at people, talking to the grass, thinking about the hitters."

Well, the Pirates hoped Candelaria was thinking about the hitters. The Candy Man from Brooklyn—who, many baseball men believe, could be among the sweetest lefthanders in the game if only he wanted to be—put on a crazed 50-minute performance. In Manhattan, he called to young ladies and helpfully explained to them their assets or lack thereof; on a bridge over the East River, he got into an argument with a truck driver over whether the driver was taking the right route to Connecticut; in one of the scruffier precincts of Queens, he spotted a drug transaction and hollered, "Hey, you're too obvious. Go someplace else. You think you're on Let's Make a Deal?" And finally, at Shea, he really did talk to the grass, berating it for not growing stronger and taller.

At 6'7" and 235 pounds, Candelaria himself grew stronger and taller than most. Despite his lack of pregame concentration that night, he went 8‚Öî innings against the Mets, giving up 10 hits and winning 7-4. He wasn't particularly sharp. He didn't do anything extremely well. But when it was all over, he was the winner. Typical.

Then, also typically, he went out carousing—Candelaria is always a party just waiting to happen—and lamented the next morning, "I feel like I went through a war and my tongue lost. But what the hell. Life is to enjoy. It's a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved."

Funny how life can play tricks on even the freest of spirits. A week and a half later, against St. Louis on May 10, Candelaria stretched the musculocutaneous nerve in his left biceps. The immediate questions were: Would he ever again be capable of pitching? And, more important, would he even try to rehabilitate himself? To almost everyone's amazement, Candelaria did work on getting well. "I'm crazy," he says, "and that's an advantage because nobody wants to mess with a crazy man. But I do care about baseball."

Not enough, though, or he might not have been injured in the first place. Go back to that cold day in St. Louis. Candelaria told his manager, Chuck Tanner, that he didn't think the game should be played, but Tanner said pitch anyway. So Candelaria put on a short-sleeved shirt, eschewing the long-sleeved model traditionally worn by pitchers during cold weather, and he ignored Pitching Coach Harvey Haddix' urgings that he wear a jacket between innings. "I was annoyed," says Candelaria. In the seventh inning, his arm snapped, and the Candy Man was through for the year. He found out just how bad things were when, later that night, on the plane to Atlanta for the Pirates' next game, Catcher Steve Nicosia poured Candelaria a glass of champagne and Candy was unable to lift it to his lips. Now we're talking a real life crisis.

Six months later, after undergoing rehabilitation in San Diego under the care of Dr. Paul Bauer, Candelaria threw his first baseball since St. Louis. "It was a Little League fastball," he recalls. "That was discouraging. But there was no pain. That was encouraging." What's even more encouraging—or amazing—is that the Candy Man has actually had some good performances this year, although the casual observer might have looked at his 2-3 record as of last Sunday and been less than impressed.

The fact is, Candelaria's ERA of 3.13 would have been 2.01 except for a disastrous one-inning, seven-run performance against the Giants two weeks ago. Last week he beat the Dodgers 3-1, allowing three hits and striking out six in seven innings. "I'm in the cruisin' lane again," he says.

Tanner raves about Candelaria, saying last year, "He has one of the finest arms in baseball and all the talent in the world. He hasn't even started his career. If I had one game to pitch for my life, I'd give the ball to John Candelaria."

Which gives rise to the question that always comes up: Candy is good, but why isn't he better? "Horsebleep," says Candelaria. "I have been successful, I am successful, and I will be successful. Who is to say who has potential and what somebody else's potential is?" Indeed, there's no more baffling pitcher in baseball. He has the second-best winning percentage (85-57, .599), behind the Phillies' Steve Carlton, among lefthanded starters in the National League. Even so, people talk about him as if he's just hanging on. Which he may be.

"Candelaria?" says one general manager. "He's goofy." That's fair. The proof is in what he says and does. Candy is in horrible physical condition, doesn't care and grouses, "So I can't run a mile. So what? Baseball players are the worst conditioned athletes of all. If a guy is breathing, that's good enough." Candelaria has never met a beer he didn't like. He doesn't work much on the pitches he has and holds a similarly lukewarm attitude toward developing any new ones.

"People feel at times I'm enjoying myself too much," said Candy over a beer in a mason jar at Max's in Pittsburgh. "Maybe they're right. But if I ever lose the boy in me, what's the sense? I plan to be doing silly things when I'm 50. I just want to be remembered as footloose and fancy free."

He will. For it seems that for Byzantine reasons harbored in the shadowy corners of his mind, Candelaria has a kind of professional death wish. He guesses, cavalierly, that if he weren't playing baseball, "I'd probably be living in an apartment building in Brooklyn and working for UPS. That would be fun, too."

And having fun is always at the top of Candy's list, no matter what it might cost. In 1973, when he was just getting started in pro ball, he became so bored in Bradenton, Fla., where the Pirates train, that he announced he would—if the price was right—leap off the roof of the two-story Pirate City motel at midnight on a Friday. His teammates gathered at the appointed hour and anted up $4.50. Candy decreed the price was right and, screaming "Geronimo!" jumped. Then he collected his money and left laughing, never telling anybody he'd broken the big toe on his left foot. Candy, why risk your career so foolishly?

"I didn't have a car. I was going crazy. Besides, you forget one thing."

What?

"Why not jump?"

Not long ago, Candelaria was given $238 in meal money by a team official while on a bus to Wrigley Field in Chicago. Candy started throwing it out the window—at $5 a toss—to the astonishment of the street people who never expected bucks from a bus. "It just seemed like the thing to do," he says. Of course, he has hung all of his roommate's clothes on trees outside their apartment; of course, he has filled hotel swimming pools with fire-extinguisher spray; of course, he put an overcoat on over his baseball uniform one day in Philadelphia and walked across the street during a Pirate-Philly game to watch the 76ers play basketball. Why wouldn't he?

Obscured by his here today, gone tomorrow way of life is the success he already has achieved. Called up to Pittsburgh in 1975, Candelaria went 8-6 and struck out 14 in a playoff game against Cincinnati to tie the National League playoff record. He whiffed Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench to open the game. He got four standing ovations in 7‚Öî innings while giving up three hits. Rose called Candy's effort perhaps "the greatest pressure game I've seen any pitcher pitch." That the Pirates ultimately lost wasn't the point. Said Bench, "Candelaria was just wonderful."

In 1976, Candy led Pittsburgh in wins (16) and innings pitched (220) and, on Aug. 9 against the Dodgers, became the first Pirate since 1907 to pitch a no-hitter at home. Then came 1977 when he was 20-5—he was the first Pirate in 17 years to win 20 games—and led the league in ERA (2.34) and percentage of wins (.800). In 1979, he again led the Pirates in victories, with 14, and combined with Kent Tekulve for a World Series shutout of Baltimore.

All of this has won Candelaria the undying gratitude of Pirate management, right? Wrong. He makes close to $500,000 a year—"That seems like a lot of money for a little boys' game," says his mother, Felicia Julia, who lives on Staten Island—and Candelaria concedes that those earnings, which could rise to near $600,000 if he cashed in on performance bonuses, are fair for now. But he grumps, "I love Pittsburgh and I love the guys, but the front office is suspect. Of course, maybe they think my pitching is suspect. All I know is, winning lefthanders don't grow on trees, and there are 25 other teams who I'm sure would like to have a winner."

Pirate Vice-President Harding Peterson grits his teeth when discussing Candelaria. "Why write about him?" he asks. "What has he done? He's O.K. when he throws from the proper angle and gives proper effort. But he throws too much sidearm, which we've told him over and over." Indeed, Dr. Bauer says that Candelaria "is a slinger and he really shouldn't throw sidearm." But that's the way Candelaria throws, and so Bauer and his associate, former major league Catcher Fred Kendall, have worked with Candy on mechanics, especially techniques designed to put less strain on his throwing arm.

Mets General Manager Frank Cashen says, "A one-word description of Candelaria would be 'competitive.' He's a tough man in a tough game." Another baseball executive says, "Candelaria abuses himself. He has chronic back problems and a penchant for driving 110 mph. But in a big game, nobody's better." Translation: There's room in baseball for this lefthander, but whoever has him had better be rich in understanding and strong of nerve.

Success has always come easily for Candelaria because he's so gifted. His idea of bearing down on conditioning is to get a full night's sleep, sort of, the night before he pitches. "I'm not carrying my lunch to work, I like it, and the pay's not bad," he says of baseball. "The truth is, I don't know what work is."

On the other hand, the Candy Man persists in denying that he's making it totally on natural ability. "I busted my tail to get where I'm at," he says. "God gave me ability, but I have improved greatly on it. There are a lot of kids who have ability, but they're out on playgrounds shooting up." Candelaria swears he didn't do that; his preference in high school was LSD.

Then, during an infrequent reflective moment, he stares into a St. Pauli Girl beer and says softly, "O.K., I admit I take all this for granted. I don't work as hard as I used to. But you don't understand that as you get older, the mind takes over and you don't have to work." Ultimately, it's this kind of thinking that may ruin Candelaria. He has always thought of himself as perennially 18 and indestructible, although that cold afternoon in St. Louis should have taught him otherwise. "I thought my career was over," he admits. "And I was scared." Even at that, he once told the Pirate orthopedist, Jack Failla, "My main goal in life is to be sitting around a bar 20 years from now and have somebody come up and say, 'Hey, John Candelaria. You used to be a pretty good pitcher.' "

Candelaria never really burned with desire to be a baseball player. Born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, he was a classic street kid who may have thought a little bigger than his buddies. For example, while his friends would snitch one apple from the grocery store, Candy would haul off an entire crate. "One apple, one crate. What's the difference?" he says.

When Candelaria was 16, his baseball career seemed ended. An indifferent student—"I didn't need school and with some of the grades I made, school didn't need me"—he says he quit baseball at LaSalle Academy in Lower Manhattan because he had a disagreement with the coach. Others recall that his baseball career slowed considerably when the school dropped the sport. Whatever. The result was that in the 11th and 12th grades, Candelaria played no baseball, but he continued to play a lot of basketball, scoring 1,318 points in his three years.

Luckily, Dutch Deutsch, then a Pittsburgh scout, had heard about Candy's baseball ability as a youngster. Says Deutsch, "I put it in the back of my mind that when he grew up, we might find him again." Deutsch did, but in 1972, Candelaria scoffed at an offer to sign for a $13,000 bonus. His holdout was encouraged by the late Roberto Clemente, who had been called in by management to seduce and lure the young prospect. Instead, Clemente told Candelaria in Spanish, "They'll give you a lot more. Hold out." Thus advised, Candy wandered off to Puerto Rico to play amateur basketball and to engage in the good times.

Later in 1972, another Pirate scout, Howie Haak, was told to make a final offer of $40,000. Haak found Candelaria in a hamlet 70 miles outside of San Juan at 8 a.m. Candy was in no condition to negotiate further because he had been out the night before celebrating a basketball victory. He signed quickly, if unsteadily, bought a maroon and cream Monte Carlo, gave $20,000 to his mother and a month later went to the Instructional League "to show them how hard I could throw." He promptly hurt his arm, but recalls thinking, "Oh, well, I can probably make it to the big leagues just throwing changeups."

In 1973, he began his climb, doing well—10-2—at Class A Charleston, S.C. But in 1974, pitching in the cold for Salem, W. Va., also a Class A team, he slipped on the mound and hurt his back. Again, the facts are in dispute. The Pirates insist Candelaria's back problems date to birth or early childhood; Candy says, nope, it was that dreadful night in Rocky Mount, N.C. Pirate trainer Tony Bartirome says that one of Candy's vertebrae is loose on one hinge. Sometimes Candelaria will scream out in pain while pitching. But if a teammate comes over, he'll rage, "Get the hell off my mound."

Teammate Willie Stargell, who has played often with pain himself, says there are times during a game "when there are tears coming out of Candy's eyes, but he never complains." And he seldom misses a turn, having started 29 or more games in each of his five full seasons before 1981 and consistently pitching 200 innings or more—although critics say he should be throwing as many as 300.

But Candelaria just doesn't want to pay the price to improve. Pat Scarola, his counselor at LaSalle, says, "Unfortunately, he turns his ability on and off." And Dan Buckley, his high school basketball coach, who now coaches at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, observes, "Sometimes his mind becomes preoccupied and he doesn't have any initiative."

The women in his life have always been a problem, too. "John makes bad judgments about everything, but he saves the worst judgments for women," says one friend. Candelaria has been married and divorced twice; the papers for the second, in 1980, were served between innings of a game he was pitching at Three Rivers Stadium.

Candelaria is now living with Donna Hall, a flight attendant, who on April 29 gave birth to their daughter, Amber. Candelaria admits that his personal difficulties sometimes carry over to the mound, but for the moment, things are relatively tranquil on the home front. He's even trying to be a businessman, what with his auto leasing company, Can-Lease, Inc., and his part ownership of a Pittsburgh racquetball club.

Haddix says charitably, "Maybe we expect too much of him." Haddix constantly tries to get Candelaria to keep his arm up when he delivers the ball to enhance not only the pop of his fastball but also his prospects for long-term big league employment. But Candy isn't much interested in discourses on self-improvement. "All my coaches and managers have told me I'd never be successful unless I threw overhand," he says. "But I know what's right for me, and it's hard to see that I'm doing anything wrong."

In truth, his late-breaking side-arm curve can be brutal on lefthanded hitters; his tailing fastball can drive righthanders daffy and his sinker drops precipitously.

"Candelaria is always going to have a lot of fun," says one scout, "but I don't know if it's going to be in baseball." During spring training one year, he was stopped at 2 a.m., not for speeding, but for going too slowly. On roller skates. "The cop clocked me at seven miles per hour," says Candy, who loves to skate because "the wind blows in your face and the birds sing."

Yet, the Candy Man, who may be hiding some concern behind the laughter, scoffs at those who predict failure for him. "I believe in that saying, 'If my mind conceives it and my heart believes it, I can achieve it,' " he says. "I'm a strong-willed person and I will pitch well." Stargell, his best friend on the team, says, "With Candy, you have to let him be himself. Don't box him in. Everybody has a right to fly."

But what if you wake up tomorrow with your future behind you, Candy?

"I'll say it's been fun and it's been great," he says. And with that, he whirls his black Mercedes (license plate M-RID-ER, the M standing for midnight) down the road toward another beer joint. "They have 300 draft there," he says.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA PHOTORONALD C. MODRAFor Candy it's dandy to down a cold brew or two from a mason jar at Max's tavern. PHOTORONALD C. MODRANew father Candelaria cuddles with girl friend Donna, dog Precious and baby Amber. PHOTORONALD C. MODRARelaxing before the game with Madlock and others, Candelaria puts his mind on cards. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhen Candy is on the mound, he's all business.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)