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Going to Extremes

July 04, 1994
July 04, 1994

Table of Contents
July 4, 1994

World Cup
Golf
Baseball
Pro Basketball
Tennis
John Wetteland
Lance Armstrong
SI's 40th Anniversary
Point After

Going to Extremes

By turning his own life around, Montreal closer John Wetteland registered his biggest save

John Wetteland throws hard. He has always thrown hard. Once, in Class A ball, he even threw a chapel leader clear out of the clubhouse. A rebellious spirit moved Wetteland that day as he hurled the preacher high and outside. Now the Holy Spirit moves him. In his 27 kaleidoscopic years, Wetteland has continually reinvented himself—hellion, flake, Christian. There has been just one constant: No matter which snapshots of his life you choose, they are all backlit with the same white-hot glow. "The thing you have to understand about John," says Darrin Fletcher, his friend and a catcher on the Montreal Expos, "is everything about him is extreme."

This is an article from the July 4, 1994 issue Original Layout

Wetteland has consistently staked out his turf at the outer limits. No one cranks the music louder or tosses down as many double espressos or stands farther right politically or throws a fastball, a slider and a curve with more conviction. Wetteland's stuff overwhelms—"Best of any reliever in baseball," says his manager, Felipe Alou—but no more than Wetteland's zeal.

In other times—other lives, it seems—no one raised more hell or played at being a bigger goof than Wetteland. Now no one strives harder to be a devout Christian. No one. "The Holy Bible is the sword of the Spirit, God's word," he says. And like God's children, Wetteland's Good Books come in all shapes and colors. He owns at least six Bibles. Maybe seven. There's one in his locker in the Expo clubhouse. one in his car, another in his bedroom and one in his living room. Other Bibles are stashed here and there because Wetteland always wants the Word close at hand.

One day last spring in training camp, Wetteland was asked for his alltime, if-you-were-stranded-on-a-desert-island passage. He grabbed one of the Bibles from the top of his locker—a pocket-sized version in grainy black leather with JOHN KARL WLITELAND embossed in silver on the front. "This is my dagger," he said and (lipped quickly to Romans 5:1-5:

...And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Suffering, perseverance, character, hope. Some bio. Stick that on the back of a baseball card.

Suffering

The Grateful Dead were performing their improvisational percussion riff during Drums and Space, and his heart was roaring and his head was pounding and the sweat was pouring and he couldn't speak! The teenage Wetteland had been smoking grass, munching magic mushrooms and drinking beer. The freak in front of him had thoughtfully offered him a tab of LSD. Wetteland had tried to tear it in half—some now, some later—but his lingers weren't working too well, so he had popped the whole blotter in his mouth. And now Drums and Space and the world around him were rushing downward in one sinister whirl. His younger sister, Kristen, dragged him out of the arena and into a park across the street, talking him back to earth.

"I had OD'd," Wetteland says. "When I was about 16 or 17, there were two times when I nearly killed myself."

The other time, a friend wrapped his car around a telephone pole at 2:30 one boozy morning; like the other fools, Wetteland, who had been riding shotgun, walked away from the wreck. This was his Year of Living Stupidly, and Wetteland was working without a net. One night he curled up and slept on the white line of the road outside his house in rural Sebastopol, 90 minutes north of San Francisco. In the morning, when vibrations from a passing car woke him, he got up and walked back into the house. Sometimes middle of the road is as extreme as it gets.

On the other side of the road from his house was an apple orchard, where Wetteland, during much of his young life, would sit and ponder his existence. Sir Isaac Newton he wasn't. Wetteland would go there to fire up a joint, pound a beer, get away from it all. There was always something to get away from: the drug bust in eighth grade, his parents' crumbling marriage when he was 15, his Jim Beam breakfasts in high school, adjusting to his father's new live-in friend, Barbara, who would later become his stepmother.

"I was a bitter and angry kid with no release," Wetteland says. "Not even music. I was good at it. but it was like work. I was so occupied with music and sports. I can't remember anything I ever did to relax except sit in the apple orchard."

Wetteland inherited his baseball skills and musical talents from his father, Ed, who once was a screwball pitcher in the Chicago Cub organization and now is a pianist of some renown in the Bay Area. In the late '50s, Ed's music had taken him to the fringe of the beat movement. In the '60s, as a father figure, he was closer to Jack Kerouac than to Benjamin Spock.

John used to go to school in old bell-bottoms and homemade knit jackets, but he also had the best baseball glove money could buy. Ed made sure there was a roof over his family's head: in fact, he put it up himself. He built a one-room log cabin the year John started school, and while Ed hammered away, he and his wife, Dorothy, and the five children (including two from her previous marriage) lived next to the site in a tent. "A small tent," says John, the second-youngest of the brood. "Things got pretty tight. There were daily battles with wasps getting in there. It was pretty comical." The cabin would be John's home for 12 years, until shortly after the breakup of his parents" marriage.

"I'm a small-L libertarian." Ed says now. "I emphasized the responsibility of the individual toward society. Beyond that I allowed John to find his own way. John did not grow up in a disciplined environment. I grew up in a disciplined environment, and maybe I went the other way because of it. At times we destroyed each other, as I imagine most fathers and sons do, but I love him dearly. Life is life. The head trips are going to be there."

In this unrestrictive universe, Ed's youngest son devoured whatever he chose from the elaborate menu of life, whether the kick du jour was sports, books, booze or whatever. One year John decided he wanted to learn about reptiles. He didn't stop until he could recite genus and species the way some kids rattle off baseball stats. His appetite was prodigious.

"John liked to put himself on the edge, but somehow he avoided going over," says Dennis Crandall. Wetteland's baseball coach at Cardinal Newman High in Santa Rosa. "He always seemed to know just where the border was. He jumped over a couple of times, but he came right back."

Says Wetteland, "I wonder if I would have a better memory or be a better pitcher if I hadn't been involved in all that stuff."

Perseverance

In the spring of 1988 Wetteland was the erratic, pea-throwing star of the San Antonio Missions, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Double A affiliate. One night before a game in Shreveport, La., he noticed a very pretty, dark-haired stadium usher working behind the visitor's dugout. When he got an opportunity, he handed her a note.

Michele McCracken, who had "accepted" Jesus into her life when she was six, tucked the note in her pocket and shyly turned away. "I read it later that night," she says. "It was a very nice note. Polite. Respectful. Not one of those 'Hey, baby' things. But I didn't think anything of it."

Wetteland thought of nothing else. He learned that the dark-haired girl was competing in a beauty pageant the next day, then called the local chamber of commerce to find out where the contest was being held. He was there when she was named first runner-up to Miss Bossier City, and as she was greeting her family after the pageant she noticed a vaguely familiar face staring up at her. "I'm at the side entrance of the stage, still in my formal gown, and it hits me," Michele says. "This is that ballplayer."

At first their relationship amounted to talking on the phone and writing letters. Then she went to visit him on one of the team's off-days in San Antonio, but John's rowdy teammates left Michele with such a bad impression of ballplayers that she said she never wanted to see him again. But Wetteland, undaunted, continued his pursuit. In January 1989 John convinced Michele to meet him in Dallas, where she got to know him better, and from then on they were a couple. A year and half later John and Michele were married.

His perseverance in courtship, though, was matched by his perseverance on the pitching mound. Dick Hanlon scouted and signed Wetteland for the Dodgers in 1985. burying all the 18-year-old's personal skeletons for fear of searing off the Dodger management. But the bones were exhumed soon enough. "There was a doctor in the organization who said John's background was too tough," says Texas Ranger manager Kevin Kennedy, who, when he was in the Dodger system, managed Wetteland at three stops in the minors. "Based on his history, the doctor said to release him. I strongly disagreed."

In fact, Wetteland says, he renounced drugs after his first year of pro ball. Not that anyone could tell. When he was promoted to Class A Bakersfield in '86, he went 0-7 in 15 games and was returned to the rookie league. He promptly lost his first three decisions there. "A couple of people in the organization believed in me," Wetteland says. "Otherwise, I was on my way out of there." Among his allies Wetteland counted Dodger instructor Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher, and roving pitching coach Dave Wallace. Not that Wetteland would always accept their counsel. "I opposed something Sandy Koufax once said," Wetteland muses. "What kind of an idiot does that make me?"

"John was a wild young kid, tremendously determined, who danced to his own tune," Wallace says. "And the lyrics he was hearing weren't exactly Top 40."

In 1987 Wetteland began a steady climb through the minors, even though he still had a serious alcohol problem. He never considered intervention, instead dabbling in psychology, sociology, Eastern religions and crystals in search of inner peace. For 18 months Wetteland pitched with a crystal hung around his neck. The scouting report at the time: good vibes, mediocre control. "Imagine." he says, "I thought there was power in rocks."

Wetteland was called up to the big leagues for the first time in May 1989, and he went 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA over the remainder of the season. The following February his agent, Adam Katz, called to say Los Angeles had agreed to a $142,500 contract for the 1990 season. Suddenly Wetteland had money, celebrity, a name—everything he thought he ever wanted. He hung up. He was elated. For about three minutes.

"I realized how shallow that feeling was," he says. "If money dictates happiness, what's the point? I was this bitter, angry person, and I needed God's peace. No lightning flashed. No trumpets sounded. There was just an awesome conviction, an all-encompassing commitment of the heart. Even if it seems absurd, you know it's right."

Wetteland was off the rocks.

Character

While he had been reborn spiritually, he was still going through another sort of infancy. On the chalkboard above Wetteland's locker at Dodger Stadium during that 1990 season, he would write his bizarre thoughts of the day:

INVISIBLE COWS CONTROL MY DESTINY.
COSMIC WARLORDS MAINTAIN MY SOUL.
THE ROOM SMELLS OF BURNT PLAID.
I AM SERVING DOUGHNUTS ON ANOTHER PLANET.

A character? In 1990 he surely was that. Tagged the Cosmic Cow by Daily Breeze sportswriter Terry Johnson, Wetteland entertained writers with tales of his exploits, among them diving with sharks. While he had once studied sharks with his usual fervor and as a boy had shown Olympic swimming potential, he had never actually confronted the beasts in the water.

"When I came up to the Dodgers, I didn't want to let on how unhappy I was, so I became a 'colorful guy,' " Wetteland says. "I made up a lot of stuff." He was convincing. The Dodgers had had their share of baseball pranksters, such as Mickey Hatcher and Jay Johnstone. "But," says Johnson, who is in his 16th season covering the Dodgers, "Wetteland was the first guy [manager] Tommy Lasorda actually thought was insane."

"If Tommy did think so," Wetteland says, "it was because I was certifiable."

But just as the Bible was educating Wetteland's soul, so was Dodger closer Jay Howell continuing the young man's baseball education that Kennedy had started in the minors. Wetteland often refers to Kennedy as a second father, but he always calls the now 38-year-old Howell "Dad." And Howell earned the title. During the Dodgers' Family Day festivities in '89, Howell and his wife, Alison, "adopted" Wetteland. The announcement was made over the P.A.

"There are a lot of opportunities for the vets to hammer a rookie, but with him it was different," says Howell, now reunited with Kennedy in Texas and still pitching. "He played guitar and wrote poetry, and he'd do it without any sense of being self-conscious. He'd recite it and look at you as if to say. What do you think? Maybe he was from another planet."

In the bullpen Howell founded the Brain Dead Heavers Club. ("Our motto: Everyone else is just a pitcher." Wetteland says with pride.) The notion of brain-dead heaving—throwing, as opposed to pitching—was Howell's jocular way of trying to teach Wetteland to rely on his fastball rather than his cerebrum. Howell's point: It's O.K. if your mid-90's hummer doesn't always paint the corner.

Of course, Wetteland was more splatterer than painter. In his rookie season in '89, when he appeared in 31 games, including 12 as a starter, he threw 16 wild pitches in 102⅖ innings, which happened to be one fewer than Koufax's club record set in 1958. Wetteland wanted to start the last game of the season so he would have a shot at tying the mark held by one of his mentors, but the Dodgers skipped his turn in the rotation. "It could have been me and Sandy," Wetteland says ruefully, "but I couldn't tell the Dodgers why I wanted that start."

After spending part of the 1990 season in the minors and failing to make the Dodger rotation out of spring training in '91, Wetteland underwent another conversion. After four nondescript starts with Triple A Albuquerque to open the '91 season, Wetteland decided he wanted to try short relief—one of the few things he hadn't yet attempted in his life. Dodger general manager Fred Claire concurred.

"John loves music, so I looked at it in those terms," Claire says. "As a starter he was trying to play a 2½-hour symphony in five minutes. With his arm. tempo and the speed of his mind, making him a closer made sense. Would John succeed as a starting pitcher eventually? Probably. But mentally he was better suited to closing. Like Dennis Eckersley, he found himself in the right role."

Wetteland converted all 20 save opportunities in Albuquerque in '91 and was 13 for 13 with Caracas in winter league ball. All the while L.A. was searching for a righthanded slugger and eventually worked out a deal with the Cincinnati Reds: outfielder Eric Davis and pitcher Kip Cross to the Dodgers for Wetteland and pitcher Tim Belcher. Wetteland was delighted, figuring he would be a set-up man for the Reds' monster relievers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton, and perhaps some of their expertise would rub off on him. It never happened. Two weeks later Wetteland was shipped to Montreal as part of a live-player swap between the Reds and the Expos.

Now Wetteland looks back on his days in the Dodger organization with some regret. "You know, I feel like I cheated the Dodgers," he says. "If I had it to do all over again, I would remove the clement of selfishness. They got my best effort on the field, but off the field I didn't always take care of myself. But I was happy to be going to Montreal. I believe God brought mc here for a purpose."

Hope

Wetteland was having one of those idyllic-spring days. His heater was exploding, his breaking pitches were dancing. It was only March 6, 1993, and it was just batting practice, but he was so far ahead of the hitters, it was as if he had lapped them. Then he threw one hanging curve, and even though the batter didn't swing at it, Wetteland kicked the protective screen in front of him.

Many great closers have been blessed with convenient memories, the ability to bury the past in about five seconds. But Wetteland can't shrug off anything—not even a lousy curve early in spring training. And when the pressure mounts, something has to give—in this case the big toe on his right foot. The broken toe would prevent him from pitching the first three weeks of the '93 season.

"When he kicked the screen, he still really didn't have command of himself," Alou says. "He was in command of his pitches, the king of the mound, but not in charge of the man. That had to come. I knew it would, because he truly is a humble man. He was low, but he learned a tremendous lesson."

In 1992, his first season with the Expos, Wetteland had 37 saves and a 2.92 ERA, and he struck out 99 batters in 83‚Öì innings. When fans told him how exciting he was, Wetteland explained to them that thrill seeking wasn't one of his goals. He wanted to be as bland as a CPA and just as efficient when it came to numbers. And to his thinking, he was still seeing too many 3-and-2 counts. That was inefficiency, a curse of many strikeout pitchers, though few had been more dominant than Wetteland, who whiffed an average of 11.3 batters per nine innings over the 1991 and '92 seasons.

Returning from the toe injury in late April 1993, Wetteland went on to make a club-record 43 saves to go with nine wins and 113 strikeouts in 85‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. "The greatest thing about last season is, when I came into games, I actually could see fans leaving," Wetteland says. "Like it was over. Automatic." What's more, he was a throwback to a generation of iron-man closers—Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle—men who could work more than an inning and come back the second day stronger than on the first. Wetteland recorded at least four outs in 19 of his saves, while the more heralded Mitch Williams never went more than an inning in logging his 43 saves for the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Wetteland also worked in consecutive games on 19 occasions, and his 1.37 ERA was the best among major league relievers last season.

But Wetteland stumbled at the start of 1994. He wrestled with his old devil—control—and blew two early saves before winding up on the disabled list in mid-April with a strained hamstring. But from May 20 to June 14, he stormed through 17⅖ innings allowing only one earned run and picked up 10 saves. Through Sunday, Wetteland, 2-5 with a 3.29 ERA and 13 saves, had struck out 40 in 38 XA innings.

"If someone had the guts to make him a starter again—and I don't—he could win 25, 30 games," Alou says. "With three devastating pitches, that intimidating look, his presence...but you don't do that with the best closer in the game."

The suffering John Wetteland is gone. There is no Cosmic Cow character in the Expo bullpen. This Wetteland, the Romans 5:1-5 Wetteland, is a pure professional who loses himself daily in a bottomless cup of coffee and myriad details as he prepares for his work. "I have to apply myself in the most serious fashion I know," he says, "because I can screw up in one inning what a team has done in eight."

There is no more silliness in his season. In spring training this year he scolded a TV crew for asking new Montreal starter Pedro Martinez for an interview before Martinez had finished his workout. Wetteland even became the Expo player representative, a quirky role for a man who lauds Rush Limbaugh as a political visionary. One day in the clubhouse Wetteland told Fletcher, "If [the players] are wrong, I'll say so." Fletcher laughed.

Wetteland hasn't said so yet. His attitude toward negotiations for a new basic agreement hardened in March after a player reps' meeting in Tampa with Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief labor negotiator. Wetteland drove back to the Expo complex in West Palm Beach in a foul mood. Often he listens to head-banging music by Christian rockers like the Crucified, but this night the radio was on. The opening 10-note riff of the old Grateful Dead song Casey Jones came on, and he felt the tug of recognition.

Driving that train, high on cocaine,
Casey Jones, you 'd better watch your speed.

Wetteland's blue-gray eyes flashed. He turned off the radio.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAPHOTOCOURTESY OF KRISTEN WETTELANDA talented musician, Ed was less concerned about orchestrating discipline in his son John's life.PHOTOJOHN BURGESS[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAIn addition to his autograph, Wetteland provides young fans with chapter and verse.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAJohn and Michele first met at the ballpark, but now they share time on the golf course.