“A Life of Knuckleballs”: Just Missed the Cut, Part I
When I first wrote the manuscript for Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs, I had over 600,000 words, which, of course, made it unpublishable.
So, my publisher, McFarland & Co., requested me to cut the manuscript down, and because of that, many stories did not make the cut.
Over the next little while, I will be posting some of the original content that didn’t make it to the book. I call this, “Missed the Cut.”
This one is from Tom Candiotti’s first month in the majors, with the stories about Pete Vuckovich and the Milwaukee veterans not making it into the book:
The Brewers were still in contention even with the struggles of veteran Don Sutton—who despite pitching nine shutout innings against California on August 24th, was 0-5 with a 6.49 ERA in his last seven starts.
Even though the veteran wasn’t getting it done, the rookies certainly were, up to that point. Including Candiotti, the Brewers had four rookie pitchers who each played a big role in the team’s success. The quartet had 19 wins and 10 saves, led by reliever Tom Tellmann (nine wins, eight saves), Chuck Porter (six wins), Bob Gibson (two wins, two saves), and of course, Candiotti (two complete-game wins in two starts).
As it turned out, Milwaukee wouldn’t win another game in which Tellmann, Porter, and Gibson appeared until the final three days of the season. Tellmann would pitch well down the stretch (2.31 ERA) but the Brewers would go 0-9 in his final nine appearances of the season. They would be 0-4 in Gibson’s appearances—he was 0-2—until he defeated Detroit 6-2 in a meaningless start on the final weekend. As for Porter, he would be 0-4 with a 7.16 ERA—the Brewers would lose all six of his starts—before beating the Tigers 7-4 on the final day of the season.
As for Vuckovich, he wouldn’t make a difference when he made his long-awaited season debut on August 31st. The reigning Cy Young winner would last only 14.2 innings in three starts, going 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA. Meanwhile, in a complete reversal of Sutton’s September 1982 performance, the veteran right-hander would be 1-3 with a 3.80 ERA in his final six starts of 1983.
As Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell noted in late August, “The core of the Brewers’ suspect rotation—Sutton, Mike Caldwell and Bob McClure—has a combined 25-26 record and an ERA over 4.40. When you have to give 27 starts in the pennant race to Chuck Porter, Tom Candiotti, Bob Gibson, Jerry Augustine and Rick Waits, you’re in line for baseball sympathy” (Thomas Boswell, “Mighty Brewers Have Gone From Muscle to Hustle Team,” Washington Post, August 22, 1983).
Though Vuckovich would go winless in 1983, Candiotti, to this day, marvels at the clubhouse presence he exhibited that season. “Vuckovich, like the veteran players, made sure the rookies were paying attention to what was going on,” says Candy. “I’d be on the bench. He’d walk by in the ninth inning and say, ‘What did this batter do in his second at-bat?’ So I’d have to recall the pitch count and things like that. He kept me in the game, kept me watching all the time. That’s how baseball was back then. The veterans kept the young players in the game. All those guys made sure the rookies were paying attention and knew what was going on. And boy, I tell ya, if Pete was asking you a question, you’d better get it right!”
Candiotti also credits Vuckovich with teaching him a lot about pitching, especially pitching around hitters. “He taught me an awful lot, being able to pick the outs you wanna get. I was never taught to walk guys intentionally, like intentionally ‘unintentionally.’ But he sat down with me and went through things with me that I never knew.” For instance, many times a pitcher would walk a hitter apparently unintentionally, when actually it was almost intentional. If, say, there was a runner on second base and a tough hitter up, the pitcher wouldn’t actually give him an intentional pass, but would pitch carefully to him. If the pitcher got the batter out to chase pitches out of the strike zone, that was great. If he walked the hitter, that was fine too—his main goal was to basically not give the batter anything to hit. Candiotti, who never liked to walk hitters, learned to appreciate such a pitching strategy. He was grateful for having Vuckovich as a mentor in teaching him how to pitch in the majors.
“He wore me out, though,” Candiotti laughs. “I had to buy him this and that. This was kind of like my ‘welcome’ to the big leagues. Of course, that Brewers team was a veteran club. [Catcher] Bill Schroeder and I were two of the few rookies that year, until the September call-ups came up to Milwaukee. For a while there, Pete really wore us out. I know he wore me out. He wouldn’t let me in the trainer’s room initially. I was tested as a rookie. But once I passed the test, he was awesome. He was a great teammate to be around.” And how did Candiotti pass the test?
“Well, what happened was I was making my first major-league start. I went into the trainer’s room and Vuckovich was there. He goes, ‘What are you doing here, rookie?’
“I go, ‘I’m just gonna get some heat.’
“Pete says, ‘Get the hell outta here, rookie.’”
Candiotti didn’t let Vuckovich’s abuse bother him. He left the room, pitched Milwaukee into first place, and kept his distance from the veteran pitcher. Soon enough, Vuckovich approached the rookie to welcome him. “A few days later,” Candiotti says, “he comes up to me and goes, ‘You’re doing pretty well. You can come into the trainer’s room now.’ So after that, he was great. But if I’d fought him on it, he would’ve made my life miserable that rookie season.”
He still laughs at how Vuckovich walked 102 batters with 105 strikeouts during the 1982 season and still won the AL Cy Young Award*. While Vuckovich was second in the league in wins—finishing 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA—he was also second in bases on balls. “Now, I think back and I wonder—and I’d joke about it with him—‘How did you win the Cy Young with those numbers?’” Candiotti says with a grin. “He had over a hundred walks! I’d joke about it with Pete, like, ‘That’s one of the strangest things how you won that award!’”
Another veteran who helped Candiotti along that first season was catcher Ted Simmons, who’d assign him homework. “Ted once got me to do a report about the ball-strike counts on which most baserunners ran,” he says. “You know, which counts runners go the most. Or he’d quiz me on pitch selections during a game. It was great. And of course, he called a knuckleball for the first big-league pitch I ever threw. He knew how to help me out as a young player. It was a huge thing for me.”
*One could make the argument that Toronto’s Dave Stieb was robbed of the Cy Young in 1982. Vuckovich, who made 30 starts, pitched 223.2 innings with nine complete games, including one shutout. Stieb, meanwhile, started 38 games, completed 19 of them, tossed five shutouts, and threw 288.1 innings. He led the AL in innings, complete games, and shutouts, and was tied for third in games started. He was 17-14 with a 3.25 ERA, walking 75 and fanning 141.