The Cleveland Indians can say they weren't surprised that a 21-year-old pitcher who had a mere 16 major league starts would evolve into the ace of their staff in the space of four pressure-packed playoff games last week. Of course, the Indians are lying.
Cleveland began its American League Division Series against the New York Yankees desperate for good starting pitching. By the time the Indians had upset the defending world champions in five games, clinching the series with a 4-3 victory at Jacobs field on Monday night, rookie righthander Jaret Wright had eradicated that desperation and, in the process, become the unlikeliest of postseason heroes.
After starting this season with Double A Akron and moving up quickly to Triple A Buffalo, Wright was promoted to Cleveland on June 24 and went 8-3 with a 4.38 ERA while helping the Indians win the Central Division title. Then he swaggered into Yankee Stadium last week, heard the ear-splitting playoff atmosphere in the Bronx Zoo for the first time and said, "Seems like a nice place to pitch."
Was he so naive he couldn't comprehend the pressure? Was he evincing the same what-me-worry? attitude that his dad, former major league pitcher Clyde Wright, had been known for? The answer to those questions was yes. Both times the 6'2", 230-pound Jaret took the mound against New York—in Games 2 and 5—he outdueled lefthander Andy Pettitte, an 18-game winner this year and the runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award in 1996. He walked three of the first four batters he faced and was behind 3-0 after one inning of his postseason debut, but Wright allowed just three base runners over the next five innings and left with a 7-3 lead. Then he won Game 5, pitching 514 strong innings and yielding two earned runs. Besides his solid work, he also provided the Cleveland staff with some badly needed audacity, in glaring contrast to 15-game winner Charles Nagy's nonstop nibbling in a 6-1 loss in Game 3 and the awful Game 1 performance of 39-year-old Orel Hershiser, whom manager Mike Hargrove accused of not "trusting his stuff" after being handed a five-run first-inning lead.
Even if Wright's 95-mph fastball and nasty, slider didn't make him a logical candidate to emerge as the Indians' best playoff starter, maybe his 7-0 record in regular-season games he started after Cleveland losses should have. "He's shown me that he has no fear," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "He doesn't screw around. He goes right after hitters. A guy like that is what we need."
Indeed, Cleveland had been hunting for an ace since the end of the 1996 season. when it was surprisingly knocked out in the Division Series in four games by the Baltimore Orioles. Last winter Indians general manager John Hart tried in vain to sign top free agents like Roger Clemens, Alex Fernandez and John Smoltz. The need became more acute as eight pitchers went on the disabled list this season, including veterans Jack McDowell and John Smiley, who was acquired in July from the Cincinnati Reds to add a dependable lefthander to the rotation.
So Hargrove had little choice but to choose Wright, Cleveland's first-round draft pick in 1994, as his Game 2 starter against the Yankees, knowing full well that Wright would also have to pitch Game 5, if a fifth game was necessary. "I'd worry if he was any rookie but Jaret Wright," Hargrove said before Game 2. "To me, he's got the same arrogance, the same belief in himself that his father had, except"—and here Hargrove laughed—"I sec a lot better stuff from the kid than I did from his dad."
Though Clyde Wright won 100 games in the majors from 1966 through '75, he was a late bloomer who didn't have an arm as powerful as his son's. After four unremarkable years in which he won a total of 20 games for the California Angels, Clyde learned to throw a screwball in the Puerto Rican winter league in '69, and the effect on his career was dramatic: The following year he pitched a no-hitter against the Oakland As, won 22 games and made the American League All-Star team. By '73, however, he was backsliding toward mediocrity, and in the next two seasons he played briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Texas Rangers. After the '75 season he went off to play for the Yomiuri Giants, leaving his wife, Vicki, and infant Jaret home in the U.S. While in Japan, Wright began to drink too much, a problem which got worse in the next few years. Last year he told the Los Angeles Times that in '79 Vicki warned him "either I stop [drinking] or she was leaving me. I went golfing one day and then drinking and when I came home, she was gone. When she came back, Jaret was in the van. I went to open the door and he pushed the lock down. He was 3 years old." Now, says the 56-year-old Clyde, "I haven't had a drink in 18 years."
These days he runs the Clyde Wright Pitching School for kids out of a one-room shed at a recreational baseball facility in Anaheim. He and Vicki were in the stands for Game 2. After that game, Clyde walked around Yankee Stadium like the proud father he was, shaking hands, slapping backs and accepting congratulations for his son's performance. Then he cracked up onlookers during television interviews and later with a group of writers. But when asked what pitching advice he had given to Jaret, Clyde turned serious and said, "There's nothing I could tell him. I would love to have his stuff for just a day."
As coming-out parties go, Jaret Wright's was nearly perfect. Here was a kid cackling at the pressure that left many veteran pitchers in this series cotton-mouthed and timid. Here was a first-year player who wanted the ball with the series on the line—"That's the thrill of competition," he said—yet admitted that his nerves were clattering like pot lids when he first took the mound against the Yankees. "How did I get through it?" Wright said. "I just threw up a big wall. I think that's what you've got to do—just think about you and the catcher."