Despite what Bull Durham might have you believe, there's more to a wild pitcher's finding his control than teaming with a veteran catcher, bedding Susan Sarandon and bouncing the occasional heater off the mascot. Which explains why defrocked Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers took the hill last Thursday for the Triple A Richmond Braves in front of 6,060 spectators—including 36 citizens of Left Hand, W.Va., who were bused in by Richmond in honor of International Lefthanders Day.
The daftness of the promotion was probably lost on Wohlers. After all, how could there be room in his head for a fresh thought? In the past three months, after his ability to throw the ball over—or near—the plate abandoned him, he has been besieged by scores of well-wishers suggesting, in Wohlers's words, "mechanical changes, hypnosis, all kinds of crap." Since Braves manager Bobby Cox stripped him of his closer's role in June, Wohlers has been picked at, probed and deconstructed by four pitching coaches, not to mention various so-called performance consultants, including Walter Herbison, with whom Wohlers had worked as a minor leaguer in 1990. It should come as no surprise that they have pulled him in opposite directions.
"They were telling Mark if was mechanics," says Herbison, "but Mark told me, 'That's bulls—-. You know it's in my head.' " Alas, Herbison's approach, which encouraged Wohlers to "pitch from his right brain," ran afoul of pitching instructor Guy Hansen's analytical, left-brain methods, and Herbison went home. As if the great cerebral hemisphere debate hadn't given Wohlers enough to worry about, his wife of five years, Nancy, filed for divorce on Aug. 5. "It's so frustrating," Wohlers says. "I can't put into words how frustrating it is."
Wohlers's first stint with Richmond was a horrible (21.12 ERA) 17-day stay in late June and early July. Predictably, upon his return to Atlanta, he was wilder than Charlie Sheen on his birthday. Of the 112 pitches he threw in the bigs in July, only 43 were strikes. And when he missed the plate, he really missed the plate. Still, he fought making another trip to Richmond, saying he needed to have success at the major league level to be cured. He finally relented on Aug. 11. "The only reason I'm here," he says of Richmond, "is that I'm worried about a spot on the playoff roster."
But time is short. Postseason rosters will be finalized on Aug. 31, which leaves Wohlers precious little time to regain Cox's confidence. Through Sunday nothing he had done during his latest trip to Richmond indicated that he was close. In his first three appearances he walked seven hitters in 2? innings and threw six wild pitches, most of them fastballs.
Overcoming wildness is nothing new for Wohlers. His first pitching coach, Matt West, remembers a lanky 18-year-old with horrible mechanics and bad control. "We totally undressed him mechanically and gave him new clothes to wear, so to speak," says West. The makeover took, and Wohlers emerged as one of the most accurate relievers in baseball. In 1995 and '96 he saved 64 games, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.2 to 1 was second only to Dennis Eckersley's among closers. In '95 he got the final three outs in the decisive sixth game of the World Series.
The fact that Wohlers has gone from wild man to World Series hero once before augurs well for a recovery, according to Jack Llewellyn, the Braves' sports psychology consultant. "He's not trying to go somewhere he's never been," said Llewellyn during a visit to Richmond last week to work with Wohlers. "He's just trying to get back."