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 8⅔ 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.