Wickman looking forward to '06 return

Wickman looking forward to '06

CLEVELAND -- There was one very good piece of news for Cleveland fans on Saturday: Closer Bob Wickman said that he was "99 percent sure" that he would return to pitch for the Indians next season.

On the field, the news was definitely not encouraging, as the Indians lost again to the Chicago White Sox, 4-3. The Indians now need a victory on Sunday combined with a loss by the Boston Red Sox to tie for the American League Wild Card berth and force a one-game playoff.

But Wickman's comments, made in an interview with MLB.com before the game, give the Indians legitimate promise of another very solid bullpen for 2006. Wickman is currently leading the AL with 45 saves, one off the club record held by Jose Mesa.

Wickman earlier in the season had been noncommittal about his possible return, saying only that he would discuss the issue with his family at the end of the season. That discussion will still occur, but Wickman said on Saturday that one thing keeping him 99 percent certain that he would come back rather than 100 percent certain was the possibility that he would suffer an arm injury in the final days of the season.

"That's the one percent," Wickman said. "I wouldn't want to do that to the organization. I wouldn't want to do that to my family."

It has been an amazing comeback for Wickman, who not only had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in December, but then suffered a serious setback to the elbow in Spring Training of 2004 and missed more than three months of that season. Wickman has gone from apparently being at the end of his career to being one of baseball's premier closers.

"I never expected to get another 31 saves to get to 200," he said. "I never expected to be one save away from tying Jose Mesa's best year ever here."

Wickman, 36, was a fine closer before the surgery. He was known as somebody who could be relied on, not only because of his ability and his competitive nature, but because he would take the ball whenever it was offered to him -- he would pitch with pain. Before the surgery, he was trying to pitch with an elbow that, as it turned out, contained a bone spur lodged in the middle of the joint that was shredding a ligament every time he extended his arm on a pitch.

"The doctor told me it was a train wreck in there," Wickman said.

Now, pitching while free of pain is a revelation to Wickman. "From last year, when I came back from the mishap in Spring Training, I have no idea what happened to my arm," he said with a smile. "[Orthopedic surgeon Lewis] Yocum gave me a 30 percent chance of coming back. Every time I see him out in Anaheim, or he calls, he says, 'How are you doing?' I say, 'I'm doing great. I thought I was supposed to feel pain.' They all say it's a new arm. It's unbelievable the fun I've had this season pitching with it. There is no pain. I do my normal routine every day, and let's go get 'em.

"It's something now to be able to just go out there and compete and say: 'Hey, if I get beat, I get beat with what I'm throwing up there.' It's not my arm restricting me."

Part of what will help to bring Wickman back is the Indians' very bright outlook for success next season. With the second-half resurgence of this club, even if this season does not end happily in Cleveland, it will be a season to build on with plenty of reasons for legitimate optimism.

"It's tremendous the way these guys have grown up, the way they've handled the pressure, and just the way they go about their business," Wickman says of this teammates. "Maybe it isn't right for me to say this, but if we don't get in [to the postseason], I still believe that these guys should be very proud of themselves for what they've accomplished. You know people might not like to hear that, but this organization, starting at the top with the Dolan family to [general manager] Mark Shapiro to the last guy -- whoever it is -- on the totem pole, should be proud of what they're building here."

Reaching the postseason would be the ideal culmination of a brilliant comeback season for Wickman. It may be that he has proven about as much as any post-surgical relief pitcher could prove in a single season. But he's still in the middle of another baseball project. His two oldest children are eight and six years old, and having them watch their father play, and developing an understanding of the game, is part of the process.

"My goal was to pitch one day in the Major Leagues," Wickman says. "My dream was fulfilled. But the goal I want out of baseball yet, is that my kids could understand, growing up and watching baseball played the right way. So if they come to the point where they want to play baseball, they at least understand the game."

Even if the Indians do not reach the postseason, this club's second-half performance and the presence of so much young talent proves that this is a team headed in the right direction. And its prospects for 2006 will be that much better when Bob Wickman's return moves from 99 percent certain to 100 percent certain.

Mike Bauman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.