In the span of one year, closer John Wetteland went from postseason goat to World Series MVP
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
In April 1995, then-Yankees General Manager Gene Michael pulled off a trade that could be looked upon as one of the greatest deals in Yankees history. In exchange for first-base prospect Fernando Seguignol -- who would tally a total of 91 hits in his five-year Major League career -- the Yankees received Montreal Expos closer John Wetteland.
The 28-year-old reliever racked up 31 saves in his first regular season in pinstripes before struggling in the 1995 American League Division Series and blowing a save against Seattle in Game 4.
Wetteland came to Spring Training in 1996 determined to rebound, and hopeful that he would have the chance to show that he could come through in October. That's exactly what he did.
During the regular season, Wetteland led the AL with 43 saves while helping the Yankees clinch the AL East. That October, he was a perfect 7 for 7 in save opportunities. Wetteland's performance in the 1996 World Series, in which he saved all four of the Yankees' victories, earned the closer MVP honors.
Earlier this season, Wetteland sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in the right-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium to discuss the 1996 season.
How did you feel when you were traded from the talented Montreal Expos team to the up-and-coming Yankees?
The only thing I was unhappy about was that the Expos team I was on had so many great young players, many of whom went on to become All-Stars, and it was getting broken up. It wasn't financially viable for Montreal to hang on to us. That's the only thing I was sad about. But on the flip side, I was going to be a New York Yankee, and I don't know how you can't get excited about that.
Was it hard to adjust to the increased media attention and the added pressure that came with playing in New York?
There was a tremendous adjustment on many levels. We'll start with the reporters -- you've got a flood of them around your locker after every game in New York. Also, in Montreal, they had a very loyal fan base of about 15,000 people who were there every night. At Yankee Stadium, the core group of fans was more like 25,000. As far as the types of teammates I had, we were all kids in Montreal just having fun and playing really well. In New York, we had veterans, and it was important to watch the way they went about their business. I grew up in New York.
How much did giving up a grand slam in Game 4 of the '95 ALDS and not getting a chance to go back out there in Game 5 shake your confidence?
It didn't shake my confidence, but it really upset me. I still say that I single-handedly lost that series for the Yankees in '95. I also believe that what I was able to do in 1996 came as a direct result of '95. I really let the emotion of the situation get to me in the '95 postseason. But when I took the mound in the '96 postseason, I realized that what I needed to do was no different than what I had done so well in the regular season.
When you think back on that grueling ALDS in '95, what stands out in your memory?
After I gave up the grand slam in Game 4 to Edgar Martinez, a friend of mine who was in town said, "Come on, John, let's go get something to eat." So we went out for dinner and the waitress said, "Did you see the game tonight?" I sat down at the table and said, "Yes, I had the best seat in the house."
What were your thoughts on Joe Torre taking over for Buck Showalter in 1996?
I met Joe on the first day of Spring Training. We had our workout, and I walked up to him in the clubhouse afterward. I told him that I was used to pitching multiple innings and that I really liked that. He said, "John, my closer pitches one inning a night." And I just said, "Yes, sir." He wanted to be able to put me into as many games as possible, and he obviously knew what he was doing. Joe was beautiful because he could speak to veterans and youngsters. There was such an ease about his spirit. I was impressed and comfortable immediately with him. I knew I could trust him to the end of the earth.
What are your first memories of working with Mariano Rivera?
We really got close in '96. In '95, he got the lay of the land, and I let him ease his way in. Mo was always one of the most observant people I had been around. He's intelligent, and he has an uncanny ability to pick things up. When he got moved to the bullpen and things really got going for him, I saw a lot of myself in him.
What are your recollections of the snowy 1996 home opener?
We were all sitting in the bullpen wondering why they weren't calling the game, because we couldn't even see home plate through the snow. Even though it wasn't a save situation, Joe Torre put me into the game and I pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. That felt wonderful. Joe knew what had happened in the '95 ALDS, and he wanted to get that out of the way. That was part of his brilliance.
You converted all 15 of your save opportunities that June, and the team's lead in the standings began to expand. Did it seem like things were coming together at that point?
That was a special month for the entire team. Winning games became business as usual for us. We really developed a workmanlike attitude right around that time. That's when we became Joe's team.
That late-innings combination of Mariano and you really took shape in July. Looking back, how vital were you both to that team?
Mariano was the bread and butter of what we did that season. He put the ball into my hands. If we were winning in the sixth, I knew I'd be getting the ball in the ninth. That was the beauty of watching Mariano develop that season. We also had Jeff Nelson, and he was nasty as a set-up man. He never wanted to close or have anything to do with that. We were 70-3 when we were winning after the sixth, and that is absolutely incredible.
What was the camaraderie in that bullpen like?
It was hard to match. When you have a bullpen that's rolling along, coming to work is a lot of fun. There was never a bad day at work, and we all got along. We were all professional toward our job, but unprofessional toward each other. Starting pitchers are more like symphony musicians, and when you get down to the bullpen, we're more like a punk rock band. All the guys in that bullpen were ready to go in when that phone rang, but we also had way too much fun out there.
What were the emotions you had when the team clinched a playoff berth, and you knew that you would have a chance to redeem yourself in the postseason?
I felt like this time around it had to be different.
After the team dropped Game 1 of the ALDS to Texas, Torre brought you to the mound in the 10th inning of Game 2. How much pressure was there on you and the other relievers who came into that game to keep the score tied?
It would have been pretty bad if we had lost that game. Our mentality in those situations was no different than if we were pitching with a lead. We talked about being in situations like that in the bullpen all season, so we were prepared for it. It was a lot different than the year before.
You came into Game 5 of the AL Championship Series in Baltimore with a 6-2 lead, and you made things interesting. What are your recollections of getting the last three outs of that series?
Well, I gave up a home run to Bobby Bonilla that made it 6-4 with two outs. I guess that's the way I liked it back then. I liked sweating it out, and I was good at getting through those situations in 1996. Cal Ripken Jr. came up after that, and he's an all-around great hitter. He knew how to get hits off the toughest pitchers in the game because he had seen it all. I knew that my back was against the wall. I set him up for a fastball and threw the slider. He had to lunge for it, and he didn't take a good swing or hit the ball that hard. Derek [Jeter] made a great play, and I was happy that he recorded the out that sent the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in 15 years.
What was the best part of that afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards?
Getting the baseball from the last out and presenting it to Joe. After all of the games he had managed, he really deserved the chance to finally go to the World Series. I gave him the baseball right on the field, and I said, "Congratulations. We're going to the World Series."
How impactful was the speech that Wade Boggs delivered on the plane ride to Atlanta after your team had lost the first two games of the World Series at home?
What I remember most is the feeling that Wade gave off. Wade is one of the most passionate players I've ever been around. He's a beautiful man. When he felt the need to get up and say something, we knew that we needed to take it in. He gave us the feeling that we were better than what we had done in the first two games, and he emphasized that he knew we could come back. That certainly made a big impact on me.
What were some of the other factors that got the team going in Atlanta?
Every paper we picked up said that we were done and that the Braves were going to continue to make a mockery of us down there. We started pasting those clips on the walls of our clubhouse. Joe did nothing to stop that. He held a meeting, and it was probably one minute long. It was low-key, and he just said, "Let's do what we do." Even though we were down, 0-2, and headed for the lion's den, we didn't lose any confidence in what we were about.
What do you remember about the atmosphere in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when you entered Game 3?
It was loud, but I was immune to it. I was in the right frame of mind.
You came into Game 5 with one out in the ninth to protect a 1-0 lead with a runner on third. What was your mindset when you took the mound that night in relief of Andy Pettitte?
I was just thinking about getting the second out. When I got to the mound, Jim Leyritz and Charlie Hayes came out to discuss our approach against Javy Lopez. Javy was an excellent fastball hitter, one of the best in the league at that time. I always started guys off with a fastball just to get ahead. But I felt that Javy was too good of a fastball hitter to take that chance, so I told Jim that I wanted to start him off with a slider. Then I told Charlie to be ready because I knew Javy would be expecting a fastball.
Sure enough, Javy smoked a grounder to Charlie for the second out. After intentionally walking Ryan Klesko, I went after Luis Polonia, and I got him to hit a fly ball to right field. I was confident in my knowledge and my abilities, and I executed.
What were your emotions when you came out of the bullpen for Game 6 at Yankee Stadium? Were you able to treat it like any other game, or was the moment too big?
I felt like everything we wanted to accomplish was on my shoulders, but I had to somehow detach myself from that. I let a few guys on base, and I let a run in. With the score now 3-2, I was wary of giving up a home run.
I have to admit, as much as I don't want to, I was getting even more nervous as the inning went on. The crowd was going crazy, and I was letting that affect me.
With two outs, Mark Lemke came up, and with a full count, I threw a perfect low-and-away fastball. He fouled it into the seats next to third base. After that, I detached myself from everything. I couldn't even hear the fans anymore. I just told myself to Xerox that same pitch, and that's what I did. Mark was a little bit earlier on it, and Charlie was able to get under it. In one pitch, I finally found the inner focus I needed.
What was it like being in the middle of the celebration that ensued?
It was wild. When Charlie made the catch, I bent down on one knee and made a prayer of thanks and then I jumped into Joe Girardi's arms. At that moment, I was feeling 80 percent relief and 20 percent joy. I was glad it was finally over. Then I was on the bottom of the pile with Wade Boggs crying and pounding my chest. As the pile got bigger, I could feel my arm bending backward, so I started screaming, "Get off." I thought my arm was going to break, but luckily, the guys heard me.
What does it mean to be a World Series MVP?
Honestly, it's really humbling. I'm grateful. To have had the opportunity to play for a historic franchise and to be a small part of its history is something that I'm grateful for.
For a generation of fans, that was the first Yankees team that had won a championship. What comes to mind when you reflect on the many people that team touched?
Don Mattingly comes to mind. He was one of the greatest players I was ever around, and he didn't get a chance to win the World Series. He's a humble man and a true champion. Even though he wasn't on our 1996 team, we wouldn't have won it without having been around him in the seasons before. His character was what we aspired toward in 1996.
Twenty years after that amazing partnership, how would you describe your relationship with Mariano today?
I think we're like an old married couple sitting in the living room. One's reading the paper, the other one's sipping tea and listening to some soft music. We don't really have to talk that often, but we love each other dearly. Mariano and I never got into deep discussions when we were playing. He asked questions, and I always answered them. I made observations and he would say, "OK, I understand." You never had to give an in-depth explanation with Mariano because he was already there. He understood within the first two words that came out of your mouth. He wanted to get better every day. That's the way we should all be.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.