Bob Wolcott: The Early Years.
After an uneventful youth and a steady climb through the minors that brought him to the big leagues at the age of 22, Bob spent his next 22 years getting out of the first inning Tuesday night.
Perhaps it seemed like an eternity to you.
But, truly, we all get better with age, and by the time he was furloughed from Game 1 of the American League Championship Series after seven innings, Bob Wolcott was a Seattle Mariners legend.
And, hey, there aren’t that many - even with the intoxicating events of the past week.
Now, the big question:
Would Lou Piniella bring him out of the bullpen on two days’ rest if Big Unit wilts under the pressure Friday?
Bob Wolcott may well decide to retire this morning. If he does, his 8-by-10 will be on a wall at Sneakers by noon. How, indeed, do you top this?
“You don’t,” he admitted.
What Bob Wolcott can’t top is the 3-2 victory he pitched the Mariners to over their ALCS fiefy-foe, the Cleveland Indians, and their 40-year-old ace, Dennis Martinez.
It is only Game 1 of a best-of-seven - with a lot of pitches yet to be pounded off and over the fences - but it is one game few gave the M’s a chance of winning.
Right. What have they been smoking?
“This one was easy,” said closer Norm Charlton, who saved it with an inning-and-a-third of overpowering relief. “Compared to what we’ve been through the last month, this was nothing.
“We had a lead. We never lost it. We didn’t go 15 innings. We didn’t have to score a guy from first in the 11th inning to win.”
Nope. All they had to do was finesse some 11th-hour paperwork past the A.L. bureaucrats to free up a fresh arm - a 22-year-old rookie who started the year in Double-A - and then agonize while he did a Wallenda against the baddest ball team in the land.
Bartender, a round of Maalox for the house.
You know how the Mariners got themselves into this fine mess, Ollie. They burned up all their pitching playing chicken with the Angels and Yankees - that is to say, they burned up Randy Johnson. You won’t see him again until Game 3. The rest of the rotation was spent, as well, and the thought of having to start Bob Wells against the Cleveland lumber company was as distasteful to manager Lou Piniella as going back to work for George Steinbrenner.
Then somebody had a bright idea: What about Bob?
He’d pitched well for the M’s in several big games down the stretch, and someone in the front office had noticed a loophole in the playoff constitution that would make him eligible.
It seemed like a slick move, until he walked the first three batters he faced Tuesday night. Halfway there, he was visited by Piniella.
“He told me if we get beat 11-0,” Wolcott said, “we’ll still have a great off-season.”
The theory was to relax him. It didn’t have much immediate effect. Wolcott resumed walking the bases loaded, at which point Albert Belle - he of the Popeye forearms and 50 home runs this season - clomped to the plate.
Then a funny thing happened. Wolcott struck Belle out. Eddie Murray chased a high one and popped it up and Jim Thome blasted a rocket up the middle that Joey Cora gloved with a superb dive.
“If you give up only one or two runs, you’re doing well,” Piniella said. “None is a great feeling.”
But the melodrama went on.
Two Indians reached in the second. Neither scored. They pushed a run across in the third and then loaded the bases with one out. Double play.
The sweat on the bill of Wolcott’s cap had reached flood stage, but on he battled - making better pitches inning by inning until Belle blistered one over the wall in the seventh inning to tie the game. Then the M’s reclaimed the lead in the bottom half, and Wolcott’s job was done.
“I was nervous, I’ve got to admit it,” said Wolcott, who grew up in Medford, Ore. “I tried to treat it as just another game, but there was a lot of pressure and it got to me.
“To walk the first three guys, I felt terrible. I’ve never done anything like that. It was nerve-wracking. I was pretty relaxed, really, when I started - I didn’t get nervous until I started walking people.”
And though he didn’t feel comfortable until the fourth inning - after the M’s had given him a lead on Mike Blowers’ home run - the key was surviving the first.
“When you don’t jump on a guy, when you give a pitcher a chance to get out of a jam like that with no runs, he tends to relax,” said Martinez. “He knows he’s escaped the worst and he’s only going to get better.”
Which is what the M’s must feel like, at least a little.
Piniella has preached that his club needs to split the first two games of this series at home and win one of three in Cleveland because it will give them a chance to win the final two at home. Now that they’ve at least split - and with their unlikeliest hero beating Cleveland’s veteran - they may start thinking bigger.
“We need to win every time we have a chance to win,” said Charlton. “This was one that we couldn’t let get away. It doesn’t matter who goes out there and wins or how it’s done, as long as we win four games. Anyone - Randy Johnson will tell you he doesn’t care if he pitches and loses his game, as long as we win four.”
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