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Happy birthday, John Wetteland: A tribute to a 1996 Yankees hero

Although Mariano Rivera was the most famous reliever on that '96 champions, his predecessor at closer had a tremendous arm himself.

Yankees fans will never forget this image of Wetteland at the end of '96.
Yankees fans will never forget this image of Wetteland at the end of '96.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of the luxuries of being a Yankees fan is that there is no shortage of amazing players. Writing about them is half the fun of the ongoing "Top 100 Yankees" series, which will resume in the off-season. However, there are even beloved more people associated with the Yankees who won't appear on that list simply because they were not around long enough to merit consideration. World Series-winning teams are never forgotten by the fans, and the most integral performers on those teams never fail to receive huge ovations at Yankee Stadium events.

John Wetteland perfectly fits the description above. No one who followed the 1996 World Series champions will ever forget the reliable closer who would always make fans' hearts race during his saves, but rarely let them down. The latter half of the '96 Yankees' devastating one-two bullpen punch with then-setup man Mariano Rivera, Wetteland became the World Series MVP of the Yankees' first title in 18 years, the first seen by an entire generation of fans. The three-peat from 1998-2000 was special, but many fans cherish that '96 title more than any other. Wetteland was pivotal to their success, and even though he was only on the team for two years, he is one of the most popular relievers in franchise history. Today is his 49th birthday, so it's definitely worth remembering his fascinating career on this day.

Bumpy road to the bigs

A California native, Wetteland was born on August 21, 1966 to a family that already had ties to baseball. His father Ed was a former minor league pitcher in the Cubs' system before becoming a pianist and cabaret performer in San Francisco. Wetteland's father was an interesting fellow who built a one-room cabin in Sebastopol, CA and housed his small family in a tent next to it while he built their home. He strongly encouraged his son's interest in the game, buying him the best gloves available, even when he and his wife divorced in 1982.

The divorce clearly had an effect on Wetteland, who had a wayward few years with heavy drinking and drug use between high school and the big leagues. As Jack Curry wrote in a '95 profile of him, Wetteland almost died at age 17, he almost died. Twice.

The head trips were there. Wetteland almost died twice around the age of 17. Once he nearly overdosed on a combination of drugs, including LSD, at a Grateful Dead concert. Another time, Wetteland was in the front seat when a drunken friend rammed his car into a telephone pole. Something happened. He trudged on. He kept playing baseball and guitar. He kept walking crooked.

Despite his troubles, his right arm continued to impress scouts at Cardinal Newman High School, as well as at the College of San Mateo. He only spent one year pitching collegiately before the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the second round of the 1985 MLB Draft with the 39th overall pick.

Those were difficult years, too, as Wetteland struggled on the mound for the first time in his life. As a starter, he could only manage a 4.11 ERA over six years in the Dodgers' system, twice posting seasons with ERAs over five. He was claimed by the Tigers in the 1987 Rule 5 Draft, but didn't impress them in spring training, so he was returned to L.A. before playing a game in Detroit. He was ineffective in 53 major league games and 17 starts between 1989 and 1990, ultimately earning a demotion for almost the entire '91 season. That year though, he began to find inner peace through religion, and he also began to find inner peace on the mound in a different role: closer.

The man who decided on the change was one who had watched Wetteland since managing him in Rookie Ball in 1985, future manager Kevin Kennedy. Eventually Kennedy decided that it just wasn't worth it to keep trying Wetteland out as a starter. In Jonah Keri's book on the Montreal Expos, Up, Up, & Away, Kennedy noted "He was so intense. There were times when you had to go out there and just tell him to breathe."

The switch saved Wetteland's career. He had a 2.79 ERA and 20 saves in 41 games with Triple-A Albuquerque in '91, then threw nine scoreless innings in the big leagues at the end of the '91 season. Unfortunately, Dodgers skipped Tommy Lasorda had already given up on him, calling him "high maintenance" and not worth the off-field issues. By the off-season, Kennedy had joined the Expos as an advisor to young GM Dan Duquette, and he gave Duquette all of his notes on Wetteland. He became available when the Dodgers included Wetteland in a four-team November trade that netted them Reds star Eric Davis. The Reds' bullpen was already loaded with the "Nasty Boys" from their 1990 championship bullpen, so they sought to move him. Duquette acquired Wetteland barely two weeks later in exchange for an unimpressive package of future Joe Maddon bench coach Dave Martinez, Willie Greene, and Scott Ruskin.

Rise to glory in Montreal

It was a steal of a trade for the Expos, as they installed Wetteland as their closer and he immediately dividends. Over three seasons in Montreal, Wetteland was superb, providing dominance at the back of their bullpen alongside setup man Mel Rojas. He pitched to 2.32 ERA, 2.54 FIP, 1.089 WHIP, saved 105 games, and struck out 280 batters in 232 1/3 innings with the help of his blazing fastball and big curve. The Expos themselves were putting together a tremendous young team in Montreal that was loaded with talent like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Pedro Martinez, and after nearly snatching the NL East division title away the eventual pennant-winning Phillies in 1993, they roared out to the best record in baseball in 1994 with Wetteland finishing off almost every close victory.

Anyone familiar with the 1994 season knows the end of this sad story, though. The MLB Players Association and the owners were at odds over the owners' planned changes to the collective bargaining agreement, such as a salary cap, the elimination of arbitration, and more.

So the players went on strike in mid-August and never returned. Fans of the 1994 Yankees might have lost Don Mattingly's best shot at a World Series, but Expos fans basically lost their franchise because of the strife caused by 1994. Many fans never returned, and the greedy Expos ownership group slashed the budget, forcing GM Kevin Malone to deal their best players for basically no return.

Yankees GM Gene "Stick" Michael saw the opportunity to fortify the back of his bullpen. Although Steve Howe found success as the '94 Yankees' closer, he was a drug addict who had been suspended from baseball several times previously, and Michael knew that he shouldn't put too much trust in Howe at the closer's role. So once the players and owners reconciled in April 1995, he dealt Quad-A slugger Fernando Seguignol to Montreal for Wetteland, much to Jonah Keri and his fellow Expos' fans disgust.

Heartbreak in 1995

Wetteland's first season in New York was definitely full of ups and downs. On the positive side, he had another excellent season, stabilizing the closer's role with a 2.93 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, and a remarkable 0.880 WHIP while saving 31 games in 37 opportunities. However, four of those blown saves came in August as the team fell apart, including one extremely tough walk-off loss at the Kingdome on a Ken Griffey Jr. homer. He seemed to put it back together in September though, surrendering just one run the entire month while saving eight straight games as the Yankees rallied to capture the AL Wild Card.

Then... the Division Series against the Mariners happened. It was absolutely brutal for Wetteland. He entered Game 1 in the ninth with a five-run lead and ended up putting the tying run in the on-deck before squeaking with the win on 28 pitches. Game 2 was better, as he preserved the nail-biting 4-4 tie through the 9th, 10th, and 11th before Griffey rocked him again in the 12th for a solo shot that briefly gave the Mariners a 5-4 lead. Skipper Buck Showalter might have asked for too much from his closer on no rest, but nonetheless, it was another mark on his record. Still, the Yankees took a 2-0 lead to Seattle and needed to win just one game out of three in the Kingdome to advance to the ALCS. They lost Game 3 and blew an early 5-0 lead in Game 4, but the game was still tied at 6-6 when Wetteland entered in the eighth. What followed was one of the worst relief performances in playoff history: a walk to Vince Coleman (.324 career OBP), a drag bunt single by Joey Cora, and a pitch that drilled Griffey to load the bases. Then this:

The Yankees lost Game 4 by a score of 11-8, and Showalter lost all faith in his closer. Publicly, Wetteland put on a brave face, but privately, he and the clubhouse were disappointed that their manager had lost faith in such an effective regular season closer already. Even as ace David Cone exhausted himself in Game 5 with 147 pitches and a game-tying bases loaded walk in the eighth, Wetteland sat on the bullpen bench. By that point, Showalter even trusted the mostly unknown rookie Mariano Rivera over him. When Rivera ran into trouble in the ninth, Wetteland did not come in to bail him out; instead, it was starter Jack McDowell. When the Yankees took a 5-4 lead in the 11th and were three outs from the ALCS, Wetteland again sat on the bullpen bench while McDowell took the mound and gave up three straight hits to lose the series.

From goat to World Series MVP

The '95 campaign was just another bump in Wetteland's rollercoaster life. To his credit, he could have let his '95 playoff struggles bother him as the Yankees prepared for the '96 season under a new manager, Joe Torre. Actually, he was more bothered by suddenly penurious owner George Steinbrenner. In arbitration, he and the Yankees had agreed to a $4 million contract for '96, a modest $625,000 raise from '95, but he had not signed it yet because his agent was working on an extension with Steinbrenner. That extension never came, and as the regular season began, the Boss decided to only pay him his $3.375 million '95 salary. Wetteland and his agent were furious and filed a grievance for Wetteland to become a free agent due to breach of contract, and he might have had Steinbrenner not begun honoring the $4 million contract in mid-May.

It was a distraction early on in '96, and after a weird back-and-forth with a Toronto reporter complaining about his contract that Wetteland initially denied until the reporter produced audio, Torre had a chat with Wetteland. As Joel Sherman recounted in Birth of a Dynasty, Torre told Wetteland "I know you are unhappy. I know you are mad at certain rules. But you have to get over it. People are counting on you."

The controversy vanished and Wetteland returned to being a quietly dominant closer. Wetteland led the bullpen with his first All-Star season; he saved an AL-best 43 games in 47 opportunities, pitched to a 2.83 ERA and 3.83 FIP, and struck out a very nice 69 batters in 63 2/3 innings. He was also a valuable mentor to Rivera, a former starter like himself now thrust into a key bullpen role. The bad days were obviously extremely rare for Rivera during his unbelievable breakout season in '96, but when they came, Wetteland was quick to remind him to immediately forget the bad days and never to get beat on his second-best pitch. It's possible that Rivera could have matured into the greatest closer in baseball history without Wetteland's guidance, but it certainly didn't hurt. Wetteland was the unquestioned leader of the bullpen, one which would feature other solid young relievers like Jeff Nelson, Bob Wickman, and Graeme Lloyd. He kept it loose in the clubhouse too, making his teammates laugh all the time with his crazy rollerblading through the Yankee Stadium tunnels.

Wetteland's postseason in '96 was a far cry from his '95 struggles. In 12 games and 12 1/3 innings through the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series, he allowed just three runs while saving seven games and finishing off the series victories over the Rangers, the Orioles, and of course, the Braves. Yankee Stadium might have been louder than it has ever been in Game 6 of the World Series with Wetteland on the mound in the ninth. The team had rallied from down 0-2 series and Wetteland was on the verge of his fourth save in as many games. In typical Wetteland fashion, he put some runners on base, even allowing one to score. The team was still confident in him though. He had earned their trust, and with one more fastball to Braves second baseman Mark Lemke, he finished off the dream, sending the Bronx into a frenzy:

For his efforts, Wetteland was named the World Series MVP. That last out was also the last pitch Wetteland would ever throw in pinstripes. After the season, the Yankees made the tough decision to let him walk as a free agent and turn closing duties over to the younger and cheaper Rivera. Wetteland signed what was then the biggest contract for a reliever in baseball history, a four-year, $23 million deal with the team he closed out in the ALDS, the Rangers.

All-Star Texas closer

Wetteland was solid as ever for Texas during his deal, pitching 248 games with the Rangers while posting 150 saves, a 2.95 ERA, and a 3.66 FIP, including All-Star seasons in '98 and '99. After a one-year loss of the title to the powerhouse Mariners in '97, the Rangers won back-to-back AL West titles in those All-Star seasons, and Wetteland was again an incredibly valuable member of the team. Unfortunately for him, in both years, the Rangers were matched up in the ALDS against his old Yankees teammates, who had evolved into a dynamo with 114 wins in '98 and 98 wins in '99. Wetteland was never even given a lead to protect. Despite having an offense that scored at least 940 runs in both seasons, the Rangers' lineup was held to just one run in three games in both years as the Yankees swept them away twice on the way to more championships.

The Rangers fell to fourth place in 2000 though, and while Wetteland still had 34 saves and a 120 ERA+, his fastball velocity had diminished. Furthermore, he suffered through through back problems that suddenly made it very difficult to prepare for another season, let alone pitch. He also was uninterested in bouncing around from team to team as his career wound down. So Wetteland made the somewhat surprising decision to call it quits after 12 seasons and 330 saves. Other than a few brief major league bullpen coaching stints, he has primarily stuck close to home in retirement, though he did return to a warm hand at Yankee Stadium in 2013 to honor his protégé on Mariano Rivera Day.

In a few decades, John Wetteland might be viewed as just another contributor on the Yankees' 1996 championship team. He was more than that to the fans though, and given his efforts on that team and his mentorship of Rivera, he deserves to be remembered.

Happy birthday, John Wetteland! Here's to many more. Come back to Old Timers' Day sometime soon.

John Wetteland