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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: John Wetteland

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Wetteland overcame a playoff meltdown in 1995 to become World Series MVP in 1996, all while tutoring the man who would become the greatest relief pitcher in the history of MLB.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

1996 World Series MVP John Wetteland rarely made closing out games look easy, but he reliably got the job done for the team that won the Yankees their 23rd World Series Championship. For that performance, and for his mentorship of Mariano Rivera, the legend of Wetteland as a Yankee is greater than the sum of the stats he accumulated during his two-year stint in pinstripes.

Background

Wetteland grew up in Sebastopol, CA in Sonoma County, the son of a minor league pitcher who housed his family in a tent next to a one-room cabin he had built. His high school years were challenging, as Wetteland struggled with drug use and alcohol, including a near overdose while attending a Grateful Dead concert.

In spite of his difficulties off the field, Wetteland excelled on the diamond at Cardinal Newman High School and for one year at the College of San Mateo. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected Wetteland with the 39th overall pick of the 1985 MLB Draft. His first few seasons in the minor leagues were characterized by little success. Wetteland made his big league debut in 1989, and over the next three seasons would appear in 59 games (17 as a starter), accumulating 154.2 IP, 3.84 ERA, 92 ERA+, 141 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 1.190.

By the end of the 1991 campaign Wetteland had fallen out of favor with Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda, despite having saved 20 games and pitching to a 2.79 ERA with Triple-A Albuquerque in 41 games. Wetteland's intensity on the mound was well-suited to the role of closer, and while the Dodgers never found spot for him on their roster, the Montreal Expos did.

On the advice of Kevin Kennedy, Wetteland's manager in Rookie Ball, Expos GM Dan Duquette acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds during the 1991 offseason. The Reds had acquired Wetteland earlier that same offseason in a trade for Eric Davis. Wetteland thrived as Montreal's closer for three seasons. He appeared in 189 games, saved 105, while pitching to an ERA of 2.32 (170 ERA+), 280 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 1.089. This run included the Expos' strike-shortened 1994 campaign, when the Expos went 74-40 before the season ended prematurely.

In April 1995, Wetteland was traded to the Yankees. Gene Michael acquired him for Fernando Seguignol, who raked in the minors but never panned out as a MLB regular. The trade paid immediate dividends for the Yankees, as Wetteland settled comfortably into the closer's role, saving 31 games and yielding a stingy 0.880 WHIP over 61.1 innings.

Unfortunately for Wetteland and the Yankees, the 1995 postseason was a completely different story. In Game 1 of the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, Wetteland entered the ninth inning with a five-run lead, only to put the tying run on-deck before finally securing the victory. Game 2 saw Wetteland bounce back, keeping the score tied at 4-4 through the 9th, 10th, and 11th, before Ken Griffey Jr. took him deep for a solo shot in the 12th. Still, the Yankees would rebound to win the game, flying to Seattle with a 2-0 series lead.

Wetteland did not appear in a Game 3 loss, and imploded in Game 4. He entered the game with the score tied at six in the 8th and yielded a walk to Vince Coleman. Wetteland proceeded to allow a drag bunt single by Joey Cora, hit Griffey with a pitch, and then gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Edgar Martinez on an absolute bomb to straightaway center-field. Manager Buck Showalter lost all confidence in Wetteland, with Wetteland watching from the bullpen as Jack McDowell would go on to blow a 5-4 lead in the 11th in the deciding Game 5.

1996 Performance

62 G, 63.2 IP, 43 S, 2.83 ERA, 69 SO, 1.178 WHIP

Wetteland's 1996 season got off to an inauspicious start when he failed to agree to a contract extension with George Steinbrenner. As a result, the Boss refused to pay Wetteland the $4 million he agreed to in arbitration, and instead continued to pay him the $3.375 figure he earned in 1995. Wetteland and his agent filed a grievance with the league, which ultimately forced Steinbrenner to honor the $4 million pact in May.

With the contract controversy behind him, Wetteland excelled on the mound as the leader of a bullpen that featured Rivera, along with relief stalwarts Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson, and Bob Wickman. Wetteland became an All-Star for the first time, saving 43 games in 47 opportunities, and averaging better than a strikeout per inning. Despite his consistency in closing out games, Wetteland made a habit of making Yankee fans nervous by loading up the bases during saves.

After a disastrous postseason in 1995, Wetteland more than exorcised his demons during the 1996 playoffs. Across three series, he threw 12.1 innings, yielding three runs, and striking out 15. In the World Series, Wetteland saved all four Yankee wins en route to becoming World Series MVP. His 3-2 fastball on the outer half to Mark Lemke in Game 6 secured the Yankees' victory against the Braves, and would prove to be the last pitch he ever threw for the Bronx Bombers.

As great as Wetteland was as the Yankees' closer throughout the '96 season, his tutelage of Rivera would arguably leave an even more lasting impact on the franchise. Wetteland continually stressed to Rivera to never get beat on his second best pitch, and this adage was one that Rivera clearly took to heart in riding his cutter to four more World Series titles and the Major League Baseball history books.

What did he do after?

The Yankees let Wetteland walk during the 1996 offseason, and he landed with the Texas Rangers on a four-year, $23 million contract. He continued to perform at a high level for Texas between 1997 and 2000, being named to two All-Star teams (1998 and 1999), and adding an additional 150 saves to his career tally.

After struggling with back problems later in his career, and lacking the desire to again switch teams, Wetteland retired after the 2000 season. He finished his career having pitched in 618 games, accumulating 330 saves, 804 strikeouts, and a lifetime ERA of 2.93.

In retirement Wetteland has primarily stayed close to his home in Texas, although he did journey to the Bronx to help honor his student in the art of relief pitching on Mariano Rivera Day in 2013. Wetteland currently sits in 14th place on the all-time career saves list, but is the sole reliever who can lay claim to tutoring the greatest reliever who ever took the mound. For that, as well as his World Series MVP performance of 1996, Wetteland holds a uniquely significant place in the collective imagination of Yankees supporters.

Sources

Baseball Reference, John Wetteland

Curry, Jack. "Wetteland Is Just a Closer Who Walks with the Lord."

Mearns, Andrew. "Happy Birthday, John Wetteland."