Oh, no. That look. My little brother had sent a letter to our mother from Fort Benning, Georgia, and had included a DA (Department of the Army) photograph. A wallet-sized close up, with the U.S. flag behind him and to his right. Wearing a helmet and an expression that screamed, “I do NOT belong here.” He’d later claim he was trying to appear “badass.” Whatever.
It was 1986, and Roger was making good on his ROTC commitment. He’d joined for their promise of free college, after which he’d been notified by the State of Ohio that there were no funds available for that benefit.1
What could be compelling about a major league ball club coming off a 60-102 finish the season before? Manager Pat Corrales’ 1985 squad had spent almost the entire season in last place, and the pitching staff’s ERA was the worst in the American League.
Yet, in one of the enduringly compelling aspects of any long baseball season, there were bright spots in ’85. Speedy center fielder Brett Butler, who’d been acquired along with third baseman Brook Jacoby by the Tribe a few years earlier in the Len Barker trade, was a legitimate star. He finished among the league leaders in on base percentage, runs, and triples. He stole 47 bases and his glove seemed to cover more than half the outfield. He also committed just one error on the year.
There were no bright spots to speak of on the pitching staff. Fans did have the opportunity to catch wily veteran, and future Hall of Famer, Bert Blyleven every fifth day. He and Neal Heaton each led the team in wins, with nine.
Ultimately, 1985 was one of the franchise’s worst seasons ever; injuries and horrible overall defense (Julio Franco suffered a typical 30+ error season at shortstop) led fan attendance to fall to a major league worst 655,000.
I earlier referred to Roger as my “little brother.” Um, by now? Not exactly. He was a beast. At “Basic,” he’d gained maybe twenty pounds of solid muscle. Our mother and I couldn’t get over the transformation when we’d arrived for his parade ceremony/graduation. Contrary to our impression, he had thrived.
Once free to leave, Roger grabbed the car keys. It had been a while since he’d driven. On a tour of the base, we imagined a young George Patton walking around the old barracks.
We soon realized Roger’s real motive for driving. As he emptied portions of a small food store onto a nearby picnic table, our mom and I smiled and shook our heads. Snickers, m&ms, and Butterfingers; HoHos, Snowballs and Twinkies; Fritos, Doritos and Pringles. I could only assume he was smiling back as he transferred the “contraband” from the table to his mouth.
He was interested in getting caught up with his other interests. (On the radio: was that Jon Bon Jovi, screaming he’s a “cowboy?” Dismissive eye roll.) I told him the Cleveland Indians had reached first place on the strength of a ten game winning streak. (Another eye roll, only this time it was more of an “I wish” expression. It took a moment to convince him it was true.)
1986 was the year Cleveland Indians fans were introduced to starting pitcher Tom Candiotti, The Candy Man.
Although Candiotti had not been known as a hard thrower in college in the late 1970s, he enjoyed success due to his pinpoint control. He joined the Brewers after topping out in Double A ball with the Kansas City Royals in 1980. He mostly threw his curve ball and his 80 miles per hour fast ball with Jacksonville. He also occasionally mixed in his knuckle ball, which alarmed Gene Lamont. The manager confronted the pitcher. When Candiotti told Lamont he had always thrown it about ten percent of the time, the manager forbade him from throwing it in games. Candiotti pitched well during the 1981 season, sans the knuckler, as he unfortunately developed pain in his elbow- he’d “blown out his arm.”
Dr. Frank Jobe reconstructed the lefty’s elbow, using a tendon from his right forearm. It proved to be the second successful “Tommy John” surgery performed by the inventor of the procedure (the second through eight such procedures had failed to “take” 2 ). Dr. Jobe actually had initially resisted Candiotti’s overtures to have the operation, as he was only interested in true major league prospects.3
Tom Candiotti spent the next three years in the Brewers’ minor league system. Brewers manager George Bamberger happened to see Candiotti throwing knuckle balls in a bullpen session in the spring of 1985 (he was goofing around at the time, playing a prank on his catcher). Bamberger was all-in; he told the pitcher to throw the knuckler exclusively in Triple A that year. It was frustrating for Candiotti – he had to learn to throw the pitch in all situations, such as when he was behind in the count and with runners on base. His numbers suffered, but he gained a lot of experience. Milwaukee had younger pitchers coming up, however, and they released him at the end of the season.
Candiotti played in the Puerto Rican league in 1985 as well, and an admiring Cleveland Indians coach recommended him and his knuckle ball to Tribe general manager Joe Klein. They signed him with the intention of bringing him up north when the club broke camp.4
Another fortuitous Indians signing was fellow knuckleballer Phil Niekro, a 47 year old veteran who’d just been released by the New York Yankees. Niekro was the mentor Tom Candiotti needed to refine his ticket to the majors. The student likened the arrangement to “talking to Thomas Edison about light bulbs and electricity.”
Niekro was wise enough, however, to know that besides gripping the ball with the fingernails, the knuckle ball is a highly individualized pitch. He did not tinker with the mechanics of Candiotti’s delivery. He didn’t even show the young starter his grip, at first. They gripped the ball differently. Also, Niekro “pushed” the ball, while Candiotti threw it much harder. The veteran helped the student’s mental game: when to throw the knuckler, how often, etc.
Closer Ernie Camacho was already a fan favorite by 1986. He was another player who’d been with the Brewers; the Tribe had acquired him in 1983 along with Gorman Thomas and Jamie Easterly in the deal that sent center fielder Rick Manning and pitcher Rick Waits to Milwaukee. 5
Macho Camacho boasted a tremendous, 95-mph fastball, which he had surprisingly little confidence in. So, he often threw his less effective pitches, becoming more susceptible to coughing up late leads.
Was Camacho eccentric? From The Sporting News, October 2, 1995:
Often linked by association to Macho Camacho is manager Pat Corrales. Corrales was fired by the Philadelphia Phillies midseason, in 1983- with his team in first place. The Indians hired him days later. 6
Corrales was noted for becoming animated when Macho Man was ignoring his fastball. He’d make a show of poking the pitcher in the chest and hollering at him. But what Pat Corrales is perhaps known best for is thinking it was a good idea one day to storm the mound and throw a karate kick at intimidating A’s pitcher Dave Stewart. Stewart dropped Corrales to his hands and knees with a right to the jaw.
The strength of the ’86 Indians was their offense. In addition to Brett Butler, several other hitters were beginning to come of age.
In the 1984 Rick Sutcliffe trade, the Indians received outfielders Joe Carter and Mel Hall. Right fielder Cory Snyder had been a number one draft pick of the Tribe in 1984, fresh off his stint with the U.S. Olympic team that year. First baseman Pat Tabler had been acquired from the White Sox in 1983, for shortstop and local product Jerry Dybzynski. Second baseman Tony Bernazard was well protected in the order, and Julio Franco was still at shortstop. Jacoby was developing into a solid third baseman, and while veteran designated hitter Andre Thornton suffered from injuries that season, the team always benefitted from his steady presence.
As 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers fans know, first place teams can occasionally prove to be a chore to follow. Conversely, underdog squads can be a source of joy. The ’86 Tribe delighted the home fans. After losing eight of their first fifteen games of the season, they took the last two of a four game set in New York. After subsequent series sweeps at Texas (two games) and Chicago (three), the first place Cleveland Indians returned home for a three game set against the third place, and dangerous, Kansas City Royals of Willie Wilson, George Brett, Frank White and company.
By this point, the Tribe had already played to home crowds as small as 3,000. In the first game of the Royals showdown, in front of 27,000 fans, Cleveland starter Don Schulze bested Kansas City starter Charlie Liebrandt into the eighth inning, when Tribe relievers Rich Yett, Scott Bailes and Ernie Camacho blew a 3-1 lead. In the ninth, Wilson tagged Camacho for run scoring single to go up by one. After Phil Niekro came on in relief in the tenth to retire the side, the Indians came back to life in the bottom of the inning.
After Carter reached on a one-out error, Thornton singled him to third off star reliever Dan Quisenberry. Jacoby drew an intentional walk. Pat Tabler, who built a career out of pinch hitting in the clutch, came up in his normal spot in the order in this instance and roped a single to win the game!
As if that weren’t enough, Candiotti and Neal Heaton shut the Royals down the next two games for yet another sweep- it was ten wins in a row! Before the next game, there were reports out of Cleveland that a flash crowd was expected – and over 48,000 showed up on that Friday night.
The Tribe lost a close one that night; Camacho, Bailes and Yett couldn’t protect a 3-1 ninth inning lead for starter Niekro- but the city was smitten. Indians Fever was raging throughout Cleveland.
Although they lost nine of their next ten games after the ten game winning streak, they remained within striking distance of the division lead. They made another run in July, and 65,000 fans showed up on August 1 (with a walk up crowd of 50,000).
Throughout 1986, it seemed the Cleveland Indians were never really out of a game. They hit .284 as a team that season, led by .300+ hitters Tabler, Bernazard, Carter, and Franco (and of Tabler, Bernazard, Carter, Franco, Jacoby, Hall, and Snyder, none had an OPS under .760). Pitcher Tom Candiotti was a budding star, finishing 16-12 while throwing 252 innings. His 17 complete games led the league. 7 Niekro went 11-11; Ken Schrom 14-7. The team finished with a respectable 84 wins.
The glaring holes throughout the rest of the staff were the Achilles heel of the team. Still, local fans were catching up to the excitement they were building – to the tune of a home attendance mark of 1,471,805 for the season. That represented a 124% increase over 1985. The team was very close to turning a profit, after decades of losing money. 8 And as the 1987 season approached, they were the trendy pick among national publications to win the World Series.
Sources included The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Schneider; Whatever Happened to “Super Joe”? Catching Up With 45 Good Old Guys From The Bad Old Days of the Cleveland Indians, Schneider; Tom Candiotti, a Life of Knuckleballs, K. P. Wee; baseball-reference.com