“You have so much adrenaline running through you, you don’t even feel it,” Wohlers said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember falling down on the bottom. I don’t remember getting up. Your mind is going a million miles an hour.”
Javier Lopez leaps into the arms of Mark Wohlers after the last out of the 1995 World Series, Saturday, October 28, 1995. Chipper Jones is at right. It was the only World Series won by the Braves, whose unprecedented 14 consecutive years of first place finishes is the subject of a new book (AJC photo/Frank Niemeir)
In that signature moment, when the Braves’ team of so many postseason near-misses celebrated its breakthrough, Wohlers might have felt the lightest on his feet of anybody. For years, the Braves bullpen had been a target for blame and a source of great consternation. But in 1995, it had finally found its back end. At 25, Wohlers harnessed his triple-digit fastball and made good on the promise he first brought to the big leagues in 1991.
Going into the 1995 postseason, John Smoltz had pointed to Wohlers during an interview with AJC Braves beat writer I.J. Rosenberg and said, “He is the single reason why this team is better.”
Wohlers and Smoltz were both part of what Rosenberg dubbed the “surviving nine” (along with Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, Kent Mercker, Jeff Blauser, Rafael Belliard, Mark Lemke, and David Justice) who remained from the worst-to-first team of 1991, which lost to Minnesota in the World Series in seven games. Wohlers had spent the better part of four years waiting in the wings, while the Braves leaned on veteran closers such as Juan Berenguer and Alejandro Pena or turned the job over to other young arms such as Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael.
“It was a tough spot for me to find my role back then,” Wohlers said. “It was frustrating because I thought I could handle it, but every time they tried to give me that role, I never took it and ran with it.”
He was determined to claim the closer’s job in 1995 and all but said so, vowing to the media that he wanted to be more than an average pitcher with above-average “stuff.” But coming out of spring training, rookie sidearmer Brad Clontz beat him out for the job, and Wohlers scuffled for the first few weeks of the season.
“I just remember being pissed off – pissed off at myself - because I had been around the club,” Wohlers said. “Here’s a rookie coming in taking the job, something that I’d strived to do. Maybe that’s what triggered me to finally not care about … I don’t want to say not care about the result, but just not worry about whether I was going to be successful or fail, and just go out there and lay it all on the line and whatever happens, happens.”
In mid-May, a locker opened up in the Braves clubhouse next to pitcher Greg Maddux and away from where Wohlers had been seated across from pitching coach Leo Mazzone. He’d been within earshot of the litany of questions Mazzone got from reporters about “What was wrong with Wohlers.” What Wohlers gleaned by sitting next to Maddux turned out to be just as important as the conversations he escaped, if not more.
“He made me realize that I didn’t have to throw 100 mph to be successful,” Wohlers said. “That locating your fastball with a little bit of movement was much more important than how hard you can throw.”
That way of thinking even applied even to a pitcher who “sat” in the mid-to-upper 90s and could top out at 101 mph. (At the time, Wohlers remembers only Troy Percival and Rob Dibble throwing that hard.)
Wohlers got his first save of the year June 5, with the Braves trailing the Phillies by four games. By the time he collected 10 more, the Braves were six games up on the Phillies in first place in the NL East. Wohlers went on to convert a club-record 21 saves in a row and finished with 25 saves on the season. Somewhere along the way, he stopped looking over his shoulder.
“When you’re young and you don’t have a guaranteed contract, you’re out there every night feeling, ‘If I don’t pitch well, I’m going to get sent back down to Triple-A,’” Wohlers said. “I think I carried that with me prior to mid-95 because I’d been called up and down so many times throughout early in my career. I was always on pins and needles. Finally something clicked in ’95: ‘I just can’t worry about that, just think about the job at hand.’ Once I stopped worrying about failing, things just started clicking.”
By October his confidence was sky high. On the night of Game 6 in the World Series, when Wohlers was called on to close Glavine’s eight-inning one-hit masterpiece, Wohlers told reporters afterward he didn’t feel as nervous as he thought he would. He remembers it the same way 25 years later.
“I tried to remind myself throughout the whole postseason that it’s just a regular-season game,” Wohlers said. “Your mind is a pretty powerful tool. You can pretty much convince yourself of anything if you tell yourself it enough.”
Braves pitcher, Mark Wohlers on the mound during game 3 of the Braves/Reds1995 NLCS series.
In the years to follow, Wohlers learned the power of that tool all too well. He had to endure trying to pitch when he couldn’t believe his own voice anymore.
His problems started after the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. In a matter of a year, Wohlers went from closing the 1995 World Series to stomaching a three-run home run by Jim Leyritz that turned the tide of a series the Braves had a great chance to win. His Game 4 blown save set Wohlers’ career on a downward trajectory that bottomed out in 1999 when he could barely throw a strike.
That April, the Braves traded Wohlers to the Reds, who put him on the disabled list with “anxiety disorder.” Wohlers was going through a divorce at the time. He would soon undergo Tommy John surgery, but he figured then like he does now, it’s hard not to trace his problems back to his hanging slider to Leyritz.
“Obviously that famous pitch in the ’96 World Series was something that lingered in my head, that I felt a lot of responsibility for, for being a huge turning point in that World Series,” Wohlers said.
“And then (came) the nonstop questions about it throughout the offseason. As a professional athlete, you have those rough outings. You try to forget them as quickly as possible and move on, but on that stage, in that scenario with the media in New York, the spotlight and everything, it was tough.”
Wohlers said he ultimately made peace with it, ironically, after the Reds traded him to the Yankees in 2001. He agreed to give the New York media one night to ask him anything they wanted about the 1996 World Series and its aftermath. After that night, he moved on and so did they. Wohlers pitched in 31 games for the Yankees that year and made one appearance during the 2001 ALCS against Seattle.
In 2002, he got another full-circle moment, when the Yankees traded him to Cleveland. Wohlers worked his way back into the closer’s role, saving seven games for the Indians in 2002. In 2003 he underwent a second Tommy John surgery that spelled the end of his career.
Now, 25 years later, looking back on the Braves’ World Series victory over the Indians and his celebration with his teammates on the mound, Wohlers doesn’t see it as the single crowning achievement of his career. It was one of them.
“Not a lot of people have gone through what I went through and come back,” Wohlers said. “To have the inner strength to do that was something I was extremely proud of. Even going and pitching for the Yankees after the history I’d had with them was pretty special.”
For Wohlers, the 1995 celebration will always be colored by what came after it. Based on some off-the-cuff comments Wohlers made during a recent Zoom chat with his old teammates marking the 25th anniversary of that game, that’s OK.
Wohlers was one of 19 Braves players and staff who participated in the “Game 6 Watch Party” which aired live on YouTube in early May while Fox Sports Southeast broadcast a replay of the 1995 World Series clincher. At one point early in the game, Mazzone asked the former players on the Zoom call what they thought would have happened if Glavine had pitched a no-hitter through eight. The consensus was that manager Bobby Cox would have run him back out in the ninth.
“Give it a shot, see what happens!” Glavine said, chipping in his two cents. “As long as I don’t give up a solo home run, we’re good.”
Just then, the square on the screen around Wohlers lit up yellow.
“Hey Glav,” Wohlers said. “Giving up a homer in the World Series isn’t any fun.”
Then he added, smiling, “If we do this next year, I’m going to sit that one out.”
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» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BOBBY COX: The best manager we'll ever see
» BUILDING THE BRAVES: How the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES: 'No bigger beneficiary of '94 strike than me'
» GREG MADDUX: Mental master at his best during '95 season
» JOHN SMOLTZ: No Game 7, but one heck of a dogpile
» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making
» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training
» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native