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Featured T.R.'s Memoirs

The Boys of Arlington: The wild ride of Bobby Witt

(RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at Bobby Witt, a pitcher with a big arm but an even bigger heart and the unswerving fortitude and determination to handle the intense pressure of being the Rangers’ pitching savior.

“When I got to the mound, Bobby Witt’s guts were all over the place.” — John Wetteland after the Rangers 4-2 win over the Mariners and Randy Johnson, July 13, 1997

Bobby Witt had more pressure placed on him than any pitcher in Rangers history.

An argument might be made for David Clyde, but I don’t think so. Clyde came with high expectations and created a lot of excitement when he first arrived in Arlington as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 draft.

But it was different with Witt after being No. 3 overall in 1985. That was the first draft for new general manager Tom Grieve and assistant Sandy Johnson, and it was a big one.

Grieve and Johnson made it clear: The Rangers were going through a complete rebuild, and they would do it around pitching. That would be the focus, and when the rebuild was completed, the Rangers would be a pitching powerhouse.

A pitching powerhouse led by an immensely talented right-hander who pitched collegiately at Oklahoma but went to high school just outside Boston and had a thick New England accent. An accent that was almost as noticeable as the powerful right arm that delivered lightning bolts out of a West Texas thunderstorm.

The problem was nobody ever quite knew where those bolts would land, much to the frustration of manager Bobby Valentine, beleaguered pitching coach Tom House and anybody else watching.

Those newspaper headline writers loved Bobby Witt. “Rangers at Witt’s end” was one. “Witt and Wild” was another. The sheer number of walks and high pitch counts were staggering. Three times he led the league in walks.

Oh yeah …

It truly was Witt and Wild, an amazing run from beginning to end by a Rangers pitcher like no other: a guy with an incredible arm who often pitched more on heart and guts as he fought through the pain.

Witt could get on a great roll, and you’d think he had it all figured out. Cy Young awards were on the way. Then, there were times when he couldn’t find the plate and the Rangers were at Witt’s end.

I remember one start at Arlington Stadium where Valentine, House and bullpen coach Dick Egan went out to the bullpen to watch Witt warm up before the game. That’s the only time in 32 years of covering the Rangers where I saw the manager, pitching coach and bullpen coach stand behind a pitcher as he warmed up before a game.

Who knows how much pain he had to pitch through. My suspicion is far more than people realized at the time. Witt just took the ball when asked and went as long and hard as he could back in the years before pitch counts became a concern. Witt never complained or offered excuses, even after a stunning demotion to the minor leagues that caught everybody by surprise.

One late night in Boston, after a Rangers-Red Sox game, I was in a watering hole with a New England sports writer who had covered hockey and had extensive dealings with the legendary Bobby Orr.

I asked him what Orr was like.

“Great guy,” I was told. “Down to earth, friendly, always calls you back, easy to talk to. Everybody loved dealing with Orr. One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. You forget you’re talking to one of the greatest hockey players that ever played.”

When he said that, it occurred to me that he could easily have been describing Bobby Witt. That’s why we all loved covering him and were openly rooting for him to finally put it all together.

I tried never missing one of his starts and relished having a front-row seat to it all: great wins, frustrating defeats, the injuries, trades and demotions, exhilarating winning streaks, triumph and agony, a Shakespearean drama/comedy/tragedy all rolled into one.

Of course, it didn’t help that the Star-Telegram beat writer (me) kept publicly predicting — on radio, in print, in the press box — that Witt would win the Cy Young Award.

Trust me. The Rangers have been in Arlington for 53 years. I covered them for 32 years, and it simply comes down to this:

Bobby Witt was special. Special talent, special competitor and, above all, special person.

Up from Oklahoma

The 1985 MLB Draft, which took place June 3, is considered one of the best in history. Maybe the best. Among the players drafted that year were Will Clark, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro and Randy Johnson.

“That was a fun year,” Sandy Johnson recounted later for Baseball America. “Every night, or any assignment you had, when you sent your guys out, you saw quality players. You’d go out and you’d see some tremendous athletes and great players.”

The Rangers had the third overall pick and took Witt out of the University of Oklahoma, where he was an All-American. Witt had been drafted by the Reds out of high school but did not sign. He pitched for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, still considered the best collection of amateur talent ever assembled.

(Getty Images)

Witt signed just four days after the draft. The Rangers’ plan was for him to finish the 1985 season at Double A Tulsa, pitch at Triple A Oklahoma City in 1986 and make it to Arlington in 1987.

“We’re not going to panic and send him up to sell tickets,” Johnson said. “I gave them my word on that. When he comes up, we want him to stay.”

Witt pitched in 11 games, eight starts, at Tulsa that summer while the Rangers were on their way to a 62-99 record in Arlington. Witt went 0-6 with a 6.43 ERA and in 35 innings. He walked 44 and struck out 39.

The Rangers invited him to big-league camp in Pompano Beach, Fla., the following spring as a non-roster player, customary for a top pick. Then, Witt lit up the camp, going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA.

Witt never saw Oklahoma City, at least that season. He made a left-hand turn out of Tulsa and ended up in Arlington, joining the Rangers starting rotation for the 1986 season.

Nah, the Rangers didn’t panic. Rush a young pitcher? Nah, the Rangers would never do that.

Witt lost his first start, at Toronto. The second start, against the Brewers in Arlington, pretty much prepared everybody for what the Rangers were getting into with Witt.

He pitched a no-hitter.

Well, he had a no-hitter through five. At that point, he had walked eight and struck out 10. He also threw four wild pitches. Two outs were retired on foul pops. That means there were just three balls hit fair by the 23 Brewers batters Witt faced.

Valentine pulled him at that point. The Star-Telegram said Witt had thrown 107 pitches, but that seems low.

“He had outstanding stuff,” Valentine said. “He was just missing with some of his pitches.”

The operative word being “some.”

It was rough at the beginning. Witt was 4-9 with a 6.68 ERA in his first 19 starts covering 93 innings, walking 93 and striking out 95. Opponents hit just .233 off him. Then, he went 7-0 with a 3.76 ERA in his final 12 starts. Over 64 2/3 innings, he struck out 79, walked 50 and held opponents to a .209 batting average.

Most memorable was the night of Aug. 25, when Witt was matched up against Roger Clemens of the Red Sox on national television. Clemens was going for his 20th on his way to his first Cy Young Award.

Witt went seven, allowing two runs on five hits, five walks and six strikeouts, a terrific performance against a first-place team. He left trailing 2-0, and the Rangers tied it in the eighth on Geno Petralli’s two-run pinch-hit home run off Clemens. Ruben Sierra’s two-run home run walked it off in the ninth.

Almost four decades later, that is still one of the top 10 greatest regular-season wins in Rangers history.

The Rangers, after going 62-99 in 1985, finished 87-75 in 1986 during Valentine’s first full season as manager. It was a magical season that seemed to turn the franchise around. Witt was part of a talented young rotation that included Jose Guzman and Edwin Correa and was supported by a powerful lineup. Great things were predicted for the future.

So what if Witt led the league in walks (143 in 157 2/3 innings) and wild pitches (22)? The strong finish was still reason for optimism. By the way, the 143 walks remain the Rangers’ single-season record.

The mad professor and the Hall of Famer

Pitching coach Tom House was smart. Extremely smart. He held a doctorate in psychology from U.S. International University in San Diego. He studied biomechanics. He believed tossing a football helped smooth out a pitcher’s mechanics.

He was the mad professor, and baseball scoffed at him, especially when the Rangers’ pitching staff was driving everybody crazy. From 1986-89, the Rangers led the leagues in walks for four straight years. The 1987 staff walked 760 batters, the sixth-highest at the time in MLB history.

The walks were infuriating, and everybody seemed to blame it on House and all of his wild theories about pitching.

In 1987, Witt allowed 7.17 hits per nine innings, second-lowest in the big leagues. His 10.07 strikeouts were the second-highest. But he led the league in walks for the second straight year. He was 8-10 with a 4.91 ERA in 26 starts while pitching through shoulder, elbow and back problems.

Finally, the Rangers got tired of it after Witt started the 1988 season by going 0-5 with a 7.68 ERA in six starts. He was demoted to Triple A Oklahoma City and stayed there for two months.

His pitching coach there was none other than Ferguson Jenkins, who was no mad scientist. He was a Hall of Famer with seven 20-win seasons on his resume. Five times he led the league in fewest walks per nine innings and five times he had the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio. Jenkins knew how to win by throwing strikes.

They talked about it all: mechanics, delivery, arm speed, staying under control, the mental aspects of everything. And for three months and 16 starts, after Witt was called back up, it all came together: 8-5 record, 2.93 ERA, .205 batting average, 12 complete games, 7.7 strikeouts and a manageable 4.3 walks per nine innings.

Fergie had turned him around. Or not. It was never that simple for Witt. But in 1990 …

Witt was 3-8 with a 4.97 ERA after 14 starts, and then magic struck. From June 28 to Sept. 6, Witt reeled off a club-record 12-game winning streak. Over his final 19 starts, he was 14-2 with a 2.40 ERA and seven complete games. One of those complete games was against the Yankees during which Witt threw 147 pitches. Another against the Orioles required 142 pitches.

For the year, he was 17-10 with a 3.36 ERA and 221 strikeouts. His 4.5 walks were down from a combined 6.7 over his first four years. To sum up: The 26-year-old Witt was the Rangers Pitcher of the Year, was entering his prime and was rewarded with a three-year contract plus an option.

So what if he had thrown the second-most pitches in the majors that year or the eighth-most combined in 1988-90, not counting his two months in Oklahoma City?

Yeah, Witt was 26. But that arm had a lot of mileage on it, and the result was, in my opinion, the most devastating pitching injury in Rangers history.

“If you go out there for 35 starts and feel no pain in seven of them, that’s awesome.” — Bobby Witt

The injury that changed everything

Witt pitched the Rangers to a 6-4 win over the Mariners on May 26, 1991, in Seattle. He allowed four runs on six hits, walked four and struck out two over six innings and 107 pitches.

Witt’s outing was hardly an overwhelming performance, but who cared? It was the Rangers 13th straight victory. Back home, people listening on the radio were so excited that they disrupted the final round of the Colonial Invitational.

The Rangers were in first place, and their offense was crushing the baseball. Witt was 3-3 with a 4.25 ERA in nine starts. He had thrown over 120 pitches in six of those nine starts with a high of 137 against the Tigers.

He would not win another game the rest of the year. Heart, guts and courage could not win out against a bad arm.

Witt then went on the disabled list with a partially torn rotator cuff. One report said he was likely out for the year. Witt came back in five weeks, trying to help a team in bad need of pitching help, but the arm didn’t respond. He was 0-4 with a 9.82 ERA in eight outings before being shut down with a bad elbow.

The Rangers, despite what ended up being a 14-game winning streak, finished the season at 85-77 only because their offense led the league in runs scored. They didn’t win the division because their pitching staff had the fourth-highest ERA. Kevin Brown stayed healthy but went 9-12 with a 4.40 ERA.

Brown had been the fourth overall pick of the draft in 1986, one year after Witt. By 1991, both he and Witt should have been in their prime and at their best. They should have been a tremendous 1-2 combination at the head of the rotation.

The problem?

Witt had his best year with the Rangers in 1990. Brown had his in 1992 when he won 21 games. In 1991, they were mediocre or hurt.

If the Rangers had been able to keep Witt healthy and keep Brown focused, they would have won the World Series that year. No doubt in my mind. In fact, with Witt and Brown at the head of the rotation, the Rangers could have kept winning long after 1991.

But Witt’s injury in 1991 was a huge setback for the franchise. Not to mention Witt. He would never be the same pitcher.

Bobby’s start, Johnny’s decision

Bobby Witt made his first postseason start for the Rangers on Oct. 5, 1996. It was Saturday afternoon, and there were 50,066 fans at the Ballpark in Arlington to see the Rangers face the Yankees in Game 4 of the best-of-5 American League Division Series.

The Rangers, who had won the first division title in club history that season, were down 2-1 going into Game 4. It was win-or-go-home time with Witt going up against former Rangers left-hander Kenny Rogers for the Yankees.

Witt’s road home really was long and winding. He never really recovered from his shoulder injury and was traded to the A’s on Aug. 31, 1992, along with Ruben Sierra and Jeff Russell for Jose Canseco.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

He had two decent seasons with the A’s before signing a one-year deal with the Marlins in 1995. The Rangers took him back that year, acquiring him Aug. 8 in a deal to boost their sagging (and ultimately futile) postseason hopes. After the season, Witt signed a two-year deal to stay in Texas.

In 1996, he helped form a formidable rotation — Ken Hill, Darren Oliver, Roger Pavlik and John Burkett — that combined for a club-record 75 wins from the starters. Witt went 16-12 with a 5.42 ERA over 33 outings.

Witt was no longer overpowering but still battled with everything he had. In the second half, with the division on the line, he had a 10-game stretch where he went 8-1 with a 4.19 ERA.

Now, manager Johnny Oates picked Witt for Game 4. For those of us who had watched Witt for 11 seasons, there was a distinct possibility that Witt could pitch the game of his life and send the series to a deciding fifth game.

With Bobby Witt, you just never knew. You just expected the unexpected because Bobby Witt was Bobby Witt.

He began the game with three scoreless innings. A walk, a single and three strikeouts, everything looked crisp beneath a brilliant October sky. The Rangers’ offense knocked out Rogers early and took a 4-0 lead into the top of the fourth. Then came the Yankees.

Bernie Williams blooped a single to right field and stole second against Ivan Rodriguez, one of the best defensive catchers in history. Witt, with a four-run lead, then walked Tino Martinez.

Cecil Fielder lined a single to center for one run. Paul O’Neill lined to center for the first out before Mariano Duncan singled to center for the second run. Two on, one out and the Rangers up 4-2.

At that point, Oates took out Witt and brought in rookie reliever Danny Patterson, who had great stuff but no experience. Seven big-league games prior to that day. He wouldn’t have been on the postseason roster if not for an injury to Kevin Gross.

To this day, I think Oates should have stayed with Witt.

To this day, I believe Witt could have pitched out of the jam, held the lead and pitched deep into the game. Instead, the Rangers’ season came to an end with a 6-4 loss.

“Total guts and heart. A lot of people were second-guessing why we would be starting Bobby Witt in this series. Hopefully, they know why now.” — Arizona manager Bob Brenly after Witt’s victory over the Giants, Aug. 29, 2001

The home run and the ring

Major League Baseball started interleague play for the first time in 1997 and American League teams, when playing at National League parks, had to play without the designated hitter for the first time since 1972.

Witt, who had a couple of hits with the Marlins in 1995, started against the Dodgers on June 30 in Los Angeles. The Rangers were leading 1-0 in the top of the sixth when Witt belted a home run just over the left-center field wall off starter Ismael Valdez. He was the first AL pitcher to go deep in an interleague game.

“I don’t know, man. I just swung the bat,” Witt said afterward. “The next thing I knew it was over the fence. It’s the Mickey Tettleton theory: Swing hard, you might accidentally make contact.”

Witt ended up going eight innings to get the win in the Rangers’ 3-2 victory. But now he was 33 years old. All of the innings and all of the pitches were catching up to him.

He won 12 games that season for the Rangers but was 5-4 with a 7.66 ERA in 14 games in 1998, when he was traded to the Cardinals on July 31. He made 32 starts for the last-place Rays in 1999, going 7-15 with a 5.84 ERA. His next stop was Cleveland, but injuries limited him to seven games before he was released on May 8.

While he sat at home that summer pondering his future, his wife, Laurie, gave birth to a son, Bobby Jr.

The following spring, Witt received a non-roster invite to the Diamondbacks camp and made their team as the fifth starter in a rotation headed by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. He lasted one start on April 7 and tore a ligament in his elbow.

Witt didn’t start again until Aug. 29 against the Giants. At that point, the Diamondbacks were holding a 3 1/2-game lead in the West, and Witt threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the Diamondbacks’ win 3-0 win. He retired the last four hitters despite straining a hamstring running the bases in the fourth inning.

“That’s just a professional pitching with pride,” first baseman Mark Grace said. “He realized the importance of this start. He pitched with passion. He went above and beyond the call of duty.”

Witt went 3-0 with a 4.02 ERA in six starts down the stretch as the Diamondbacks held off the Giants to win the NL West. Witt was on the D-backs’ postseason roster but pitched in just one game in a mop-up roll through the first two rounds. He didn’t seem to mind when I caught up with him at the World Series.

“This is exciting,” Witt said with his usual unquenchable enthusiasm. “This has been such a roller-coaster year. I could have packed it in, but I didn’t want to because I knew this club had a chance to do something special.”

Witt finally got into a World Series game when the Diamondbacks faced the Yankees. The D’backs trounced the Yankees, 15-2 in Game 6, and he was called upon to pitch the eighth inning. It was classic Bobby Witt.

He walked the leadoff batter, then induced a double-play grounder. Finally, Witt struck out Shane Spencer to retire the side and did not return for the ninth.

The next day Schilling and Johnson pitched the D-backs to a 3-2 victory in Game 7. Witt’s final day in a major-league uniform ended in a champagne celebration in the Diamondbacks clubhouse.

After all he had gone through over 16 years, Witt deserved it.

Jeff Wilson

Sports reporter for two decades. Sports fan for life. Covers the Texas Rangers. Graduate of TCU. Colorado native. Author of Purple Passion: TCU Football Legends (https://t.co/2fmXLyympx). Follow me on Twitter at @JeffWilsonTXR

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