Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 49 – Tom Candiotti
Bob Toth | On 13, Feb 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 49
If you were a fan of the Cleveland Indians in the 1980s, chances are you were well aware of right-hander Tom Candiotti and his mastery of the elusive knuckleball.
The long-time Major Leaguer’s name was back in the news this week as a story broke that former successful MLB closer (and one-time unsigned Indians draft pick) Brian Wilson hoped to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher. Wilson last pitched in the Majors in 2014 in his only season after his second Tommy John surgery. He was out of baseball in each of the last two years, but threw a 30-minute bullpen session at USC last week to showcase his control of his new pitch through several arm slots with hopes of returning to the mound in professional action once again.
The “Candy Man” broke into the professional game in 1980, joining the Kansas City Royals after spending time at St. Mary’s College of California and in independent ball in Canada. After a year in the Royals farm system, he was claimed by the Milwaukee Brewers in the Rule 5 draft and progressed through their minor league system, but he missed the 1982 season while undergoing the still new Tommy John surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, after dealing with a right elbow injury.
Unlike the others before him (with the exception of John himself), Candiotti recovered from the experimental procedure and would make his Major League debut with ten appearances after his early August call-up in 1983. He made eight more appearances in 1984, but after playing at Double-A and Triple-A for the Brewers in 1985, he signed with the Indians.
Some of the best years of his career came in Cleveland, despite being surrounded by unimpressive teams who failed to perform to their expected levels. He won what would be a career-high 16 games in his first year with the Indians in 1986 while throwing nearly three times as many innings (252 1/3) as he had pitched in his first two seasons in the Majors. He was also the top pitcher in the American League in complete games with 17.
His time in the Cleveland rotation also gave him a great opportunity to learn from one of the best at his craft.
“Being able to work with Phil Niekro full-time was kind of an ‘Are you kidding me?’ scenario,” Candiotti said in a 2014 interview with Steve Eby of Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “He’s one of the greatest knuckleballers of all-time and I had him as like my own pitching coach. I worked a lot with Knucksie and he taught me so much…not only about becoming an accomplished knuckleball pitcher, but about how to handle yourself, how to give credit where credit is due and how to carry yourself as a Major Leaguer. I’ll never forget all of the time that he spent with me and the lessons that I learned from him.”
As the Indians struggled during the Sports Illustrated cover jinx season of 1987, Candiotti’s numbers did too as he went 7-18 with a 4.78 ERA in 32 starts. The team did show signs of improvement over the next several years and Candiotti was a reliable and durable innings eater in the rotation, averaging 14 wins and 208 innings pitched over the next three years.
The Indians were in a different place in 1991, despite having some pieces worth building around. After failing to find success with a core roster of players entering some of the prime years of their careers as the 1980s closed, the team traded star Joe Carter ahead of the 77-85 1990 season and would falter badly in 1991 in what would become a 57-105 embarrassment.
Candiotti started 7-6 with a 2.24 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and three complete games through his first 15 starts, but the club shipped him to Toronto on June 27 with outfielder Turner Ward. The Blue Jays, who had been actively looking for pitching and outfield help and had been linked to the Indians back in spring training as a potential trade partner, got both from the Tribe while Cleveland brought back pitcher Denis Boucher, outfielders Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten, and cash considerations.
Candiotti was not a fan of his relocation.
“If I was a fan, a real loyal Cleveland Indians fan, I’d be upset,” Candiotti was quoted in The Plain Dealer on June 28, 1991. “The players change year in and year out here. It’s hard for Cleveland fans to relate to the players.
“I’m more frustrated than anything. I really legitimately wanted to stay here. I don’t know how many times I let the front office know. This trade was done purely because of economics.”
Candiotti shared a different perspective years later in his 2014 interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night’s Eby.
“It was a tough one,” Candiotti said of the trade. “I kind of knew that it was going to happen just from some conversations with John Hart, who was very, very honest with what he was trying to do here. They had to get young and get some youthful players. I was just one of those pieces that he was looking to trade. I didn’t want to get traded because my mom grew up in Youngstown and I had friends and family that would always come to every single game that I pitched here. I really didn’t want to leave. I loved Cleveland and felt comfortable here. So I was very disappointed when I did get traded even though I knew it was going to happen.”
In his new home north of the border, Candiotti continued a career year on the mound while helping the Blue Jays replace Dave Stieb. He went 6-7 with a 2.98 ERA over his final 19 starts and led the Toronto staff with three complete games. The club won the American League East and Candiotti made a pair of starts in the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins, but was hit hard in his first two career postseason appearances as the Blue Jays came up short in their World Series pursuits.
A free agent after the season, Candiotti headed west to Los Angeles, signing a four-year contract with the Dodgers. He would stay in Dodger blue for six years in total, putting together a 3.57 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP over those half dozen seasons. He returned to the postseason in 1996, working two scoreless innings in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, and split his final season in Los Angeles between the rotation and bullpen before becoming a free agent and moving up the coast to Oakland.
He played parts of two seasons with the A’s, leading the league in losses with 16 in 1998. After a rough start to his 1999 season, he was released in the middle of June and would return to Cleveland at the end of the month, playing his final seven Major League games with the Indians while going 1-1 with an 11.05 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP before his release just over a month later.
He ended his 16-year Major League career with a 151-164 record with a 3.73 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over 2,725 innings of work.
Following his playing days, Candiotti spent time in the Indians front office as a special assistant to the general manager and was named one of the 100 greatest Indians players ever. He moved on to work for ESPN and also the Toronto Blue Jays as a television analyst. He logged some screen time in the baseball movie “61*” and became a member of the International Bowling Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
This coming season, he will begin his 12th year working as a radio analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Photo: Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs by K.P. Wee