Sometimes one good pitch is really all a pitcher needs.
“I got to the Major Leagues as a conventional pitcher,” former Tribe starting pitcher Tom Candiotti said. “I had a very good curveball and very good control but I didn’t throw hard enough. I was the guy who was called up and sent down all of the time and I just couldn’t stick.”
Candiotti turned to what is commonly known as a “last resort” for pitchers trying to save a career—the knuckleball.
“So one day in spring training when I was probably going to get released by the Brewers, I was screwing around throwing it and the manager saw me,” Candiotti remembered. “They called me in to the office and said that they didn’t know that I threw a knuckleball and sent me to work on it—which I did. I went down to AA, then AAA and then winter ball and got signed by the Indians in 1986.”
It was with the Tribe that “Candy Man” got his first real shot at the Major Leagues, as he had pitched in just 18 games over two seasons with the Brewers. Candiotti started 34 games for Cleveland in 1986 and led the American League in complete games.
“I fully committed to the knuckleball at that point and had 17 complete games, won 16 and threw 250-some innings for the Indians that year.”
To most fans, Candiotti’s knuckler might have seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was actually something that he had played around with for years.
“I don’t think that anyone really taught me how to throw it—I think I just kind of developed it,” Candiotti said. “Most of it came from me just playing catch with my dad. When he’d get home from work, I’d be out in the front lawn with his glove and my glove and before he could get into the house we’d have a game of catch. He had a knuckleball, so I tried to throw a knuckleball and it just kind of evolved that way. I threw it every once in a while in high school and every once in a while in college and then even every once in a while in the minor leagues.”
The knuckleball worked well enough to cement Candiotti as the top starter on the surprisingly good 1986 Indians. For the team that won 84 games, Candiotti led the club with 16 wins and a 3.57 ERA. The Tribe’s 24-game improvement seemed to come out of nowhere—and Candiotti was a major reason why. The fans flocked to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium to finally see a winning baseball team after years of mediocrity or worse.
“One of my favorite memories was from that 10 game winning streak where they had to postpone games because of the rush at the attendance gates,” Candiotti remembered. “I don’t know if they didn’t have enough people working out there or if the turnstiles weren’t working, but they had to delay games. I remember the stress of being a starting pitcher at that time and not wanting to be the guy who screwed up that streak.”
It wasn’t Candiotti that ended the streak as the Tribe went 2-0 in his starts during that span. The Tribe also got a couple of victories from another knuckleball veteran during the stretch, 47-year old and future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Niekro served as a mentor to the young Candiotti, who is forever grateful.
“Being able to work with Phil Niekro full-time was kind of an ‘Are you kidding me?’ scenario,” Candiotti said. “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.”
Because of Candiotti’s success and the team’s turnaround, Cleveland was the American League’s darling pick for the 1987 season. Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to represent the AL in the World Series in their Baseball Preview issue. The result was certainly not what the Indians or their fans were hoping for, however, as the ’87 Tribe floundered to a 61-101 record.
“The expectations were so high for a team that two years previously had lost 100 games,” Candiotti said with his head shaking. “In ’86 we had a nice rebound and played over .500 ball and had a nice, little 10 game winning streak early in the season. It really captivated the city and captivated us by making us believers in ourselves. We played pretty good ball and then the hype happened. It’s one thing when you’re just playing free and loose with nothing to lose and a whole other thing when people say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute! These guys are good and are going to win it all!’ We had an offense that was pretty good that year and a pitching staff that wasn’t.”
It wasn’t just the pitching that let the 1987 Tribe down either, as the offense scored just 742 runs and the defense was lousy, as well.
“For any pitching staff that wants to be good, you have to have some defense too,” Candiotti said. “We had some thumpers in the lineup, but the defense was not real good either. That killed us.”
To make matters worse, Candiotti also remembers that the lack of clubhouse chemistry was a big issue.
“There was a lot of division on the team at that time between the pitching staff and the hitters. They always say not to finger-point, but there was definitely finger-pointing going on and a lot of guys had a tough time handling it. We just got in a hole early in the season and we just couldn’t pull our way out of it.”
Candiotti stuck around with the Indians into the 1991 season when he was traded to the Blue Jays with Turner Ward in exchange for pitcher Denis Boucher, outfielders Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten and cash.
“It was a tough one,” Candiotti said of the deal that sent him from the 105-loss Indians to the eventual AL East Champs. “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.”
During Candiotti’s six seasons in Cleveland, he won 72 games but the team never finished higher than fourth place. Candiotti still reflects fondly on his time, despite his team’s mediocrity.
“It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of good moments during those days, but never could quite get over the hump.”
The ’91 Blue Jays gave Candiotti his first career playoff experience as they lost to the eventual World Champion Twins in the ALCS. Candiotti felt at home even in Canada, as a few of his former teammates were on Toronto roster.
“There were guys that I knew there like Joe Carter and Pat Tabler, so that made me feel like I fit in,” Candiotti said. “And then when you get 50,000 people in the stadium and you’re playing pretty good baseball in a pennant race, it brought out the best in me. My preparation, concentration and focus all changed and I was able to have one of the best years of my career.”
The good year combined with a strong track record got him a lucrative free agent deal as Candiotti signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he spent the next six seasons as one of their regular starters. For a stretch from 1992-95, had the fifth best ERA (3.38) in the National League behind only Greg Maddux, Jose Rijo, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Over the same stretch, however, Candiotti also had a losing record of 33-46 due to playing on a poor Dodgers team.
After the 1997 season he left LA and headed up the Pacific Coast to Oakland and had the worst stretch of his career with the Athletics. In 1998, Candiotti led the league with 16 losses and then followed that up with a 6.35 ERA through 11 games with the A’s in ’99. The A’s then released the knuckleballer and he signed back with Indians who were in the midst of winning their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.
“The Indians and they were a really good team at that time,” Candiotti said. “When I was released by the A’s, I was picked up by the Indians.”
During his first game back with the first place Tribe, Candiotti got to experience a heartwarming homecoming.
“Probably one of my favorite memories from my time with the Indians was my first game back and Charles Nagy started and just got shellacked,” Candiotti remembered. “I hadn’t pitched in about three weeks and I got here and they threw me right into the bullpen. Sure enough, I came in that game against the Royals and pitched very, very well. Then every inning that I came off of the mound I got a standing ovation. It was not really for that performance—even though I was pitching great—but it was for a lot of memories and gratitude from the fans from my time at the old stadium. They definitely welcomed me back and it felt like a tribute. It was pretty cool. It was really, really heartwarming.”
After finishing the ’99 season with the Indians, Candiotti signed a free agency deal with the Anaheim Angels for spring training in 2000. After spending some time with the Angels during camp, The Candy Man decided it was time to hang up his spikes.
“When I got done playing it was the spring of 2000. My knees were giving me too many problems to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore so I called it a career.”
Despite his playing career ending, his time involved with baseball was far from over, however.
“I started working for the Cleveland Indians, where I was kind of Mark Shapiro and John Hart’s assistant,” Candiotti said. “I did that for just a little while when an opportunity opened up to work for ESPN. I took that and was doing game telecasts with ESPN for about five years and I did a few Baseball Tonight’s as well. I enjoyed doing that, and I also did about 30 Toronto Blue Jays games a year as well. I liked the industry because it got me to the ballpark all of the time where I got to see my buddies who are now coaches, trainers and everything else.”
Eventually, his part time gigs turned into something more permanent, as Candiotti now serves as a television and radio analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I was at a game and I happened to see Derrick Hall, a CEO for the Diamondbacks who was a kind of clubhouse director when I was with the Dodgers, and he wanted me to come and work with them on their radio broadcasts. I didn’t really know anything about the radio but I tried it and I liked it.”
As an announcer, Candiotti stays involved with the game that he loves, but finds it fun to watch how the game has evolved, even from when he played.
“It’s fun watching how the game evolves. It’s gotten so much more athletic,” Candiotti said of today’s game. “These guys now can throw a ball through a brick wall. It’s unbelievable the power and speed that these guys have now. It’s kind of fun to be a part of that.”
Another part of the game that has changed is the lack of the pitch that gave Candiotti so much success during his career. Nowadays, the knuckleball is seen as somewhat of a lost art as only a handful of players even attempt to throw it.
“It’s a very difficult pitch to throw. If it wasn’t, you’d have a whole lot of them,” Candiotti said. “There’s also a different mentality for the coach and the general managers. Knuckleballs almost seem like a disease at times. The stigma is that there’s going to be wild pitches, passed balls, walks and baserunners all over the place…and that’s not necessarily true when you have a good knuckleballer. I don’t think I ever really walked a lot of guys except maybe my first couple years of trying to learn to throw the pitch. Other than that, I tried to keep my walks down and limit baserunners. It’s just a very hard pitch to throw and probably an even harder pitch to handle.”
Candiotti was one of the few that learned to master the craft and was very successful because of it. He looks back on his career and smiles, but his face lights up when speaking of his time with the Cleveland Indians.
“There’s a lot of good memories from here because I grew up on this team.”
Photo: Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs by K.P. Wee