Catching Up With Steve Woodard

Former Indians pitcher Steve Woodard may have only been a fifth round pick in 1994, but at 22 years old in 1997, he made quite the first impression in his Major League debut.

“It was pretty awesome,” Woodard said, “It wasn’t something that I planned on happening, but it’s just one of those things.”

During his first Major League start with the Milwaukee Brewers, Woodard was matched up against the legendary arm of Roger Clemens—who was pitching with the Toronto Blue Jays at the time.

“Going up against Roger Clemens was going up against someone that I grew up idolizing as a kid.”

Apparently not too intimidated by Clemens’ stature, the rookie Woodard outdueled The Rocket en route to a 1-0 Brewers win in which he went eight innings, allowing just one hit—a double to lead off the game by former Indian Otis Nixon—and striking out 12.

“It was cool to be able to go up against him in the Big Leagues, much less being able to beat him 1-0,” Woodard recalled. “I struck out 12 and it was a pretty awesome experience.”

After such an impressive first impression, Woodard became a regular in the Brewers rotation over the next few years. He started 26 games for Milwaukee in 1998 and then 29 more in 1999. The turn of the century brought a 1-7 record for the right hander’s time for the Brew Crew before he was shipped to Cleveland in a whopper of a deal for the Indians.

On July 28, 2000, the Indians sent young slugger Richie Sexson along with pitchers Kane Davis and Paul Rigdon with a player to be named later to the Brewers for Woodard, fellow starter Jason Bere and closer Bob Wickman. Eventually, the PTBNL that the Indians gave up turned out to be future All-Star infielder Marco Scutaro. For Milwaukee, the rebuilding Brewers acquired one of the game’s up-and-coming bats in Sexon, while the competing Indians got both a rotation overhaul and a changing of the guard at the back end of their bullpen. Wickman jumped in immediately to replace regular Cleveland closer Steve Karsay while Bere and Woodard joined Chuck Finley, Dave Burba and Bartolo Colon as the Tribe’s regular starters for the remainder of their playoff hunt.

“It was pretty cool because being in Milwaukee we weren’t really fighting for a position in the playoffs,” Woodard said of the trade. “I went from being toward the bottom of the standings to being right there at the top of the division when I got traded to Cleveland. The atmosphere you went into in Cleveland was one where they expected to win. We were fighting for a playoff berth and there was a sellout every night at home. It was just a great opportunity and a great chance for me and Bob Wickman.”

In his first opportunity with his new club, Woodard was a hard-luck loser against the Baltimore Orioles after giving up just one run in six innings of work. His next few starts see-sawed back and forth with mixed results, but it turned out that Woodard was just saving his best outings for the Tribe’s crunch time in September.

With the Indians in the thick of a Wild Card chase, Woodard was scheduled to face the reigning Cy Young winner and 2000’s eventual winner—Pedro Martinez—at Boston’s Fenway Park in game one of a doubleheader on September 20. Woodard controlled the Red Sox hitters over six impressive innings by allowing no runs on just three hits as the Tribe came through with a 2-1 victory.

Less than two weeks later, Woodard pitched a must-win game on the season’s last day against another former Cy Young winner in Toronto’s David Wells. Woodard pitched effectively into the sixth inning as the Tribe bats hammered Boomer giving them an 11-4 victory in game 162. The Tribe had won five of its last six games to finish 90-72 in Manager Charlie Manuel’s first season, but they fell just short of their sixth straight postseason appearance as the Anaheim Angels were unable to hold a 2-0 lead on Seattle and the Mariners won the American League Wild Card.

“It was pretty awesome,” Woodard said of his last two victories—both against 20-game winners. “I beat Pedro Martinez in Boston and then on the last day of the season, we had to win for a chance to make the playoffs. I pitched that game and we ended up winning, although we didn’t make the playoffs because the Mariners won their game and ended up clinching the Wild Card to beat us out.”

Even though Cleveland missed out on the playoffs in 2000, the Tribe was back and loaded again in 2001. Woodard was initially slated to be the fifth starter in the rotation, but was working out of the bullpen early when his season took an immediate downward turn in just his first appearance of the year.

In the sixth inning of their game at Comiskey Park in Chicago on April 9, future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas scorched a line drive back at Woodard, who had no time to react, and the ball ricocheted directly off of his right elbow. Woodard fell to the ground writhing in pain before being carted off the field in an air cast and on a stretcher after about 10 minutes on the ground. A two month stint on the disabled list followed and the injury lingered for the remainder of the season.

“It did. It hit me right below the elbow and it hit a bunch of nerves,” Woodard said. “It kind of shut down my whole body when I got hit. Frank Thomas could hit the ball pretty hard. I just made a mistake with a pitch and left it out over the plate for him. I’m pretty lucky that it didn’t damage anything really badly…it just damaged some nerves. It did put me on the sidelines for about two months and anytime you get hurt during the middle of the season it’s hard to come back from something like that—especially when you’ve been pitching, you’re in shape and then you’ve got to get back in shape again.”

Woodard appeared in 29 games for the Central Division Champion Indians in 2001, but only made 10 starts late in the season. After posting just a 3-3 record with a 5.20 ERA, Woodard did not appear in the Indians five-game loss in the ALDS against the Mariners. He was then released from his contract in the offseason as the Tribe went into rebuilding mode for the 2002 campaign. Even 12 years after the disappointing ending, Woodard still reflects fondly on his time in Cleveland.

“I talk about my time in Cleveland with a lot of people,” Woodard said, “just being able to play with so many potential Hall of Famers and Gold Glovers. People will ask me who was in the infield and who was in the outfield and we had Sandy Alomar, Jr., who was a Gold Glover behind the plate, Roberto Alomar at second and Omar Vizquel at short, Travis Fryman at third and we also had David Segui at first and he was a great glove. Then there was Kenny Lofton in center and Manny Ramirez in right, it was just a great team and a fun team. Every night everybody was pulling for each other. It seemed like it would come down to the wire every night…then somebody would hit a homer to win the game or something like that. It was an awesome time.”

With his time in Cleveland over, Woodard bounced from organization to organization for the next three seasons. He found himself in the organizations of the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Florida Marlins from 2002 to 2004. Woodard only reached the Major Leagues with Texas and Boston during those times and he credits one of his coaches in Cleveland with his final opportunity to pitch in the Big Leagues in 2003.

“Two years after leaving Cleveland, when Grady Little was the coach in Boston, he influenced me to sign with the Red Sox in ’03. Grady was a great coach.”

After retiring from the game in 2004, Woodard returned to his hometown of Hartselle, Alabama and started a new chapter of his life by buying Hartselle Sporting Goods and became a part owner of a neighborhood development company as well. Even with a couple new beginnings, Woodard started to miss baseball after a few years off.

“I was out of the game for a couple of years and then decided that I wanted to go back,” Woodard said of his 2008 comeback. “I signed with the Marlins and I was throwing the ball extremely well. I signed in May and they were going to send me to extended spring training. I thought I’d be there for about a month to get in shape, but I was only there for three days and they asked me to go pitch in AAA. I did and I pitched great, but I had a line drive hit back at me and it broke two fingers on my throwing hand. That was pretty much the end of it. I lost a lot of feeling in two fingers on my pitching hand, so that made it pretty difficult to feel certain pitches like my changeup. It was a lot of bad luck, I think. It was just a freak accident, but that’s a part of the game.”

After hanging up his pitching spikes for good, Woodard stayed in touch with the game and became a high school baseball coach back in his home state of Alabama while still giving back to the team that drafted him 20 years ago.

“I coach high school baseball in Alabama and I like to work with the kids. I still do a lot of stuff with the Milwaukee Brewers…doing charity events and stuff like that. I’m just trying stay involved up there just as much as I can and trying to help out. It’s cool to see guys that I played with and it makes it a good time.”

Woodard uses his time in Cleveland to help him with his new gig, as he singles out a few of his rotation-mates as top-notch references.

“As far as players go, Charles Nagy was one of the best that I could have ever learned from,” Woodard said of the former Indians ace. “He, Chuck Finley and Dave Burba were all class acts and guys that I hung around with. I would hang out with them on the plane and be able to just watch how they went about their business. It helped me learn then what it took to be a top-notch pitcher, but it helps me now to be able to tell my kids and people I work with what it takes to reach that level.”

In addition, Woodard also has a lasting friendship with another former Tribe pitcher, as the two became good friends after a 2001 trade.

“John Rocker is probably one of my closest friends,” Woodard said. “He and I keep in contact all of the time. I keep in touch with the guys from Milwaukee more than anywhere else just because I was there for a longer period of time.”

More than ten years after his last appearance on a Major League mound, Woodard is extremely thankful for the opportunities that he was given during his playing career.

“I still love the game and love being around it. I still go up to Milwaukee occasionally and see my old teammates and coaches. I never would have those opportunities if I’d have never gotten to play.”

Photo: Victory Baseball Cards

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