The thumbnail bios that didn't make the final cut for my book include Mark Wohlers and Steve Avery, both of whom had moments of triumph and epic failure.
NUMBER OF PENNANTS: 4
NUMBER OF CHAMPIONSHIPS: 1
BEST RECORD: 104-58/ 1993
HALL OF FAMERS: BOBBY COX (mgr), TOM GLAVINE (p), GREG MADDUX (p), JOHN SMOLTZ (p)
Avery’s father, Ken, won 28 games in two seasons as a farm hand for the Tigers. When the club failed to promote him or give him a raise, he quit baseball to become a high school athletic director. Ken taught his son to pitch with the following mound philosophy: ‘Throw the ball as best you can and the rest is out of our hands.’ It worked out pretty well as Steve was the Braves’ first round pick in the ’88 draft.
Like his father before him, Avery had an excellent minor league career, posting a 19-8 record in the Appalachian and Carolina Leagues. Called to Atlanta in 1990, he was the youngest pitcher in the majors at twenty years of age. He ended up with an abysmal 3-11 record and 5.64 ERA, but returned in ‘91 to win 18 games. In the NLCS, he tossed 16.1 scoreless innings, earning MVP honors.
Before the ‘92 campaign, Avery got into a contract dispute. “I figured it would mean something to win 20 games and help the team win the National League championship,” he groused to a reporter. “I’m not a complainer. I just want what I deserve.” He settled for $355,000, which wasn’t too far below his asking price. A frequent victim of poor run support in ‘92, he finished with a mediocre 11-11 record during the regular season. In Game 3 of the World Series, he had a quality outing against the Blue Jays, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits in eight innings of work. The Braves offense deserted him again in the 3-2 loss. Over the course of his career, Avery notched a 5-3 postseason record with a serviceable 2.90 ERA.
1993 was a phenomenal season for Avery, though it ended on a down note. The twenty-three year-old southpaw went 18-6 with a career-best 2.94 ERA, earning his only All-Star selection. In September, he suffered an arm injury that changed the course of his career. Including his minor league days, Avery started 175 games before the age of twenty-four and that may have put undue stress on his arm. He was never the same pitcher after the injury, compiling a 44-47 record from 1994 through 1999. The low point for Avery came in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series. Summoned from the bullpen in the tenth inning, he surrendered a hit and 3 walks. The third free pass forced in the go-ahead run as the Yankees won, 8-6. It was Avery’s last postseason appearance.
Avery didn’t play in 2001 and 2002, but returned for a comeback attempt with Detroit the following year. He posted an ugly 5.63 ERA in nineteen appearance and was finished after that.
Wohlers was among the Braves’ most successful closers for a short spell, but he is remembered more for the way his career ended in ruin. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, he was drafted by Atlanta out of high school in ‘88. He bounced up and down from the majors to the minors from ‘91 through ‘93 as the Braves experimented with various closers. During that three-year span, he entered ninety-five big league games exclusively in relief, picking up 10 wins and 6 saves while posting a 3.58 ERA.
With a fastball that was often clocked around one hundred miles per hour, Wohlers could bring the heat. But it wasn’t something he focused on. “If I can get a guy out, I’ll throw eighty miles per hour,” he once said. “I really try not to think about one hundred. It’s just a number. I don’t need to throw a hundred. A save in the box score next to my name is my reward.”
In ‘94, Wohlers served as a set-up man for Greg McMichael. The following year, the roles were reversed. With a chance to shine, the right-handed flame thrower converted 25 save opportunities and compiled an impressive 2.09 ERA. After a few hiccups in the ‘95 NLDS against the Rockies, he settled down and pitched effectively through the remainder of the postseason. He appeared in four World Series games, allowing no runs in three of them while picking up a pair of saves. He was on the mound when the Braves clinched their first World Series title in decades.
Wohlers had one of his best seasons ever in 1996. He struck out 100 batters in 77.1 innings while setting a franchise record with 39 saves. After logging six scoreless appearances in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he fell apart in the World Series. In the fourth game, he coughed up a game-tying 3-run homer to Jim Leyritz. It was the beginning of the end.
Though he picked up 33 saves in 1997, Wohlers began to suffer from control problems, tossing 6 wild pitches and averaging nearly 5 walks per nine frames. His problems intensified the following year as his marriage dissolved and his mother suffered a heart attack. He ended up spending a portion of the season at Triple-A Richmond to work out his issues. “You’ve got to swallow your pride a little bit because you know it’s what’s best for you,” Wohlers said about being demoted to the farm. “Has it been tough? Yeah. Is it the toughest thing I’ll go through in my life? Not even close.”Wohlers was eventually placed on the disabled list due to an “inability to pitch.” His troubles were blamed on a phenomenon known as Steve Blass Disease—a psychological block that manifests itself when a player begins to concentrate too hard on the act of throwing. Blass was a Pirates pitcher who became inexplicably wild after winning 19 games in 1972. “I still don’t know what caused it for me and I may never know,” said Blass years later. “I would love to be able to go out and throw batting practice. But I still don’t have a good feel about it.”
In 1999, Wohlers was traded to the Reds. He was placed on the DL with an anxiety disorder and also underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. He returned to baseball, but was never the same. After undergoing a second round of surgery before the ‘04 slate, he opted for retirement.
In 2011, Wohlers’ misfortune continued as his home in Alpharetta, Georgia caught fire and burned to the ground. Thankfully, he and his family escaped safely. As of 2013, he was running an Atlanta real estate business called Team Wohlers.