How one pitch changed my career and one person turned it back around

To: Those who doubt themselves

From: Mark Wohlers

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To those who doubt themselves,

I’m about 6’3, 6’4. When I was at the top of my game, I walked around the clubhouse like I was 6’6 or 6’7.  But after one pitch rattled my confidence, I didn’t walk as tall and I certainly didn’t walk as proud.

One decision. One pitch. One moment.

Before that pitch, I don’t remember doubting myself.

I grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. My father brought me to my first practice when I was in second grade. The minute I stepped on a baseball field, I fell in love with the sport. At about nine or ten years old, my parents got divorced. My father wasn’t around a whole lot and my mother was working, trying to support and raise my sister and me. Baseball became my escape. When I wasn’t playing organized baseball with my team, I’d catch with my buddy across the street or play Wiffle ball or watch other teams and players.

By middle school, I knew I was the best player on my team. In my sophomore year of high school, I made varsity. Then, during my senior year, we were getting ready to play our rivals. They were the next town over. It rained on the morning of the game. So, I drove over there to see the condition of the field. I ran into a couple of scouts from the Boston Red Sox, who ended up talking to me.

I didn’t know who they were at the time.

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But they asked me my name and when I told them, they said, “We’re here to see you pitch today.”

That’s when I knew I would have a future in baseball.

Sure enough, later that year, in 1988, I was home alone and the phone rang. It was an area scout for the Atlanta Braves.

He said, “Congratulations, we drafted you in the 8th round. We’ll be in touch.”

After I got off the phone, I sat in silence, with my mind going a million miles an hour.

I felt great!

Three years later, I got called up to the big leagues. At 21 years old, I was thrust into the middle of a pennant race and it was everything I dreamed it would be.

My confidence was certainly on the rise.

That season, I was part of a combined no-hitter. Kent Mercker went the first six innings. I pitched the seventh and eighth and Alejandro Pena pitched the ninth. It was the seventh combined no-hitter in MLB history.

We made it to the World Series, where we lost to the Minnesota Twins. But that year, the Braves didn’t put me in too critical of a role in the postseason. I don’t think they wanted the world to fall on my shoulders at such a young age.

I pitched well in 1993. In 1994 there was a shortened season because of the strike. So, I thought 1995 was going to be my breakout year.  A rookie named Brad Clontz won the closer’s role out of spring training.  But early June or late May, I became the closer. My confidence kept climbing throughout the season.

Ultimately, I found myself on the mound for Game 6 of the World Series. We were in Atlanta, up 1-0 over the Cleveland Indians with two outs in the top of the ninth. Bases were empty. Carlos Baerga was on the plate for the Indians. I tried to downplay the whole situation as I reminded myself that I still have to get an out. I tried to think of it as another regular-season game.

I threw a fastball. Baerga hit it to left-center field. When I saw the ball go up in the air and I knew my center fielder, Marquis Grissom, was going to catch it, my confidence reached its peak.  

Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series

Being at the bottom of that big pile after everybody ran out to the field is an experience I’ll never forget. I won a World Series. That’s when I felt 6’7 or 6’8. That’s when I felt tall and proud. Also, I became widely considered as one of the best closers in baseball.  

But one year later, my confidence took a complete 180.

We were back in the World Series, but with a different outcome.

This time we were facing the New York Yankees. It was Game 4 and we were at home with a 2-1 series lead. In the top of the 8th, we were up 6-3. I was on the mound and Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz was at the plate. I was throwing him fastball after fastball and he kept fouling back. I thought I needed to mix it up and throw something different. I still believe it was the right pitch. It was just a bad location. I left it up. I made a mistake and he took complete advantage of it. He hit a three-run game-tying home run, and the Yankees went on to win the game and the World Series.

That home run was not only a turning point in the series but also my career.

One decision. One pitch. One moment.

While I pitched the rest of the series and I didn’t give up any more runs, the worst thing that happened to me was the offseason. I would hear people talk about the pitch and then I’d see TV stations play the highlights repeatedly. 

When I returned for the next season, I started to think, “OK, here comes a reporter, he is going to ask me about last year’s World Series,” or “This fan is going to say something about last year’s World Series.”

No longer did my mind contain positive thoughts. Instead, the negative thoughts were compounding daily.

In ’97, I lost my ability to throw strikes.  I completely lost all feeling in my hand to throw a baseball. And that’s not easy to do when you’re in front of 30, 40, 60-thousand people.

I thought I could physically battle my way through it. So, I kept working and I kept throwing. The Braves sent me down to the minors in ’98 to relieve some pressure. It didn’t help. 

In ’99, they wanted to send me down again, but I didn’t want to do that.  So, I forced their hand to either release me or trade me. They traded me to the Cincinnati Reds, which was a great change of scenery, but I still struggled.

Finally, my elbow blew out and I needed Tommy John surgery, which was devastating at the time. However, without a doubt, the injury became a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t pick up a baseball, which meant I had to beat this adversity mentally, not physically.

Throughout about ten months of rehab, I convinced myself that the reason I couldn’t throw strikes was that I had nerve or ligament damage in my elbow. That’s why I could not feel a baseball.

I told myself, “OK, you had Tommy John surgery. They repaired the ligament. So now everything is going to be OK.”

Deep in the back of my mind, I knew that wasn’t the truth. But I had to think that way, so I could get out of my head and just play baseball.

I kept telling myself over and over, “Your elbow is going to be fixed. You are going to be good to go.”

When I came back, I started slow – playing catch from maybe 15 or 20 feet apart. Then, as I regained my strength, I simultaneously rebuilt my confidence.

Most people thought my career in Major League Baseball was over. But at the end of 2000, the Cincinnati Reds called me back up to the big leagues. I don’t even remember my first appearance when I returned, but once I got that call-up, I was like, “OK, I’m back.”

I stopped doubting myself.

I knew they were not bringing me up to embarrass myself or the organization. Instead, I knew I earned the opportunity, which was one of the most significant accomplishments of my career.

That year, I pitched well against my former team, getting out Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. There were still many people in Atlanta that supported me, so it was meaningful to me to play well in a place I still consider home.

In 2001, I agreed to be traded to the Yankees, which was a childhood dream.  I didn’t play a huge role on that team because they had a stacked bullpen. But I pitched OK, and it was a great experience.

After 1996, I could have thrown in the towel, but I am glad I did not quit. Instead, I gave it my maximum effort and proved that I could still pitch in the Big Leagues.

In the process, I learned how powerful our minds can be. So, if you doubt yourself or if your confidence has taken a hit in whatever it is that you do or that you are passionate about, remember what changed the direction of my career. 

One decision. One pitch. One moment.

But also note,  to change it back, I only needed one person.

I needed just one person to believe I could do it.

And that person was me.

Give your best effort and believe in yourself. You got this!

Mark Wohlers
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