Longform

Speedball

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One coach who did come around in the spring of 1983 was Grand Canyon College's Gil Stafford. Wickander says Stafford took him to a Bob's Big Boy restaurant and made his recruiting pitch.

"Kevin was a competitor, and that's what I was looking for," recalls Stafford, a respected baseball man who now is Grand Canyon's president. "He was a local neighborhood kid who wanted to win really bad -- a free spirit, but one who was willing to listen to his coach. He was a Canyon kind of guy, a blue-collar west-sider. I liked him the first time I met him."

Though Stafford says Wickander had excellent work habits on the ball field, some of the pitcher's other exploits had profound repercussions. While at Grand Canyon, he impregnated a young woman who gave birth to a daughter, now 19. (Wickander says he's had little contact with that daughter, though Maricopa County court records show her mother won thousands of dollars in back child support in 1998.)

Wickander says he dabbled with marijuana in high school, but didn't like it. He says he snorted cocaine a few times during college, then swore it off because "I didn't want to ruin my chances at going pro."

Those odds became better as his career at Grand Canyon blossomed. During Wickander's freshman year, he beat cross-town rival Arizona State University, which had on its squad a talented left fielder named Barry Bonds -- "Fastball in on his hands, maybe another, then hook him down and away," Wickander says of how he pitched the future star.

In 1986, Wickander led Grand Canyon to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) crown, the pinnacle for a small college program. He says the Cleveland Indians then drafted him late in the first round, and offered a $100,000 signing bonus. Club archives, however, indicate it was the second round, though he was accurate about the bonus.

Teams ever are on the prowl for competent southpaw pitchers, and the Cleveland chain groomed Wickander to face left-handed hitters in the late innings, usually in pressure situations. (It's a role similar to that of Arizona Diamondbacks lefty Mike Myers, who pitched in 69 games this season, but threw only 39 innings. His salary: $1.5 million.)

At the end of the 1989 season, the Indians called up the 24-year-old Wickander from their Triple-A team. He says he recorded his first big league out against future Hall of Famer Robin Yount -- now a D-Backs coach. After the game, Wickander says, he adjourned to a pub to celebrate his major league christening as he had in the minors -- by drinking himself into oblivion.

In the majors, Wickander says he quickly embraced the amphetamines that he claims were readily available in Cleveland's clubhouse -- those so-called "white crosses."

"There were cases of the stuff around every big league clubhouse I ever was in," he says. "About half the guys did crosses' as part of their day. It pushes you an extra two hours, which helps over a 162-game schedule. I got right into them, pitched on them, enjoyed them."

Cleveland's clubhouse, he continues, typically had three pots of coffee brewing before and during games. "There was your caffeinated, your decaf, and the third pot -- it usually had a red line around it. They called it The Mud. It was like syrup, molasses, because it had a ton of white crosses ground into it. You drink two or three little cups and, wham."

A spokesperson for the Indians denies any knowledge of the so-called "Mud," and says Wickander's recollection is incorrect.



Wickander made the opening-day roster of the 1990 Indians, and started well. But that May, he shattered his pitching elbow in a fall on a concrete runway at Anaheim Stadium. The injury ended his season.

He says he tried to corral his growing depression over the turn of events with alcohol.

"I wasn't a nasty drunk," he says, "and people around me thought I was pretty cool. Maybe since I always picked up the tab, even though I wasn't rolling in it."

Major leaguers didn't make nearly the money in the early 1990s that they do today. Records indicate Wickander made $100,000 in 1990, and the most he ever collected in the majors was $290,000 in 1996, his final season.

Wickander worked hard at rehabilitating his elbow, though he didn't make the major league club out of spring training. Sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs to get back into game shape, Wickander drank so much and so publicly there that Cleveland's brass took the unusual step of ordering him into an inpatient alcohol-rehab program.

He stayed there for 30 days, and says he only rarely has had a drink in the decade since then.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin