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Big Apple Turned Sour for Wynegar : Angels' New Catcher Had to Get Out of New York Before He Lost His Mind

March 26, 1987|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — Butch Wynegar had showered, changed out of the Yankee pinstripes that had become a kind of straitjacket and hurried up to the lounge where the players' families waited.

He saw his wife, Gretchen, across the room chatting with a group of other players' wives and headed straight for her. Escape from New York and the peace of their suburban New Jersey home was all he could think about.

Wynegar's 17-month-old son, Cale, popped out from behind a chair and latched onto his daddy's leg, babbling a greeting. Wynegar shook loose and started off toward Gretchen.

A step later, he stood frozen in stride.

"I had goose bumps all over," Wynegar said, his voice faltering. "It just hit me that I had brushed off my little boy, the pride and joy of my life, one of the only people who really matters.

"I just wanted to get home and get out of there so badly. I thought I'd been dealing with my depression, but then I said to myself, 'Holy cow, you're really taking your work home with you now.' "

A week later, on July 31, Wynegar left the Yankees after a Sunday game in Milwaukee and boarded a jet for home. He had called then-General Manager Clyde King and asked permission for some time off, explaining he could no longer cope. After talking to owner George Steinbrenner, King told Wynegar he could have one day off.

"I told him this was no one-day thing," Wynegar said. "Then I left for home."

Wynegar knew he was forfeiting more than $200,000 in 1986 salary and the two years remaining on his $700,000-a-year contract.

He didn't care. The money was meaningless. All he felt was relief.

"The game was no fun anymore," Wynegar said, sitting in the Angels' clubhouse that could serve as the set for the opening scene of his own real-life renaissance play, a story about the rebirth of a once-illustrious baseball career that has spanned 11 major league seasons.

"I didn't think I was coming back . . . ever," he said. "I thought I was retired. And I was glad."

Some say Butch Wynegar was crazy to risk it all. He says he would have been crazy had he not acted when he did. It was his sanity he sought to preserve.

Butch Wynegar thought he was losing his mind. He could feel his control slipping away. Was he the only one who understood that baseball teams--even really good baseball teams--don't go undefeated?

Not even the Yankees are supposed to win every game, are they?

"You're going to lose some games during the year, but over there they don't think they can lose any," he said. "And the catcher takes the brunt of it. Not just me, whoever's catching. A guy gets a hit off a breaking ball and Mr. Steinbrenner wants to know why you didn't call for another pitch."

But it wasn't Steinbrenner who pushed Wynegar off the ledge. It might not have been former manager Billy Martin, either, but when Martin left after the 1985 season, Wynegar was already teetering on the precipice.

"I remember this one game at Yankee Stadium," Wynegar said. "Joe Cowley was pitching and (Minnesota's) Kirby Puckett was the leadoff hitter. The scouting report said to throw him breaking balls away and fastballs in on the belt.

"The first two pitches were balls, breaking balls away. I don't want Cowley to walk the first batter of the game, so I call for the inside, belt-high fastball. It was a good pitch, but Puckett takes an inside-out swing and bloops a double into right-center.

"All of sudden, there's Billy. The first batter of the game and he's out on the mound. He's screaming and pointing his finger at Cowley. All the (television) cameras are on you, there's 50,000 people in the stands and all this pressure and I'm thinking, 'What's this guy doing out here?'

"Then, Billy turns to me and screams, 'Don't you (bleep)ers ever read the (bleep)ing scouting report?'

"I kinda lost control then. All of sudden I'm screaming all the same obscenities that he does. We almost went after it right there. I actually felt good after that happened."

For a few minutes, anyway.

Martin's rampages are highly charged but usually short-lived. Wynegar doesn't have the ability to shuck off such experiences quite as easily.

"I went into his office the next day and told him I couldn't take the second-guessing anymore, that if he didn't like the way I called the game than he could call the pitches from the dugout," he said. "Billy's not used to ultimatums and he doesn't like to be challenged.

"He said, 'Oh no, Butch, I like the way you call the games. You were probably right.' He's all nice and calm and I'm ready to tear into him. He wouldn't call the pitches himself because he wants an out, somebody to blame."

Lou Piniella, Martin's successor, wasn't much help for Wynegar's sagging psyche. Wynegar was already having claustrophobic reactions to playing in Yankee Stadium and this new Yankee manager wasn't exactly low key.

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