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

Times Staff Writer

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.

"I respect Lou, really, and I think he'll be a great manager," Wynegar said. "But when he got the bug to start managing, he started studying Billy and it's amazing how many mannerisms he picked up."

One was screaming at his players in the dugout and clubhouse, humiliating them in front of their teammates. Another was umpire baiting.

"The umpires hated the Yankees because both Billy and Lou would scream about balls and strikes from the dugout during every game," Wynegar said. "It's hard enough to tell if a pitch is a ball or a strike when you're up there batting, yet alone from the dugout.

"It's OK to do it once in awhile, I guess, but every game? The umpires were sick of Billy and Lou trying to embarrass them and they hated us for it. This isn't my opinion, more than a couple (of umpires) have told me this. When a close play could go against the Yankees, it did."

Wynegar was sitting on the bench that Sunday in Milwaukee, listening to Piniella scream at the umpires and his teammates when he realized he had reached the bottom of the pit.

He knew he needed a rest. And he also knew he needed help.

When he got home, he went to see a doctor at NYU, who told him to go home and stop thinking about baseball.

"He told me to take one day at a time and forget baseball," Wynegar said. "But there was no way to get it out of my mind there. It was on the TV every day, on the radio and in the newspapers. So we went home to Florida and I felt better. I was convinced I was retired."

Wynegar saw some doctors--psychologists and psychiatrists. He began taking an anti-depressant that he still takes daily. He kept his anti-anxiety medication close at hand to ward off the acute anxiety attacks that started in Yankee Stadium.

He relaxed, played with his three children and slowly regained his equilibrium.

Then, after Thanksgiving dinner last November, Wynegar sneaked out to the garage, picked up a bat for the first time in almost four months and tentatively took a couple of swings.

"I thought, 'Hey, this isn't giving me that abnormal feeling anymore,' " he said, smiling at the recollection. "It didn't repulse me anymore."

Soon he was playing catch in the street with his best friend, Jack O'Connor, a pitcher in the Baltimore organization who is recovering from arm surgery. Before long, he made a call to his agent to see if anyone was interested.

Not long afterward, Angel General Manager Mike Port was at his door for a visit.

"I think he wanted to see if I was drooling or weighed 300 pounds or something," Wynegar said, smiling. "If I was wearing a straight-jacket and a beanie, he probably would have left."

That's not exactly how Port describes the reason for the visit, but there's no doubt he wanted to see Wynegar, whom he had known a decade earlier when Wynegar was a minor league player in Reno.

"I had the pleasure of knowing Butch in Reno and to draw a parallel people around here would understand, he was a solid, consistent fellow similar to Wally Joyner," Port said. "I just wanted to drop by and see if it was the same Butch Wynegar I knew."

Port was much relieved to find that he was. Good catchers are hard to come by. Veteran, former All-Star catchers are very hard to come by. Wynegar, just a season before, was a highly regarded Type A free agent.

"There seemed to be nothing deep-seated or mysterious about his problem," Port said. "And with all due respect to the Yankee organization, some people just don't thrive in that environment. He had performed well for them for a number of years and it was time for a change of scenery.

"I left their house with a reinforced feeling of comfort."

Wynegar, once drowning in depression, was on the brink of euphoria now. He was to be reunited with Gene Mauch, the man who brought him up to the majors with Minnesota and helped him make the American League All-Star team his first two years.

"It was the best scenario I could have imagined," Wynegar said, looking as if he still can't believe it really happened. "I probably would have gone to any team that didn't have New York in front of it's name. I've played 11 years in the American League, but I would have even gone to the National League.

"But this is perfect. I'm going to play in Anaheim, a beautiful city, in a beautiful, clean park, on a team that's a contender, for Gene Mauch, the man I've always said I'd like to finish my career with.

"Somebody up there is watching over me."

Wynegar says he hasn't even come close to popping one of those anxiety pills since he first slipped into his Angel uniform. And although he'd like to be the No. 1 catcher all year, he says he will welcome Bob Boone back with open arms if he walks through the clubhouse door May 1.

"I think Boonie is the class of the league," he said. "I love to watch him catch. If he's got a couple of years left, then let him tutor me. All I want to do is help this team win a World Series for that guy in there," he added, pointing at Mauch's office.

Wynegar apparently has found that elusive inner peace. He has regained his self-respect. He is having fun on a baseball diamond again. There is really only one other thing he wants to accomplish now.

"I came to camp with the idea that I was going to tell (reporters), 'No comment, that's in the past,' when you brought this whole thing up," he said.

"But I'm talking about it now because hopefully, through the media, the people of New York will understand why I had to leave. They were in a pennant race and I wasn't in a state of mind where I could do anything to help them win.

"But I'm no quitter."

Obviously not.

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