If you’re watching one of the Angels’ games in New York this weekend, don’t be surprised if Butch Wynegar runs over one of his teammates while chasing a pop foul.
It’s not that the crowd in Yankee Stadium figures to be so loud that it will drown out all attempts at communication. It’s just that the Angel catcher thinks the New York fans will be so hostile toward him that he says he might play with cotton in his ears.
Wynegar is making his first trip back to a city that has been more bad apple than Big Apple for him. Rotten doesn’t even do justice to his experiences with the Yankees.
Wynegar was 20 when he came up to the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins in 1976 under the calm influence of Gene Mauch. He made the All-Star team as a rookie and at the time was the youngest player ever selected. In 1986, however, he quit baseball after five chaotic years with the Yankees and a number of run-ins with volatile managers Billy Martin and Lou Piniella.
He hated the long drive from his home in New Jersey to the park. He hated the toll booths. He hated New York. In the five years he was there, he went into Manhattan twice. Worst of all, because he felt an incredible pressure to win, he began to hate baseball. Later, he said he had to get away from the game.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” he said.
On July 31, 1986, he left the Yankees--and forfeited $1.4 million in salary for the next two years in the process.
“I was convinced I was retired,” he said. “And I was glad.”
With the help of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and anti-depressant medication that he still takes, Wynegar regained his equilibrium. And the chance to play for Mauch brought him out of retirement and into an Angel uniform by the start of last season.
Wynegar missed both trips to New York, however, because of stints on the disabled list. His right foot required surgery twice last year. He’s not exactly looking forward to his return, either.
“I’m a little apprehensive, that’s for sure,” he said. “I know that the fans will get all over me. They won’t have forgotten. One of the main reasons I talked so openly about that whole story was to help people understand what happened to me and why I felt that I had to leave.
“But I doubt if that will make much difference, so I’m planning on playing with cotton in my ears.”
Wynegar says he has never regretted his decision to return to baseball. Working through that period of severe depression has taught him how to maintain his perspective and deal with stress, he says. But he hasn’t forgotten a time when the Yankee pinstripes seemed more like a prison uniform and all he could think about was an escape from New York.
“If I never had to go back again, I wouldn’t cry,” he said, smiling. “I’m sure I’ll go through some strange feelings the first time I step back in that stadium. But who knows? Maybe it will be good therapy for me. I’ve still got a lot of friends on the Yankees that I haven’t spoken to since I left, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”
Wynegar admits that he isn’t thrilled about the idea of rehashing his slide into debilitating depression with the New York media. He says he’s considering “pulling a George (Hendrick).” Hendrick, of course, hasn’t spoken to reporters in a decade. It’s not likely that Wynegar, one of the most accessible players in the game, will decline to be interviewed.
“I’m not going to bring it up if they don’t,” he said, managing another smile, “but I always got along great with the media there, and some of those guys are pretty good friends, so I think I’ll handle it OK.”
Wynegar seems to be handling everything pretty well these days, especially a bat. That might come as a bit of a surprise, considering that he has had only 92 at-bats during the last two seasons. He recently had a nine-game hitting streak snapped, but he’s hitting .286 with 6 RBIs, one more than he totaled all of last season when he played in just 31 games because of the recurring foot problems.
“He has been swinging the bat very well lately,” Manager Cookie Rojas said. “But I’m not surprised. We all knew Butch Wynegar could hit.”
For a while last year, the question was whether he would ever be able to squat behind the plate again, or run without limping, for that matter. Lewis Yocum, the Angels’ team physician, removed bone spurs from his right big toe last May and had to operate again after the season, removing calcium deposits from the foot.
Wynegar has played in 17 games already this year and says he feels some “general soreness and an occasional twinge,” but none of the intense pain he experienced last year.
“I love to play, but I doubt if I could be an everyday catcher again,” Wynegar said. “The way Cookie’s been using me, with the days off in between, it’s been holding up real well. I can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt anything like it has at times.
“The main thing is that it has a chance to recuperate, and I think that’s going to prolong my career.”
Rojas, of course, is glad to have the luxury of having two veteran catchers. He’s able to give five-time Gold Glove winner Bob Boone plenty of rest and feel comfortable about it.
“What I’m trying to do is keep them both strong all year,” Rojas said. “I want to make sure they both get to play as much as possible . . . which also means they both should get enough rest.
“There are not many managers who can truthfully say they feel as confident as I do with either of my catchers in there.”
Boone gets most of the work and, although playing once every three or four days may do wonders for an ailing foot, it also can wreak havoc on offensive consistency.
Wynegar won’t be complaining about a lack of playing time. After last year--when he hit just .207--he was beginning to wonder if someone else would be making the decision about his retirement this time around.
“To be honest, I had some doubts,” Wynegar said. “The pitching on this level is very tough. It had been two years since I’d played regularly, and I knew this spring I had a long way to go.
“It was just a matter of building my confidence. I took a lot of extra batting practice. I didn’t have that great of a spring, but I’m seeing the ball pretty well now. It’s just a matter of trying to keep that feeling at the plate.”
A feeling of well-being . . . that’s something Butch Wynegar might be thinking about often during the next few days.