The Joke Is on Dodger Foes Now : Candiotti Became a Knuckleballer Only for Laughs; Pitch Made Him a Millionaire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The truth is out. It comes from former catcher Bill Schroeder, who is determined to set the record straight, not to mention gain a little revenge:

Tom Candiotti became the pitcher he is today only because he needed a new practical joke.

The year was 1983. Candiotti was a triple-A pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewer organization. Schroeder was his catcher and whipping boy.

Candiotti had once stolen Schroeder's clothes from his locker and draped them on an automobile. He had planted stink bombs under the door of Schroeder's hotel room.

Candiotti had done everything but embarrass Schroeder on the field. Then one evening during another boring minor league game, he pulled his best trick yet.

He threw a knuckleball.

"I had a small glove on, and the thing nearly killed me," Schroeder recalled. "I yelled, 'What the heck are you doing?' He laughed at me, right from the mound, and threw it again. I yelled again, but I was stuck until the end of the inning. Balls were hitting me everywhere."

The joke worked so well that two years later, during spring training, Candiotti was doing the same thing to Schroeder in the bullpen when turned to see Brewer Manager George Bamberger and club executive Sal Bando.

They sternly ordered him to report to the manager's office, where they asked him where he had learned that funny pitch. Then they

ordered him to throw it during the season.

"One minute I'm thinking, 'Oh no, they caught me screwing around, I'm dead,' " Candiotti recalled. "The next minute, I've got new life."

Today Candiotti, 34, still laughs when he throws the knuckleball. But now he is paid $15.5 million to do it for his favorite childhood team, the

Dodgers.

Is it any wonder he sometimes feels this is all part of another practical joke?

"I was walking into a (Golden State) Warriors' game this winter when my cellular phone rang, right in my jacket," Candiotti said. "On the other end, my agent said, 'If you want to play for the Dodgers, we have a deal.' I said, sure. Then I hung up the phone and picked up my tickets.

"It wasn't until halftime that I realized, 'Hey, I'm a Dodger!' I spent the rest of game spaced out, sitting there going, ' Ohhhhhhhh .' "

Candiotti finds wonder in many things, which seems natural, considering that his status as one of baseball's better pitchers is perhaps the biggest wonder of all.

"A lot of times you can look at a young pitcher and say, 'This guy has a chance, this guy could be the one,' " recalled Bill Bryk, Candiotti's first professional manager. "Tom wasn't one of those guys."

Besides the obvious drawbacks of a pitch that floats, there is another reason why there are so few knuckleball pitchers.

To master the inconsistent pitch, one must be able to understand failure and swallow embarrassment.

At this, Candiotti is a pro.

"I guess I don't worry much about losing," Candiotti said, shrugging. "Probably because I've never had much (success) to begin with."

That is an understatement from a pitcher who was unnoticed after college, unwanted after two pro seasons, and inconspicuous for six years with the Cleveland Indians.

When he began his pro career in 1979, the only draft that affected him was the one coming through the windows of his old Volkswagen, which he drove from Northern California to Victoria, B.C., for a tryout. He packed only a duffel bag and fishing pole.

"We're having this workout, and onto the field walks this hippie who says he wants to pitch," recalled Bryk, a Pittsburgh Pirate scout who then coached the independent Victoria Mussels. "I only gave him a tryout because I give everybody a tryout. He only threw about 82 m.p.h. He only made the team because he threw strikes."

During most of that summer, Candiotti lived in the clubhouse--he had a sleeping bag--and considered it a big night when he could buy a loaf of bread and some bologna.

Not that everything has changed. When Candiotti finally stumbled into the limelight after he was traded to the contending Toronto Blue Jays in the middle of last season, he lived in a SkyDome hotel room above center field and ate some of his meals at the SkyDome McDonald's.

"It was neat," he said. "I'd go to work every day with the maids and garbage men on the service elevator. The only bad thing was that McDonald's wanted 12 bucks for a quarter pounder, fries and a Coke."

He is best remembered for his two championship series defeats with the Blue Jays in October, both disasters. The knuckleball fooled the Toronto catchers more than it did the Minnesota Twins, costing the Blue Jays seven earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.

At one point late in the season, catcher Pat Borders was so spooked, he would turn around and chase balls that were already in his glove.

"Everyone was confused," Candiotti said. "I'm a hard player to get adjusted to during the middle of the season."

Amid the chaos, the Dodgers noticed that Candiotti finished within two outs of winning the American League earned-run-average title, compiling a 2.65 ERA while going 13-13.

They noticed that Candiotti pitched more than 200 innings for the sixth consecutive season, the second-longest streak in baseball. They noticed that only one other starter in the league had held runners to a lower batting average with runners in scoring position, .190.

"What everyone should realize is that he is a great competitor who doesn't even need the knuckleball all the time, or even most of the time," said John Hart, the Indian general manager who traded Candiotti only because they could not afford to sign him. "He is a guy who can drop a curveball on you and fool you that way. He's a good pitcher, period."

The Dodgers, who had already traded Tim Belcher and were in the process of losing Mike Morgan, agreed. Without even warning catcher Mike Scioscia, they signed Candiotti to a four-year contract after Toronto had offered him three years.

Candiotti celebrated by buying big-screen television sets for his family and spikes for the baseball team at St. Mary's College, his former school in Moraga.

Then he sent Dodger caps to a group of close friends, the San Francisco 49ers. His cousin is the equipment manager, and Candiotti sometimes shags punts for the team before games.

"They had no problem wearing Cleveland hats, and then they burned those hats in a ceremony and wore Toronto hats," Candiotti said. "But this is the big test of our relationship, to see them wear Dodger hats in San Francisco."

Candiotti does crazy things for his friends, probably because he remembers when he didn't have many friends.

He lost his best friend when he was 17. His father died suddenly of a heart attack.

Most baseball publicists, including those with the Dodgers, write that it was Phil Niekro who taught Candiotti the knuckleball. But it was Caesar Candiotti, a government worker, who taught his son the pitch on weekday afternoons in the front yard of their home in Concord, Calif.

"I throw it with three fingers, unlike the other knuckleballers, because that is how my father taught me," Candiotti said.

He pitched well for St. Mary's, but didn't know when to sit down. During his junior year, he won a game as a starter on a Friday, then got two saves during a doubleheader Saturday.

His arm finally grew too sore to pitch, and he was forced to red-shirt during his senior season. A year later he still wasn't throwing hard enough to gain attention, so he headed for Victoria, where he went 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA and began showing his abilities as a prankster.

"I didn't think he was a prankster," Bryk said. "I thought he was possessed."

During the pennant race, Candiotti would sneak into the clubhouse and get the score of the game involving rival Walla Walla. Then he wrote that score on his arm with a bar of soap.

After the game, a teammate would ceremoniously sprinkle ashes on the arm, and the score would appear, as if by magic.

"Some guys fell for that trick all year," Candiotti said.

That winter he was sold by independent Victoria to the Kansas City Royals' organization, where he lasted a year in their lower minor leagues before being drafted by Milwaukee.

After a season with the Brewers, in 1982 he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery by Frank Jobe. It was Jobe's ninth such operation.

"And undoubtedly his least famous," Candiotti said. "I'll never forget him holding my elbow and saying, 'Are you a prospect?' "

After spending a year in rehabilitation, Candiotti could no longer hope to throw hard, so the knuckleball made its appearance.

The Brewers were not happy with Candiotti's progress when he threw it sporadically in the minor leagues in 1985, so they gave up on him. He finally tested it fully in 1987 with the Indians, who had signed him a year earlier.

Pat Corrales, then the Indians' manager, ordered him to throw nothing but knuckleballs that season. He went 7-16 with a career-high 4.76 ERA and learned a few things.

"I learned to throw the knuckleball in every situation imaginable, even a 3-and-0 count with the bases loaded," he said. "But I also learned I am more than a knuckleball pitcher."

He also learned a few other things from Niekro, who was finishing his career with the Indians.

"I learned how to play some great practical jokes," Candiotti said. "He was a master."

Niekro, who did not teach Candiotti technique, showed him how to behave while pitching a knuckleball. By watching Niekro shrug his way through bad outings, Candiotti learned composure.

Said his close friend, Tim Dillon: "I remember watching Jose Canseco just crush one against Tom on television, so I waited a couple of days before mentioning it to him on the phone. But when I did, he laughed and laughed. Said it was the longest ball he had ever seen hit."

It's part of a knuckleballer's life.

"I hate losing," Candiotti said. "But I know there are going to be some days when I am going to look like I have no idea what I'm doing. That's a given."

Candiotti said he finally gained complete confidence in the knuckleball several years ago during a game against the Baltimore Orioles, when he struck out Cal Ripken on a full-count pitch with the bases loaded and two out.

Today he throws "60-70%" knuckleballs, which is still enough to drive catchers crazy.

Because a knuckleball grip requires that the fingers dig into the ball, Candiotti pays special attention to his fingernails. He keeps them at medium length. He has even visited manicurists.

'To me, a broken nail is like tendinitis," Candiotti said. "This is why I'm really not very good at being rushed into a game as a spot starter or a reliever. I need time to do my nails."

A bigger concern for the Dodgers is catching his pitches, although both Scioscia and Carlos Hernandez have done well this spring.

Borders was known to shout in frustration last season when he learned that he was scheduled to catch Candiotti. And Joel Skinner, Candiotti's catcher with the Indians, does not miss him.

"The fans don't understand all the balls that are going by you," Skinner said. "You're not going to have a so-called normal inning. It can drive you absolutely crazy."

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