The boys at Kerry Collision Repair have to make their own coffee these days. No one ever volunteers to take out the garbage. They even have to wash their own cars.
Mark Wohlers, who always did everything asked of him to earn his 10 bucks an hour, took a leave of absence last spring from the automobile body shop in Suwanee, Ga. They kept his job open just in case he decides to return in two weeks, but logic tells them he won’t be back.
“It’s sort of sad,” said Gene Regan, manager of the shop. “We miss him around here. He’s one of the hardest-working guys we’ve ever had around here. I keep trying to tell him this could be a new future for him.
“Unfortunately, he’s got to tend to some other business.”
Wohlers is preoccupied with helping the Atlanta Braves win the World Series championship in the best-of-seven series beginning Saturday against the Cleveland Indians at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
“Mark Wohlers is the biggest difference why this team is the best team we’ve ever had here,” pitcher John Smoltz said. “In the past, you never wanted to come out of a game. There was a sense of, ‘Oh, please, for the sake of the team.’
“It used to be, ‘Get into our bullpen, and you’ve got them.’ You can’t do that anymore. Now it’s, ‘Hey, you better not be behind in the ninth inning or you’re dead meat.’ ”
Mark Wohlers, the body shop gofer, is better known these days as baseball’s dominating closer.
He doesn’t simply retire batters, he embarrasses them. When he’s on his game, he can make hitters look like chumps.
Said Merv Rettenmund, the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach, “He was so dominant one night, I remember telling [catcher] Brad Ausmus, ‘Why don’t you just put your bat on your front shoulder, and let’s just go for the catcher’s interference?’
“Really, that was the only chance we had. He’s the hardest-throwing closer I’ve seen since Goose Gossage was in Pittsburgh. . . .
“He throws it 101 m.p.h. down and in and 103 m.p.h. down and away. You don’t have a chance.”
Added Pat Dobson, Colorado Rocky advance scout, “If he gets that fastball over, forget it. . . . You might as well shut your eyes and swing because you ain’t going to do any better the other way.”
Only a few months ago, Wohlers wasn’t so good and was wondering whether auto-body repair might be his true calling.
Wohlers, 25, began thumbing through the want ads after the baseball strike was called in August of last year. He’d had another rotten season, anyway, and needed a job.
“We were having dinner one night and he told me how he was looking through the want ads,” Regan said. “I told him, ‘Hey, if you want a job, be at work at 8 o’clock in the morning.’
“I showed up at work the next day, and there he was.”
Said Wohlers: “When I first showed up, the guys didn’t talk to me. I think they resented me being there. But after the first couple of days, when I was jumping up and down in the [trash] dumpster, trying to make more room, they knew I’d be all right.”
Wohlers made sure he was the first to arrive at work each day. He made the coffee. He swept the floors. He washed cars. He prepared them for painting.
“Some people recognized him, a lot didn’t,” Regan said. “I remember one day, though, a kid going off to Georgia Southern was by to pick up his Mitsubishi. I told him, ‘It’s in the back getting washed. It’ll be here in a minute.’
” . . . Mark drives the car up, drops off the keys, and the kid freaks out. ‘Holy cow, did you see who that was?’ ”
Wohlers worked five days a week until the baseball strike ended in April. He apologized for not giving two weeks’ notice, but he had to get to spring training.
It wasn’t as if the Braves would have missed Wohlers if he hadn’t showed. He was considered little more than a tease who, year after year, left the Braves exasperated. They waited four years for him to develop into their closer, in the meantime trying Juan Berenguer, Alejandro Pena, Jeff Reardon, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael and Brad Clontz.
Most painful was watching their anguish in the playoffs as they tried to get by without a closer. Charlie Leibrandt gave up that game-winning home run to Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins in the 1991 World Series. Reardon surrendered that two-run, game-winning homer to Ed Sprague of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1992 World Series. The entire bullpen foundered in the 1993 National League playoffs against the Philadelphia Phillies.
General Manager John Schuerholz, assembling a Rolls-Royce team on the field but using retreads in the bullpen, realized this spring he could wait no longer to find a closer. He tried to trade for John Wetteland of the Montreal Expos. He talked to the Minnesota Twins about Rick Aguilera. He negotiated with the Florida Marlins about Bryan Harvey.
When the Braves failed to get a bona-fide closer, they tried Clontz. Then they tried Pedro Borbon. They went to McMichael. They nearly converted Smoltz. Only then, did they try Wohlers.
“I never really lost sight of the dream,” Wohlers said. “In spring training, I knew Clontz was throwing well and was going to open the season as the closer. I just told [pitching coach Leo Mazzone], ‘I’m going to be ready,’ because I knew sooner or later it was going to come back to me.”
Wohlers got his first save June 5 against the Chicago Cubs. By season’s end, he had saved 25 games in 29 opportunities and struck out 90 batters in 64 2/3 innings. In the playoffs, he struck out eight of 17, including six of 10 in extra innings against Cincinnati.
“He’s probably been the biggest boost for our team all year,” staff ace Greg Maddux said. “I think it is as big or bigger than [rookie third baseman] Chipper Jones or [left fielder] Ryan Klesko.
“Everybody knows they have been a big lift for our team, but with Mark, it’s been a domino effect. He relaxes all the other guys in the bullpen.”
“He’s become the best closer in the game right now.”
Wohlers has learned to harness his fastball, mix in a slider and a split-finger pitch, and perhaps, most frightening of all, has uncovered lost confidence.
“It seems that all I’ve ever heard is people saying, ‘He’s going to close out games for the Braves for the next 10 years,’ ” Wohlers said. “I wondered if that would ever happen. Really, I thought I was going to get released. Now, everything’s turned around so quickly.”
So, any message for the boys back at the body shop?
“Yeah,” Wohlers said. “Tell them they better get used to making their own coffee.
“I ain’t coming back.”