LAKELAND, Fla. — You hang around enough spring training camps, you start to hear the same old sentences:
“Man, it’s hot.”
“You play golf yesterday?”
“Man, it’s hot.”
“You playing golf today?”
There are certain sentences, however, you do not hear often. One of them is: “I’m buying.” Another is: “Bach has always been my favorite.”
I heard the latter Monday, believe it or not. John Wetteland, a 21 year-old pitcher from northern California with the blond good looks of a “Less Than Zero” co-star and the vocabulary of a Stanford grad student, was the man who said it.
“Bach has always been my favorite.”
Now. Let us be clear on this. He said “Bach.” He did not say “balk” with a mouth full of tobacco. He was not talking about Wally Backman. He said “Bach.” As in Johann Sebastian. Old guy? White hair?
“When I was younger I put together a saxophone quartet and we played fugues by Bach which my father transposed,” Wetteland said, “It was fun.”
I know what you’re thinking. This guy can’t throw, right? Wrong. He’s a power pitcher, good fastball, decent chance to make the team.
John Wetteland just happens to be, well, cultured. His father is a classical musician who had a chair in the San Francisco symphony at age 14. By 16, they gave him a table. No. Ha. Only kidding. He introduced his son to music at an early age, when his colleagues came by the house to jam. Today Ed Wetteland plays piano at the Marriot Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a classy gig. And his wife, John’s stepmother, sings along on weekends.
“Their act goes by the name ‘Sweet And Hot,’ ” said John. “I’ll let you figure it out.” BEAUTIFUL IN ITS OWN WAY
Now this is not the everyday upbringing of a major league ballplayer. Which is what makes young Wetteland so interesting. Here is a guy trained in classical saxophone and clarinet, a guy who, in high school, toyed with becoming a clergyman, who once worked as a volunteer in a mental institution, who chews sunflower seeds, resembles a blond Rob Lowe — and pitches baseball for a living.
Talking with him is an adventure, because, without warning, it can go in any direction:
“What other music do you like besides Bach?”
“It’s 16th century stuff. I listen to it sometimes before I go to sleep.”
“Sixteenth century . . . “
“When the Catholic church decided to move in more modal directions.”
“It’s really a prayer that is sort of sung in harmony. . . . It’ all in Latin.”
“I took it in high school. Two years.”
When he waxes esoteric like this, Wetteland reminds you of the George Plimpton character, Sidd Finch, an imaginary pitcher who played the flugelhorn, meditated and threw 162 miles an hour. Of course, if Wetteland threw 162 miles an hour, Sparky Anderson would be listening to Bach right now, and so would his staff. They’d have it piped in the clubhouse. The hell with Willie Nelson.
But Wetteland does not throw 162 miles an hour. In his first major league outing Sunday, against the Royals, he was overcome with a very ordinary affliction: nerves.
“All of a sudden it seemed like home plate was a million miles away. Like I was saying ‘Mike (Heath, the catcher) come back here!’ ” Wetteland walked his first two batters. He was visited on the mound by Heath, Alan Trammell, and Billy Muffett.
“They said ‘Just settle down, relax, we’re behind you.’ That really meant a lot coming from guys like that. It was a neat moment. It was almost, well, in it’s own way, beautiful. . . . I guess I shouldn’t use the word beautiful, not in this setting.”
Aw, sure. Go ahead. WE SHOULD SAVE THE WETTELANDS
Now, lest you think John Wetteland a softy, know this: he considered a football career before baseball. He is powerfully built, 6-feet-1. His nickname is “Jake”.
As I said, he simply sees things some players do not. He wears a far-away look when he speaks, but I believe I know what he is doing, and I wouldn’t accuse just anybody of this: I believe he is thinking.
Besides, where else do you get this exchange:
“Did you bring any cassettes with you?”
“Just the Segovia.”
Personally, I hope Wetteland makes the team. His situation (a draft choice from LA, where he would return if he doesn’t make the Tigers) increases his odds. Good. It would be nice to have someone whose favorite musical artist doesn’t chew Red Man.
Perhaps he’ll bring in his sax and clarinet, and play a few fugues, and we’ll all go out and have some wine and cheese, and the baseball season will take on a whole new meaning. Which is OK. You don’t want to keep hearing those same old sentences. I’m still waiting to hear: “I’m buying.”
I may be here a while.