Candy Man not always a sweet guy

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — Every year the Pirates invite players from their past to serve as guest instructors at spring training.

It’s a great PR move. Fans enjoy seeing past pros like Bill Mazeroski and Bill Virdon in uniform again. The instructional aspect is sometimes dubious since a lot of those invited have been away from the game for years, but it can’t hurt.

This year John Candelaria was one of the ex-players in uniform for part of spring training.

In the 1970s, Candelaria was an excellent pitcher for the Pirates. In the 1980s, he was a royal pain in the butt.

The younger Candelaria was a lefthander who tortured lefty batters by dropping down sidearm. He won 20 games in 1977, the first time a Pirates pitcher had reached that level in 17 years. He pitched a no-hitter.

Chuck Tanner believed in Candelaria to the point that he often said if his life depended on winning one game, Candelaria would be his starter. When Candelaria was approaching free agency, Tanner told ownership Candelaria was one player the Pirates absolutely had to keep.

Things changed in the mid-1980s. Short in the bullpen, Tanner decided to make Candelaria his closer. Candelaria hated the idea. He was living the good life as a starter. Work one day, take the next four off. Relievers have to be ready to pitch every day. They have to pay attention to the games.

Candelaria decided it was time to leave, so he tried to force a trade. During batting practice, he stood on first base singing, “Please release me, let me go.”

He began blasting general manager Pete Peterson in the media, calling him a “bozo.” Candelaria found a bumper sticker that read “No bozos” and affixed to his locker.

It was a terrible time in Peterson’s life. His wife had died unexpectedly and he was in turmoil. He changed. He no longer listened to his advisors and made impulsive moves that made no sense. George Hendrick, Amos Otis, Lee Mazzilli … those dubious acquisitions came out of that period of confusion.

The Pirates sank in the standings and had their first 100-loss season in decades. All the while, Candelaria kept hammering at Peterson and the Pirates. When the team had to wait for a commercial flight instead of having a charter flight from San Francisco, Candelaria complained that the Galbreaths, who owned the team, treated their race horses better than their baseball players.

It got to the point that Peterson challenged Candelaria to a fight in the Shea Stadium dugout one afternoon before a game.

Peterson was fired. His interim replacement, Joe L. Brown, traded Candelaria to the Angels. Later, Candelaria came back for an unsuccessful encore with the Pirates. They signed him in 1993, making it eight teams in seven years. Too late. He was done at 39.

Was he forgiven by the Pirates? More likely it was forgotten. Peterson was seven GMs ago.

Maybe Candelaria is a different person now. Maybe he regrets what he did 30 years ago. But maybe he’s also not the best influence on young players. Just something to think about when the guest instructor invitations go out next year.

Mehno can be reached at:johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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