RIP to Tom Waddell, who rose from a clothing salesman to a Rule V pick to a surprise relief ace before arm problems derailed his career. He died on September 14 from a heart attack, just days away from his 61st birthday. Waddell played for the Cleveland Indians (1984-85, 1987).
Tom Waddell was born in Dundee, Scotland on September 17, 1958. There have been a total of 49 professional ballplayers born in the United Kingdom, and Waddell is one of seven to have appeared in the majors since 1980. Waddell’s family moved to Closter, N.J., when he was a child, and Waddell pitched at Manhattan College and for semipro teams in the New York/New Jersey area. He missed his junior year due to a kidney ailment, and then his right elbow began having problems in his senior year. The pitcher who was potentially a first-round draft pick went undrafted and was out of baseball entirely for a time. By 1979, Waddell was working in New York City as a clothing salesman and played for a fast-pitch softball team at night.
After a while, his arm felt well enough to try baseball once again. With the help of his neighbor, umpire Tom Gorman, Waddell got a tryout with the Braves, pitching in front of scout Hank Aaron, pitching coach Johnny Sain and executive Paul Snyder. He had 10 minutes to impress the Braves’ brass, and he ended up with a minor-league contract.
“It was great,” Waddell said later. “I bought a case of Heineken’s and got drunk. Did I get a bonus? Sure, Aaron handed me an autographed baseball. I gave it to a kid when I left the park.”
Since he was a completely unknown quantity, Waddell started at the lowest of the low minors… but it was still better than spending 12 hours a day commuting back and forth to New York City to sell clothes.
“It was too much like work,” he told The Index-Journal in 1981. “And so I decided I’d try playing ball again.”
Waddell debuted with the Braves’ Gulf Coast League in 1981 and gave up 1 earned run in 10 innings. He moved up to the Anderson Braves of the Sally League and had a 2.86 ERA in 13 games, with 5 starts. Though he was one of the older players in the low minors, he moved up through the ranks quickly enough that he reached AAA by 1983, which is pretty much where he would have been had he been drafted in 1979. Splitting time at AA Savannah and AAA Richmond in ’83, Waddell had a combined 13-2 record as a reliever, with a 2.48 ERA.
Despite his brilliance in the minor leagues, the Braves left Waddell off their 40-man roster in the winter of 1983, making him eligible for the Rule V Draft. He was quickly snapped up by the Cleveland Indians before other teams claimed him. It was, to put it mildly, a stupid move by the Braves, especially considering that they had 39 players on their 40-man roster and could have protected Waddell easily.
“We had some scouts, some people in our organization who wanted him protected,” said Braves GM John Mullen. “You never like to lose any of your young players, especially the good ones. We discussed Waddell at length and had we really felt he could help us, then we would have taken the necessary steps.”
That’s the official explanation. The unofficial explanation, which was widely reported, was that the Braves were keeping a roster slot open with the expectation of signing free agent Goose Gossage, which they didn’t do. Of course, the Braves could have protected Waddell and still signed Gossage, but if you look at the Braves record in the 1980s, boneheaded moves like that start to make sense.
Rule V draft picks, as a general rule, aren’t asked to be big contributors by their new teams. That seems to have been the plan for Waddell, too. Through the Indians first 15 games, he appeared twice, throwing 2-1/3 scoreless innings. The 16th game of the year against the Tigers dragged into extra innings, and Waddell was brought in to pitch in the 13th inning. He proceeded to fire off five shutout innings, allowing one hit, one walk and striking out four. The Indians won 8-4 in 19 innings; while Waddell didn’t get the win, he was surely the hero of the day.
Waddell started off his MLB career by throwing 12-1/3 scoreless innings before allowing a home run to Detroit’s Chet Lemon on May 5. By then, given the state of Cleveland’s pitching staff, he was one of the team’s more reliable relievers and began to see regular action. He didn’t stay injury free; he hyper-extended his arm while working another long relief outing in May. He still appeared in 58 games and went 7-4 in relief, with 6 saves and 4 holds. He had a 3.06 ERA, a 1.082 WHIP and allowed just 68 hits in 97 innings while striking out 59. Batters hit .202 off of him, which was second only to Cy Young winner Willie Hernandez for best in the AL.
The Indians used Waddell in every way possible in 1985. He was a set-up man, a starter and a closer. He appeared in 48 games, with 9 starts, and ended with an 8-6 record and 4.87 ERA. He was 5-1 as a starter and threw a complete game, but he gave up 12 homers in 52-2/3 innings and had a high 5.81 ERA. Waddell defeated Ron Guidry of the Yankees in his first MLB start and outdueled Dave Stieb and Jack Morris as well. He had surgery in October to have bone spurs removed from his right elbow, so that problem may have contributed to late-season struggles that saw his ERA balloon up toward 5.
The elbow problems came back again in 1986 in spring training. He was shut down after experiencing discomfort while warming up with some light tossing and was never activated. A couple of rehab appearances in the minors didn’t go as well as hoped, and the elbow kept aching. He returned to the majors in 1987, but he wasn’t the same pitcher. In 6 games with the Indians, he allowed 9 earned runs in 5-2/3 innings, with 7 walks and 6 K’s. Those were the last appearances he made in the major leagues.
For his 3 seasons with the Indians, Waddell had a 15-11 record, with a 4.30 ERA. He appeared in 113 games and recorded 15 saves. He struck out 118 batters in 215-1/3 innings and had a WHIP of 1.217.
Waddell strengthened not just his arm but his entire body with a grueling conditioning program and diet in 1988, but it wasn’t enough to get the Indians to keep him. He pitched in in the minors through 1989 for the Expos and Brewers, but never for more than 25 games in a season.
Post-baseball, Waddell held a variety of positions. He was a corporate training officer for Sprint. He worked in Houston as a corporate training director for People’s Choice-TV. He co-owned The Yard, an indoor baseball training facility in Tucson, where he made his home. The last record I found of him dates to 2014, when he was working for Intuit, a software company that developed Quickbooks and Turbo Tax. He was a manager of one of its technical support groups.
Waddell, in his retirement, said that his arm problems started when the Indians tried to convert him to a closer. “I wasn’t capable of pitching four times a week,” he said in 1994. He would have been better served as a starter, where he would pitch longer outings but also have longer rests between appearances.
“I was an average ballplayer,” he told Arizona Daily Star columnist Dave Eubank. “I walked a tightrope without a net. If I fell, I was gone. I was like a little kid with eyes wide open. In the clubhouse, I couldn’t believe they had someone to shine our shoes. That was special to me.”