What most of us know about Tom Candiotti is that he has been baffling hitters with his hellacious knuckleball for many years. What most of us don’t know about Tom Candiotti is that he has been a collector of high-grade PSA cards for several years now and has some of the finest examples in the hobby. Tom was kind enough to talk to the Sportscard Market Report (SMR) about pitching, his future in baseball, his most cherished baseball moments and the challenge in acquiring high quality PSA cards for his spectacular collection.
Tom, when did you start throwing the knuckleball and how hard was it to master? Can you really ever master the knuckleball?
I started early. Every day I would wait on my front lawn for my Dad to come home from work so we could play catch. My dad had a knuckleball so, as his son, I had to have one too (laughs). No one really showed me how to throw one so I started to fool around with it at about 9 or 10 years old. I would pretend I was Don Drysdale or Sandy Koufax and pitch against my garage for hours. As I got older, I would work on it when playing catch with one of my teammates. It was always fun because, when I would throw a really good one, the ball moved so much that my teammate would completely miss it and it would hit him in the knee (laughs). As far as mastering the knuckleball goes, you never can really control it like you can other pitches. The key to the knuckleball is to aim for the catcher’s mask, consistently take the spin off the ball and usually the ball will dive down to the left or right. Occasionally, you throw one that does something really wicked but you never really dictate exactly where the ball goes.
Tom, with all of the focus on power and velocity today, are knuckleball pitchers on the verge of extinction?
There are a few of us left. You have Steve Sparks of the Angels and Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox. When you think about it, there have only been a handful of knuckleball pitchers to pitch at the big league level in the last decade. When I was a young pitcher, I got to play with well-known knuckleball pitchers Phil and Joe Niekro. When they retired, they more or less asked me to carry the torch and continue the knuckleball tradition. There was a time when I was the only one out there. Tom House (major league pitching coach) once told me that I was only one of 20 knuckleball pitchers in history to pitch 4 or more years in the majors. That really put things into perspective.
Tom, you often hear that the knuckleball is a “last resort” pitch yet some pitchers, including yourself, have enjoyed great success at the major league level and some former knuckleball pitchers are Hall of Famers. In addition, with all of the stress that other pitches place on the arm such as splitters and hard breaking balls, why isn’t the knuckleball taught more often to younger players?
The biggest problem is that it is a very hard pitch to throw and, because of this, there are no pitching coaches teaching it. If they can’t throw one, they can’t teach it. The only way to learn the knuckleball is basically by trial and error. Today there is so much focus on velocity and the radar gun, but velocity alone will not make you a successful pitcher. Throwing the knuckleball is really just a game of catch, so the radar gun becomes irrelevant. Pitching has really become a specialized position. There are several pitchers that throw very hard today and have tremendous stuff but, because of this, they are protected when it comes to pitch counts. You rarely see anyone throw more than 100-125 pitches per game as a starter today so it becomes virtually impossible to pitch complete games. The league leader may have 3 or 4 complete games today. I had 17 in my first season! Times have really changed.
Tom, what have been your most cherished moments in baseball?
There have been several. I will always remember my first start. In 1983, I pitched the second game of a double header at County Stadium. I was with the Brewers at the time and we already beat the Red Sox in the first game. Not only did we win the game 7-1, but I also pitched a complete game and got to face one of my boyhood idols Carl Yastrzemski. All those years I had dreamed about pitching against him when I was a little boy and now he is coming to the plate. The feeling was indescribable. I think I walked him once but got him out the other 3 times he came up. Another great moment for me was my return to the Cleveland Indians this year. I won in my first outing and received about four standing ovations during the game. It felt great to feel the appreciation of the fans for the years I had pitched for Cleveland.
How about the strangest moment?
Well, while playing minor league baseball, our team had a celebrity come out to coach first base. The owner of the team was an associate producer for Saturday Night Live so he got Bill Murray to be our honorary first base coach. It was nuts. Bill and I remain good friends today, he is a huge baseball fan.
Tom, be honest, do you get more satisfaction out of making a hitter look absolutely gross with a knuckleball or by sneaking a fastball by a hitter? Do you have any specific examples of where the fastball really shocked a hitter in a tight situation?
It’s funny because, when I first came up to the big leagues, I didn’t use a knuckleball. Then, over the years, I began to use it more and more until I finally transformed into a full-fledged knuckleball pitcher. So, earlier in my career, it wouldn’t really matter to me which pitch I used to strike someone out. I still try to mix my pitches unlike many knuckleball pitchers of the past. I once asked guys like Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro why they threw knuckleballs on every pitch. They told me it’s because they can’t throw anything else (laughs). Today, to be honest, it is more special to surprise a hitter with a fastball but I’ll take strikeouts any way I can get them (laughs). There was one time when I was facing Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees with runners on base in a tight game. The count was 1-2 and my catcher, Sandy Alomar, set up inside and I froze him with a fastball. I’ll never forget it.
Tom, recently you have been sidelined with a knee injury. How did you injure your knee and how has your recovery process been going?
It has been a gradual thing. About two years ago my knee started giving me trouble and it flared up in spring training of this year. I received cortisone shots and had surgery fairly recently for a torn meniscus. Everything has been going well so far, I have just been doing some light bike work and tons of leg lifts every week. Pretty soon I can begin full workouts.
At this point, what is your future in baseball and how many more years would you like to pitch before hanging them up?
As long as I have the fire, desire and commitment to succeed I will continue to pitch. I really don’t have a timetable in mind. The great thing about being a knuckleball pitcher is that you can pitch well into your 40s. Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough were almost 50 years old when they retired so I have a ways to go. I am going to get ready for spring training and, hopefully, the phone will ring. Hard work has brought this far so I believe I can pitch for several years. I never had anything handed to me as a player. I was never drafted. I drove to Victoria, British Columbia and tried out for their local baseball team. They were called the Mussels and were an Independent league team. I made the squad and, eventually, the Kansas City Royals purchased me.
After you retire, do you plan on staying close to the game? If so, do you have any desire to be involved with coaching, managing or broadcasting?
I really have no desire to coach or manage. Working as a general manager appeals to me and I would think about a career in broadcasting. It drives me nuts to watch a game where the broadcaster completely misreports the game. It would be nice if they hired more guys who had real baseball knowledge rather than someone who simply has great command of the English language.
Now, I hear you have quite an outstanding collection of high-grade PSA cards. When did you start collecting PSA graded cards and what was it about the PSA concept that convinced you to use their service?
I have been collecting cards since I was a little kid. Ofcourse I abused the cards like other kids did. I knew everyone’s batting average, earned run average and other statistics. As I got older, I saw an ad for PSA in a hobby magazine and decided, after meeting with PSA President Steve Rocchi and head grader Mike Baker, to submit about 10-20 cards from my collection for grading. Unfortunately, many of those cards were returned to me because they had evidence of alterations such as trimming. At first, I was upset and asking myself “Who are these PSA guys?” Realizing that the money I had spent on these cards was now lost due to some unethical dealers, I became very turned off by the hobby. After the initial disappointment wore off, I realized that PSA was providing a great service for collectors. PSA takes the guesswork out of purchasing the card. If the card is already graded, it has already been checked for alterations and properly graded. Once it is in the holder, a people cannot argue about the grade anymore. Plus, once it is in the holder, my son can’t ruin the card anymore (laughs). Collecting is fun for me again.
Do you only collect cards or do you have memorabilia as well?
I mostly collect cards but I have some memorabilia as well. I keep some stuff from players that I have played with or against. I have a vintage bat rack from Louisville Slugger from the early part of the century that I enjoy. Baseball cards have always fascinated me though. They are like little pieces of art that have somehow been preserved over time.
What cards do you collect? Do you collect sets, certain players, years, or teams?
I try to focus on pre-war and 50’s cards in PSA NM-MT 8s or better. I try to collect the stars from those eras and eventually I will try to collect sets. It is very difficult though to collect entire sets in that grade though.
How hard is it to find quality PSA graded cards that will satisfy your collection considering how rare some of these cards are?
Well, the PSA population report is very helpful. It tells me what exactly is out there. The problem is that there isn’t much out there as far as high-grade old cards go. I participate in auctions such as Superior Sports Auctions and Mastro Fine Sports. I also occasionally go to card stores but this stuff is really hard to find in nice shape.
I realize this might be a difficult question to answer but, if you had to pick a couple of favorite PSA graded cards from your collection, what cards would they be?
That is a tough question, but there are a few that stand out for me. I have a T-206 Eddie Plank in a PSA 8, a 1953 Willie Mays in a PSA 10, a 1941 Play Ball Joe Dimaggio in a PSA 9, a 1915 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb in PSA 9 and a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle in a PSA10. The one that might be my most prized possession is a 1915 M(101-5) Sporting News Babe Ruth in a PSA 8. Not only is it the highest graded, but it was one that I submitted myself.
Do you save memorabilia from your career like special jerseys or baseballs. If so, which one is your favorite?
Yes I do. I have several baseballs that I have kept over the years. I have my first major league win, hit and shutout. I also have my 100th win, 150th win, 1000th strikeout and 1500th strikeout. The most interesting piece that I have saved might be the hat that I wore during the 1991 postseason celebration with the Toronto Blue Jays. The hat is heavily stained with champagne and beer, it’s great. I guess all these things serve as a reminder for me that I proved a lot of baseball scouts wrong who didn’t draft me and that I’ve had a pretty successful career. Someone told me, this year, that I am ranked in the top 100 pitchers of all-time in starts, wins and strikeouts. I couldn’t believe it. I guess all that hard work really paid off. Everything is icing on the cake from here on out.
The hobby has evolved so much over the last several years, with some of that being the result of PSA grading, are you happy with the current hobby-related trends? Where do you see the hobby going and where would you like it to be in 5-10 years?
Well, the hobby is changing all the time. Unfortunately, the kids who collect today seem to be concerned with monetary value only. When I was growing up, my friends and I weren’t as concerned with the prices as kids are today. PSA has helped make the hobby safer for collectors so more and more buyers are coming back to the hobby. More participation is always a positive sign. The biggest thing I would like to see is more participation on behalf of major league baseball players in the hobby. The hobby can give these players a sense of history, an idea of how baseball started and how it has evolved. The younger players today seem to lack historical knowledge about the game. In order to appreciate the game today, they need to understand the sacrifices and importance of past players. I don’t want a player to say," Mickey who?"
The prices being paid for high quality PSA graded cards seem to break records every time there is an auction or major show. From your perspective, why do you think the market for PSA graded cards is so incredibly strong?
I remember a few years ago when people were saying baseball salaries were out of hand (laughs), but they kept going up. There are several reasons for the prices being paid. With PSA, so many collectors are willing to come in and participate in the market again. Also, the Internet has played a great part in price growth too. Now collectors from all over the world can bid in auctions or buy on the computer. They are not limited to the local card shop anymore. Finally, people are starting to view baseball cards as more than simply cards, people are starting to view vintage cards as little pieces of history that have somehow been preserved over time. Collector attitudes have changed a lot.
Finally, how would you like to be remembered as a player and, if you could pick one way to end your career, how would it end? Fastball or knuckleball?
I would like to be remembered as a guy who had a little talent and took it a long way. I am just one example that proves if you commit yourself, you can succeed at anything. It’s kind of like the little engine that said, ”I think I can, I think I can (laughs.” I realize, as a player, there aren’t too many fairy tale endings in baseball. Phil Niekro once told me that he would like to throw a fastball by someone for a strikeout to end his career (laughs). For me, I would like to throw a complete game and walk off the field knowing that I gave it my best and finished what I started.
This article originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of the Sportscard Market Report (SMR). For more information about this monthly publication, click here.