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Sunday, March 29, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Turk Wendell Is Throwback To Fidrych

AP

MESA, Ariz. - So what if Turk Wendell brushes his teeth in-between every inning? So what if he never wears socks, even when he pitches? So what if he will not catch any ball an umpire throws to him?

So, what's the point?

"I'm not as weird as people want to make me out to be," Wendell said.

Besides, he wins.

Wendell led the Southern League with an 11-3 record last season, and this spring is bidding for a spot on the Chicago Cubs' staff. He's done fairly well in three exhibition games, giving up three runs on seven hits in seven innings.

Still, it's not his record that everyone notices. At least, not at first.

Wendell begins every inning the same way, drawing a cross in the dirt on the mound as a testament to his religion. When he's done warming up, he waves to the center fielder.

If there's a foul and the umpire throws back a new ball, Wendell will either let it bounce off his chest and pick it up, or let it hit the ground and walk after it.

When the inning ends, he rushes to the dugout and chews a piece of licorice. Then, he dashes off to brush his teeth before going back on the field.

The Cubs learned all these things about Wendell after they got him last Sept. 29 in a rare, final-week trade that sent Mike Bielecki and Damon Berryhill to Atlanta. The first time he pitched for the Cubs this spring - on Friday the 13th, of course - the fans laughed.

"It made me feel a little awkward," Wendell said. "I was uncomfortable with that."

The Cubs, however, were not spooked. In fact, pitching coach Billy Connors said he enjoys watching players such as Wendell.

"I love them. You know why? They got heart," Connors said. "They got a little something special."

Anyway, Wendell said, he has grown accustomed to odd reactions.

"I've always been my own person," he said. "I think a lot of people don't have the courage to be themselves. That's just the way I am. I was a loner in high school, but I wouldn't change just to fit in with everyone else."

Wendell, 24, stressed that none of what he does is an act, and that his antics are genuine.

"People used to compare me all the time to Mark Fidrych, with the way he'd talk to the ball and everything," Wendell said. "I used to resent it, because I thought he did it for a show. This spring, someone who knew Mark told me that he was really that way, that it was not an act. That made me respect him a lot, with the way he was and the success he had."

Fidrych was American Lesgue rookie of the year in 1976 and was a favorite throughout baseball before he blew out his arm. Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky was considered a character as long as he pitched well. So was Brad Lesley, until he stopped winning.

Wendell said that his routine is a product of past successes in high school in Massachusetts and at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut.

Once, he missed a ball an umpire threw him, and went on to pitch a good game. He's kept up that tradition ever since.

"My mom could throw me a ball if she was the umpire and I wouldn't catch it," he said. "But she'd know not to throw it to me in the first place."

Same thing for the sock business. It worked once, so now he wears stirrups like all ballplayers, but not the white ones underneath. Recently, he switched to high-top shoes so that his habit wouldn't show.

Among other things he wears are two wristwatches - "I have a watch fetish," he said - and a neck chain that has a crucifix within a baseball glove with the No. 13.

"We always encouraged him to be himself," Wendell's father, Charles, said. "What he does is him, the real him.

"He's always been a good kid. He didn't get into trouble and do some of the things that other kids do," he said. "But as far as the other things, it's not a makeup. He doesn't do it to get attention."

So far, Turk, a nickname he got at age 3 when his parents discovered how wild he was, has drawn the Cubs' interest with his pitching.

"I've wanted to be a baseball player ever since I could remember," Wendell said. "I used to tell my friends that I would play in the big leagues, and they used to tell me to grow up.

"I've done it my way, and I'm glad that I've gotten this far. Here I am, sitting in a major-league dugout in spring training. I'm almost there."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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