Turk Wendell is No. 6 on the list of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century in Berkshire County

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DALTON — Former big league star Steven "Turk" Wendell freely admitted that he was not the most talented ballplayer in the world coming up through the minor leagues.

"No," he said in a recent interview. "But I always worked harder than the next guy.

"I remember, when I was in the majors, we'd get into a city at four in the morning," he said with a laugh. "And the other guys would be going to bed. I'd go out and take a five- or six-mile run. My teammates would say, 'Dude, get a life.' And I'd tell them, 'Man, this is my life.'"

Wendell, No. 6 on The Eagle's list of the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century, enjoyed an 11-year career in the major leagues, after a stellar career at Wahconah Regional High School and then at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut. Now 50, he lives in Colorado and works as a hunting guide and youth pitching coach.

"Incredible confidence," said Francis "Rocky" Daley, who played with and coached Wendell in the semiprofessional Dalton Collegians in the mid-1980s. "I was fortunate enough to know Doug Flutie when he was an athlete at Boston College. And Turk had the same kind of confidence Flutie had. Not cocky, but quietly confident in himself."

Daley is as good a story-teller as he was an athlete. And he has quite a few tales about Wendell, including this one:

"I remember one of the first times he pitched for the Collegians," said Daley. "We were at Pine Grove Park [in Dalton] and some guy hit a blast, just a rocket, off him. The ball went completely out of sight. I thought, 'I'd better go out and settle this kid down.'

"So I went out to the mound to talk to him. And when I got there, he was still facing the outfield. He said to me, 'Did you see how hard that guy hit that pitch? Wow. You know what? I'm gonna throw him the same pitch next time he's up.' I knew then he was going to be a great player for us."

Wendell was a great player at Wahconah, helping the Warriors to the Western Mass. baseball finals in his senior year in 1985.

"He was a great right-handed pitcher for me, and a great third baseman and a pretty good hitter, too," said Fran Reardon, Wendell's coach at Wahconah. "He was a switch-hitter, hit maybe .280 for me.

"He was such a hard worker, and he had an incredible love of the game," recalled Reardon. "He listened. He soaked up coaching like a sponge."

But Reardon admitted that he was not sure how far Wendell would go.

"Oh, man," said Reardon. "He was just a skinny kid when he played for me. But, like I said, he worked, and he loved it."

"I think it started to happen for him when he developed that killer slider he had," said Daley. "When he was on, it was almost un-hittable."

Wendell pitched for Quinnipiac for two years before being drafted by Atlanta in 1988. He spent three years in the Braves' system before being traded to the Cubs in 1991.

Wendell admitted that he thought he would be in the majors in 1991. But he was squeezed out of a roster spot and didn't make his debut for Chicago until 1993, splitting time between the Cubs and the minors for a few seasons.

Primarily a starter in Chicago, his role began to shift in 1994. And, statistically, his fortunes began to improve. In 1996, he was the Cubs' best reliever, with 18 saves and 75 strikeouts in 79.1 innings.

In 1997, Wendell was traded to the Mets and was a key factor in New York's rise to the postseason in 1999 and 2000. In those two seasons, Wendell appeared in 13 playoff games, including Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees.

Wendell does not have fond memories of that game, a game the Mets lost in 12 innings, 4-3. Wendell was the losing pitcher in the contest, played at Yankee Stadium.

"I must have warmed up maybe six times during that game before I actually went in," said Wendell. "I was kind of spent when I finally got in the game. I was a Red Sox fan growing up in Dalton, so I really wanted to beat the Yankees.

"But in a lot of ways, it was the cherry on top of the sundae for me," he said. "The first dream you have as a kid is to pitch in the big leagues. And when you get there, you dream about pitching in the World Series."

That was Wendell's only appearance in the Fall Classic, but he played three more years in the majors, missing 2002 with an arm injury. He played with Philadelphia in part of 2001 and in 2003 and then played for Colorado in 2004. He offered to play the 2004 season for free, "as a testament to the game," but the MLB Players' Association wouldn't let him, forcing him to accept a contract.

"You have to have a certain amount of talent to make the majors," he said. "There were always people who said, 'Oh, he was lucky,' but it's more about preparation and focus. There is a little bit of luck. But I tell the kids I coach: You may only get one chance, so your have to be prepared and you have to be focused. And I think that's what served me well."

Reach staff writer Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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