The author: Kevin Neary with Leigh A. Tobin
The vital stats: Running Press, 288 pages, $15
The pitch: Tom House once came out with a really snarky book called “The Jock’s Itch: The Fast-Track Private World of the Professional Baseball Player” in 1989. Track it down and read some day. As Ron Kaplan describes House’s book in his own catalog “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die:”
This is a guy who, when his career was done in 1978, already had a bachelors degree in management and a masters in marketing from USC. Then he got his PhD in psychology and did his dissertation in terminal adolescent syndrome in athletes. He still hung around as a pitching coach, including a time at USC. Maybe to collect data from the subjects.
There’s a chapter on House in this book, “Closer,” that tries to allow him to explain his career: “I was the low-end guy, and my best year happened to be the year I caught Henry Aaron’s 715th home run (in 1974). If you pull the book on my playing career, I was marginal to horseshit for seven years, and was really, really good for one year.”
Nice, but that kind of sums up this attempt at interviewing (or at least profiling) 62 of the pitchers who at one point in their careers were top-notch closers. Sometimes, the tales are really good. Others are marginal to … well, average.
In other words, go find House’s book to get the real story. Read this to get the muddled Cliff Notes.
Former Dodgers Ron Perranoski and Hoyt Wilhelm are among the “early years” players grouped with House in this account. The “transition years” include Roger McDowell, Bryan Harvey, Jay Howell, Jesse Orosco and the late Donnie Moore. The “modern day closer” list is largest, with Eric Gagne, Brian Fuentes, Brandon League, Fernando Rodney and Francisco Rodriguez as the names locals would most recognize.
League’s window of opportunity to give his deep thoughts are limited to two pages and he manages to get this out there: “The best advice I ever got was to keep it simple and throw strikes. This game is complicated enough. Just keep it simple!”
Fear of failure is counteracted by the rush of nailing down a victory (and getting credit for a save) as most of these guys will admit. Ironically, it’s failure that got them there — those who did it well were often starters who reinvented themselves.
The tougher ones could have been bred for the job as the role progressed, but then, you’ve got Goose Gossage saying that in his day, “we weren’t babies” about throwing innings, at a time when a career total of 300 saves seemed pretty darn impressive (the requirements were also different in what constituted a save).
Gagne’s words could be considered most intriguing, only in that he hasn’t said much in public sinc his career somewhat imploded due to injuries — many assume to be related to steroid use. But even he talks in cliches:
“Most people don’t realize how demanding the closer role is. You warm up a lot during the season. You warm up before the game. You throw long toss. I remember counting one season how many times I got up and threw during a game; I wasn’t in every game. But I got up 107 times during a season one time. The closer role is so much wear and tear on your body.”
That leads us to the one glaring omission from this book of stories that seem best written for a Dodger Stadium scorecard feature — where’s Mike Marshall (1967-81), the first closer to ever win a Cy Young Award when he made 106 appearances in 1974 with the Dodgers?
Marshall could no doubt have explained to Gagne that he got up and threw more than 107 times that season — including the playoffs and World Series, and earned his measly 21 saves the hard way (along with 15 wins and 12 losses). He had just 42 total saves in three seasons with the Dodgers. Gagne had that two-thirds of the way through one remarkable season.
Compare and contrast, if that’s possible.
In the end, House may give the best recipe for a perfect closer: “Makeup, a freak pitch and durability,” he said. He does explain more, but by then, we’re just not that interested in the details.
Marshall had all that. Maybe someday they could write a book on him alone. Naw, Dr. Mike has already done that. Enjoy this instead.
More to know:
== What Ron Kaplan wrote about the book on his blog: “I picked this up at the local Barnes and Noble and thumbed through it, but to be honest, didn’t think it was something I wanted to request as a review copy. It has capsule profiles on a number of relievers along with a few statistics. It reminds me of this commercial for Planet Fitness. These guys have a single job to do, they often have a certain outsized personality and desire for attention, but otherwise are just not that interesting as a group. Just sayin’. A lot of others disagree because they’re giving the book mostly positive reviews.”
== A Wall Street Journal review, or more of an entry point in a discussion about the closer’s role.
== An interview with Yahoo!Sports radio on the book
== Also find: “Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball” by Fran Zimniuch (Triumph Books, 2010)
== Update: On Sunday’s Dodgers’ telecast, Vin Scully told the story about how on this day (April 7, 1969), Bill Singer pitched the last three innings of a 3-2 win in Cincinnati on Opening Day, to follow up after Don Drysdale started the first six innings. “It wasn’t until years later that Singer found out he got the first (officially credited) save in baseball history under some rather strange circumstances,” Scully said. Later on, Scully added about seeing a review on “Closer” and that “the authors found fault with the ‘closer’ and ‘save.’ They had some line that said (the rule today) made as much sense as putting a sweater on a fox terrier.’” Sorry, but we can’t find that reference anywhere — the authors aren’t quoted as giving their opinion on much of anything — and could track down no reviews that even suggested that clever line.