Taking A Ride On The Handlebars

Oh, what a relief it is for the Brewers to have the mustachioed Rollie Fingers back in top shape after a disabling elbow injury
June 17, 1984

Larry Haney, the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen coach, waved his cap at the dugout to signal that the relief pitcher was ready. It was the bottom of the eighth last Thursday night in Fenway Park, and there was nothing unusual about Haney's semaphore, except that the relief pitcher was Rollie Fingers.

Yes, the Rollie Fingers is up and throwing in the Milwaukee bullpen after a year's layoff and an eternity of doubt. By Sunday he was in double digits in saves for the season with 10, and he would have even more if the Brewers were higher than sixth in the American League East. He has an ERA of 1.50, and in 24 innings he has allowed 22 hits and five walks while striking out 20. All this after many people thought they'd never see his mustache enter a game again. In the language of baseball, you could have stuck a fork in Fingers—he was done.

But that wasn't an apparition taking the mound in the bottom of the ninth with the Brewers leading the Red Sox 6-3. After his eight warmup pitches, Fingers got two quick strikes on pinch hitter Rick Miller before Miller received a hard-earned base on balls after fouling off a few. The next pinch hitter, Chico Walker, grounded to first, advancing Miller. Rich Gedman, a third pinch hitter, hit a fly ball that moved Miller to third. Fingers then induced Wade Boggs to pop up to leftfield.

Rollie accepted the hearty congratulations of his teammates as he came off the field, but once inside the clubhouse, he berated himself: "I am ticked. A walk!" Then he got a glass of milk and went into the trainer's room to have his elbow iced.

Fingers is a natural for Comeback Player of the Year, but what he has done transcends that mundane award. He is, quite simply, the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived, and his return to form is a wonderful gift to baseball. Consider that he has 36% more lifetime saves, 311 to 229, than the No. 2 man, Bruce Sutter.

Fingers became a full-time relief pitcher in 1972, and in the strike-shortened '81 season, with a 1.04 ERA and 28 saves, he became the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award and be named MVP in the same year.

He kept rolling along until Sept. 2, 1982—"a day," says trainer John Adam, "that will live in infamy in the annals of Brewer history." Fingers came in to save the first game of a doubleheader against Cleveland, but after 1[1/3] innings he motioned to Harvey Kuenn, then the manager, to come out to the mound. "It wasn't any one pitch that did it," says Fingers. "It was 20 years of pitching. I felt this light burning sensation in my arm, and the umpire, Russ Goetz, was telling me I was losing velocity." Fingers had an 0-2 count on Andre Thornton when Pete Ladd was called in to save the 2-1 victory.

At first everyone figured he had just strained some flexor muscles in his right forearm. "I thought everything would be fine and dandy in a week," Fingers says, "but on the eighth or ninth day, I couldn't throw the ball 16 feet, much less 60. I waited another five days, and couldn't throw it any farther." He kept applying ice and taking anti-inflammatory drugs while the Brewers fought off the Orioles to win the AL East.

Milwaukee activated Fingers for the World Series, and on the second day of the Series he threw well in batting practice. But the next day he was too stiff and sore to go again, and he ended up spending the rest of the Series talking over the back bullpen fence with the Cardinals' Sutter.

"I figured with rest I'd be fine by the spring," says Fingers. He pitched a little and felt O.K. during spring training, but not well enough to leave with the Brewers, so, he stayed in Tucson and threw batting practice. "It just got worse and worse, though," he says. The last straw came in an exhibition game against Vancouver in early June. Fingers threw one inning. a shutout inning, "but my arm just killed me. I waited three or four days. It didn't get any better, and I knew I had to have surgery."

On June 10, at Centinela Hospital, Fingers went under the knife in more ways than one. "The worst part was the uncertainty of what they would find when they went into the elbow," he says. What Dr. Frank Jobe found was that some of the flexor muscles had become detached at the bottom of the elbow, where the humerus and ulna bones meet, and it was scar tissue that caused the pain. Dr. Jobe cleaned off the scar tissue and some bone spurs at the elbow and reattached the muscles. "It sounds like woodworking, doesn't it?" says Fingers. "Well, Doc got an A in shop. I just wish he'd stuck a couple of transistors in there while he was at it."

Fingers turned 37 last August, and it's very tough for older athletes to come back after surgery. But he is fiercely competitive. Says Ted Simmons of the Brewers, "Waldo [one of Fingers' many nicknames] is the kind of person, who, if he couldn't beat you, he would hate you. I see it all the time, even in bridge—he's my partner. If I were to put his situation, coming back at his age after elbow surgery, in bridge terms, I'd say that he was at seven spades, doubled, vulnerable, redoubled. And that's the kind of hand he thrives on."

Fingers gave his arm almost total rest until the first week in January of this year. He lifted weights and started to toss baseballs against the concrete wall of the garage at his home in La Mesa, Calif. He worked out at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium, and with a week to go before spring training, he threw to a catcher for the first time in eight months.

The Brewers left him totally on his own in spring training. "We weren't counting on him," says manager Rene Lachemann. "We were hoping, but we had to make our plans assuming he might not be back." Fingers worked an inning here, an inning there, and by the end of spring training he was ready and able to pitch two days in succession.

On Opening Day in Oakland, April 3, Fingers entered the game in the ninth, gave up three straight singles, only one of which was solid, and was tagged with the 6-5 loss. "I waited a year and a half for that?" said Fingers. But that first outing was significant because Fingers was ahead in the count, 1 and 2, to the first batter, Mike Heath, before Heath hit a broken-bat single. One of the keys to Fingers' remarkable success has been his knack of putting the first pitch over for a strike, and after all that time and uncertainty, he obviously hadn't lost that ability.

He has lost a little off his fastball, although he doesn't really need a great fastball as long as he's able to get his forkball and slider, both thrown with the same fluid motion as his fastball, over the plate. And he knows hitters as well as any pitcher alive. "Buzzard has the memory of an elephant," says pitching coach Pat Dobson. "And the guts of a burglar," says Haney, listening in.

Fingers had never lost his Snidely Whiplash mustache and his imposing physiognomy. "The real secrets to being a good relief pitcher," he says, "are one, don't shave and two, slobber all over yourself on the mound." He deflects any talk about where he stands in the pantheon of relief pitching by saying, "I'm just a starting pitcher who couldn't get out of the third inning."

So he became the best reliever in baseball history. The Brewers have a special signal when they want Fingers to come into a game. Lachemann will go out to the mound and trace an exaggerated handlebar mustache in the air. Then Fingers walks in from the bullpen so that the Brewers can win by a whisker. Again.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINFingers is relishing some kind of season, including 10 saves and an ERA of 1.50.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)