NO RELIEF IN SIGHT FOR MORE AND MORE CLOSERS, THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL STRAIN OF THE JOB HAS SIMPLY BECOME TOO MUCH TO BEAR

August 17, 1997

The thought of one inning of work used to prompt reliever Troy
Percival of the Anaheim Angels to gulp more than a gallon of
coffee a day, chug several cups of cola and pack in mouthfuls of
chewing tobacco. Pitching one inning still makes 40-year-old
Doug Jones of the Milwaukee Brewers so nervous that even on a
good night his body trembles and has a burning sensation for 20
minutes after the last pitch. That one inning often leaves
Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella hotter than a jalapeno, as
evidenced four times this season when he barricaded himself in
his office rather than talk about it with the press.

That inning, of course, is the ninth, which is just another
inning in the way the SAT is just another high school quiz. For
many teams, Beethoven's Ninth is easier to play than baseball's.
The men entrusted with protecting small ninth-inning leads, and
occasionally ties, have the most stressful job on a ball club.
That explains the turnover at the position this season, as well
as the extraordinary attention that closers received from
contending clubs near the trading deadline.

Within eight days beginning on July 31, four closers who saved
30 or more games last season changed teams. Two of them who have
struggled this year--righthanders Mike Timlin and Heathcliff
Slocumb--were acquired in separate deals by the Mariners.
Seattle was so desperate not to let a leaky pen undermine the
first season in six years in which Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey
Jr. and Edgar Martinez are all healthy that it gave up a
24-year-old starting pitcher and two former No. 1 draft picks,
including rookie sensation Jose Cruz Jr. Meanwhile, righthander
Roberto Hernandez, part of the Chicago White Sox's tag sale,
joined righty Rod Beck in San Francisco, giving the Giants a
late-inning combination reminiscent of the 1996 New York Yankees
(righthanders Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland) and the 1992
Toronto Blue Jays (righties Duane Ward and Tom Henke).

When the Chicago Cubs dealt righthander Mel Rojas to the New
York Mets in a six-player trade last Friday, the Cubs became the
10th team to change closers since Opening Day. Though Rojas was
obtained to set up one of the few tenured closers in the
business, southpaw John Franco, he found himself pitching the
ninth inning of a tie game against the Houston Astros last
Saturday in his first appearance for New York. He promptly
coughed up five runs.

After saving 36 games for the Montreal Expos last year, Rojas
signed a three-year, $13.75 million free-agent contract with
Chicago, pitched his way out of the closer's role with the Cubs
and became a setup man for the Mets, a team that was tied for
the major league lead in blown saves (23) through Sunday. His
three-team journey over 10 months is an excellent illustration
of the fickleness of the highly caffeinated world of the closer.
"His stuff is as good as it was last year, when he saved 23 in a
row in the second half," Cubs general manager Ed Lynch says of
Rojas. "He just lost that mental edge all closers need to be
successful."

In an era when closers are asked to pitch fewer innings than
ever (box, page 51), their mental burden remains so heavy that
it continues to overwhelm many of them. The emphasis on
specialty relief pitching in the '90s has only intensified the
glare upon an individual who in one inning can undo the work his
teammates have done over the previous eight. "If [closing] was
easy, a whole lot of people would do it, and there aren't that
many who can do it well," says lefty Norm Charlton, one of seven
relievers tried in save situations this year by Piniella, who's
slammed more doors than his closers. "There are guys out there
who have great stuff who flat out do not want to be closers
because they can't handle the stress and the grind of the job."

So volatile is a closer's life that of the 18 relievers who
earned at least 30 saves last season, half are no longer the
regular closers for the same teams. Of the seven closers named
to the 1996 All-Star team, none earned a return trip this year.
Who would have expected righthander Jose Mesa, who had 85 saves
for the Cleveland Indians in 1995 and '96, to be chucking mostly
middle relief this season, while Pittsburgh Pirates rookie
righty Rich Loiselle, a 38th-round draft pick who had been
traded twice and had never saved a game in pro ball, accumulated
18 saves through Sunday? Actually, such turnarounds are no
longer shocking. Mesa himself was something of an apparition,
suddenly emerging as the 1995 Cy Young Award runner-up in the
14th year of an ordinary pro career.

Finding a closer isn't too difficult--28 pitchers saved 30 games
or more over the two seasons before this one--but finding one
who can withstand the stress night after night, year after year,
is very hard indeed. Says Lynch, "On a staff of 10 pitchers you
might have five or six with the stuff to be a closer, but one,
if you're lucky, who has the mental approach. The good ones have
guts and a short memory. If we have someone we think could be a
closer and the reports say he's an a------, I think, Good. The
traits that serve you well in society, like humility, don't
serve you well on the mound."

Only seven current stoppers have been closing games for at least
seven seasons: Franco, Jones, righthanders Rick Aguilera of the
Minnesota Twins, Dennis Eckersley of the St. Louis Cardinals,
Jeff Montgomery of the Kansas City Royals and Todd Worrell of
the Los Angeles Dodgers, and lefty Randy Myers of the Baltimore
Orioles. Eckersley, the 42-year-old master who's been around so
long that he pitched to Hank Aaron, had saved 27 games in 31
chances for the Cardinals through Sunday, prompting Astros
general manager Gerry Hunsicker to remark, "He throws 87, 88
miles per hour, and you ask, 'How does he do it?' He's probably
the most interesting guy out there because he doesn't have what
you'd call closer's stuff, but he has great confidence. Closing
is a big mental game."

The save, taken alone, is hardly a fair measure of performance.
Many save opportunities are easier to convert than an NBA free
throw. Of Mesa's 85 saves in 1995 and '96, he had to preserve a
one-run lead only 26 times and inherited a total of 16 runners
in 131 appearances.

Wetteland brought the inflated value of the save to new heights
when he won the 1996 World Series MVP award by pitching to only
19 of the 232 Atlanta batters faced by New York pitchers. He got
three of his four saves by entering a game with nobody on base
and a lead of at least two runs, needing only two or three outs.

Wetteland, who signed a four-year, $23 million free-agent
contract with the Texas Rangers last winter, threw just 63 2/3
innings in 62 regular-season games for the Yankees last season.
In nearly the same number of games 18 years earlier, Rich
Gossage, the closer for the Yankees' last world-championship
team, threw 134 innings. "I'd come in in the seventh inning of a
tie game," says Gossage of an era when firemen were called on to
put out fires, not just prevent them. "I remember being used by
[manager] Billy [Martin] in the fifth inning with the bases
loaded."

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa changed relief pitching in 1987,
when he was with the Oakland Athletics and he converted
Eckersley into a stopper and eventually a ninth-inning
specialist. Since then, no team has won a world championship
with a closer who pitched as many as 90 innings, though
Series-winning closers pitched that many in every one of the
previous 14 full seasons. So, if there's less work involved, why
isn't the job any easier?

"If you look at closers who have one or two dynamite years--Mark
Davis, Bobby Thigpen, Duane Ward, Jeff Brantley--they're usually
going above and beyond what their normal load has been
physically," says Montgomery, who has lost his closer's role for
the Royals at times over the past two seasons because of
injuries and ineffectiveness. "They've been in more games, more
intense situations, and thrown more pitches. I know the season
after I had my big year [in '93, with 45 saves], I started
having shoulder problems. You're just asked to go out there and
do a little more than what your body is accustomed to doing.
It's usually a year or two afterward that your performance
tapers off."

Closers seem to break down more often than Mir, because many of
them are hard throwers with violent deliveries. Clubs have come
to prefer strikeout artists to finesse pitchers such as Franco.
As Boston Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan says of former
Cincinnati Reds righthander Rob Dibble, "He was a time bomb
waiting to go off."

In 1993 Dibble, Ward, righthanders Gregg Olson and Bryan Harvey,
and southpaw Mitch Williams combined for 181 saves. All of them
broke down. They have had only 25 saves since then, and Olson is
the only one still on an active roster, with the Royals. Other
infamous crashes by closers (box, page 49) include those of Cy
Young winner Davis, who saved 44 games for the San Diego Padres
in 1989 and six the next season; and Thigpen, who had an
eye-popping 65 save chances with the 1990 White Sox, converting
a record 57, only to suffer this meltdown of saves in succeeding
years: 30, 22, 1, 0.

"Williams, Olson and Davis are pretty much all-out-effort
pitchers," says Kansas City bullpen coach Guy Hansen, whose club
has employed all three relievers. "They're trying to make people
swing and miss. That causes wear and tear on the arm."

In 1990, Percival and Padres closer Trevor Hoffman were
every-day players in the minor leagues, offering further
evidence of the serendipity of finding a closer. Slocumb, the
Philadelphia Phillies' Ricky Bottalico, and retired closers Dan
Quisenberry and Jeff Reardon were never drafted. Oakland's Billy
Taylor spent 14 years in the minor leagues, and Jones, except
for a four-game stretch, logged eight seasons in the bushes. The
Atlanta Braves' Mark Wohlers and the Florida Marlins' Robb Nen
failed as starters before they became closers.

Nonetheless, ball clubs recently began drafting and grooming
closers the way the NFL does third-down pass rushers. Among
these new-age specialists are Paul Shuey of the Indians, Darren
Dreifort of the Dodgers and Ricky Green of the Detroit Tigers,
all of whom were drafted in the first round between 1992 and '94
and have yet to become big league closers.

What these test-tube closers of the '90s are missing out
on--especially when they are pampered by starting the ninth
inning with no one on base--is the experience of learning how to
pitch out of jams. Percival, for instance, worked only 295 2/3
innings in six pro seasons before this year. Not once did he
start a game. Eckersley, on the other hand, had logged 1,077
innings--almost all of them as a starter--on his odometer as he
entered his seventh year and didn't become a closer until three
seasons later.

Ultimately the best tool against burning out from the nightly
rush of adrenaline and all-you've-got fastballs is a good head
rather than a good arm. Says Charlton, "In this job you have to
learn from failure."

COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN Charlton's struggles forced Seattle to look for help last month. [Norm Charlton pitching] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Quisenberry (left) and Rollie Fingers relied more on finesse than today's typical closers do. [Dan Quisenberry pitching] COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--Rollie Fingers pitching] COLOR PHOTO: LAAL TIELEMANS Williams saved 43 games for Philly in '93, but was traded and released the next year. [Mitch Williams pitching] COLOR PHOTO: LARONALD C. MODRA Myers has averaged only .99 innings per appearance in '97. [Randy Myers pitching]

A (NEARLY) PERFECT 10

Here is SI senior writer Tom Verducci's ranking of the top 10
closers since 1969, when saves became an official stat.

RANK-PLAYER YEARS COMMENT

1. Dennis Eckersley 1975-present In one season he had more
saves than runners allowed

2. Rollie Fingers 1968-85 A workhorse, he averaged 110
innings and 24 saves from 1971
to '82

3. Bruce Sutter 1976-88 Had wicked splitter; won five
National League saves titles
in six-year span

4. Rich Gossage 1972-94 Remarkable longevity for an
intimidating power pitcher

5. Lee Smith 1980-97 Retired with 98 more saves than
anyone in history, but no
World Series ring

6. Jeff Reardon 1979-94 Eleven straight seasons with at
least 20 saves

7. Dan Quisenberry 1979-90 In his 10 years with Kansas
City he had five saves titles
and a 2.66 ERA

8. Sparky Lyle 1967-82 He pitched more innings than
Smith (1,390 1/3) and had a
better ERA (2.88)

9. John Franco 1984-present Most saves by a southpaw (352)
and a lifetime 2.56 ERA

10. Tom Henke 1982-95 Had 30 or more saves in six
seasons

FALLING DOWN

Eleven times since saves became an official statistic in 1969
has a reliever experienced a drop-off of 30 or more saves from
one season to the next. Here are those pitchers and their save
totals in those years.

PITCHER YEAR SAVES YEAR SAVES

Bryan Harvey 1993 45 1994 6
Mark Davis 1989 44 1990 6
Mitch Williams 1993 43 1994 6
Doug Jones 1990 43 1991 7
Lee Smith 1995 37 1996 2
Jim Gott 1988 34 1989 0
Bryan Harvey 1991 46 1992 13
Don Aase 1986 34 1987 2
Rick Aguilera 1995 32 1996 0*
Randy Myers 1993 53 1994 21
Mike Marshall 1979 32 1980 1

*All 19 appearances were as a starting pitcher

SHORT BUT SWEET

Through the years, closers have been working fewer innings but
piling up more saves. Here are the average totals of innings
pitched per game, games played and saves for the top 10
relievers in each year since 1969.

YEAR INNINGS GAMES SAVES

1969 1.54 64.1 22.2
1970 1.59 66.4 27.1
1971 1.63 62.5 21.8
1972 1.60 59.3 23.5
1973 1.76 62.6 23.4
1974 1.90 68.8 17.7
1975 1.58 60.2 19.3
1976 1.75 66.6 19.8
1977 1.74 68.9 25.5
1978 1.61 63.6 26.7
1979 1.62 70.7 25.7
1980 1.61 67.5 26.3
1981 1.54 46.6 18.5
1982 1.65 66.3 27.8
1983 1.54 63.4 26.7
1984 1.56 67.8 33.5
1985 1.46 68.5 31.7
1986 1.35 66.0 31.6
1987 1.35 62.8 30.9
1988 1.30 61.8 34.4
1989 1.20 63.2 34.6
1990 1.20 62.5 38.0
1991 1.14 64.0 35.8
1992 1.14 63.9 37.1
1993 1.09 68.2 44.6
1994 1.09 45.7 25.5
1995 1.03 57.0 34.3
1996 1.08 69.3 39.2
*1997 1.00 68.5 41.5

* Projected

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)