High-Wire Act There's no safety net for major league closers, who put it all on the line each time they work, saving the day... or wasting their teams' best efforts

June 17, 2001

Airplane pilot, tightrope walker, sword swallower, bomb-squad
member, skydiver, closer. Success or failure in these jobs is
absolute: You either do or you don't. The closer's job is the
most clearly delineated one in sports. Most times he either gets
a save--you need not mine far to hit the religious or heroic
bedrock of the word--or a blown save, the cruelest, most negative
stat ever invented. There is no middle ground. No safety net.
Closers are the Flying Wallendas of baseball.

Trevor Hoffman fell off the high wire on May 27. Hoffman, 33, is
the San Diego Padres' closer. He is the only active pitcher to
have saved 30 games in each of the past six years. That afternoon
the Padres gave the righthander a 4-2 lead to protect in the
ninth inning against a division rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The game took a total of two hours and 47 minutes, but Hoffman
lost it in an eye blink: single, home run, fly-out, single, home
run. Drive home safely.

What happened in the wake of defeat, when utter failure is a
virus that attacks the immune system of confidence, would reveal
more about Hoffman's staying power than his National
League-record-tying 53 saves in 1998. "To last in this job,"
Hoffman says, "you have to learn to take the good and the bad
equally."

The results are brutally self-evident: You do or you don't. Many
closers do (44 pitchers saved at least 30 games in a season over
the past five years), but most don't for long. (Four current
closers have saved 30 or more in each of the past three years.)
Just about any pitcher with good stuff, given the liberalism of
the save rule and the programmed use of closers by robotic
managers, can save 30 games once. Mel Rojas, Heathcliff Slocumb
and Billy Taylor proved as much in recent years--before they
disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived among the brethren of
closers.

Hoffman, one of the rare closers who endures, fought the virus
after the Arizona defeat. He has developed an emergency routine
for such cases. First, while sitting alone in the dugout, he
reflects on what just happened; then, even after his worst
outings, he goes to the clubhouse and fields questions from the
media. "The people asking the questions are not responsible for
the ball flying out of the park," he explains. Finally, alone, he
finds something positive amid the despair. He won't leave the
stadium until he is sure the virus is under control. This time
Hoffman began the cleansing process at about 4:50 in the
afternoon. He did not leave until nine o'clock that night.

"That's not normal, believe me--not that long," Hoffman says.
"There were a lot of issues with that one. Some games have a
lasting impact, and I thought that was one of them. I didn't do a
whole lot, just kind of sat around, watched the Coca-Cola 600,
drank Coca-Colas. The first home run ran through my mind. A
2-and-2 pitch. I threw a fastball. When I get to two strikes in
that situation, it's easy to think, I ought to have thrown a
changeup. But if he pops up a fastball to leftfield, you don't
think twice.

"Confidence is everything," Hoffman adds. "If you start
second-guessing yourself, you're bound to run into more bad
[outings]. It took a while, but I got through it. It's a cliche,
but it's true: It's better to have competed and lost than not to
have competed at all. That's what I told myself. I battled. And I
knew I'd be out there again."

Armando Benitez fell off the high wire on May 11. Benitez, 28, is
the New York Mets' closer. He is, with only one 30-save season on
his resume, a work in progress. Whether he turns out to be Trevor
Hoffman or Mel Rojas will depend on nights like this, when he
surrendered the game-winning hit to the San Francisco Giants. The
righthander's response, with the help of at least one other Met,
was to demolish parts of the visiting dugout and clubhouse at
Pacific Bell Park. The Giants sent the Mets a bill for $4,000 to
cover repairs.

What was it that Hoffman said? Treat the good and the bad
equally? How can any closer do that when, as St. Louis Cardinals
manager Tony La Russa put it, he has to endure "a maximum amount
of pressure in a minimum amount of time"? How can he do it when
success is so intoxicating and failure so debilitating?

Stacey O'Neill heard about Benitez's rage in San Francisco and
winced. Three months earlier O'Neill, Benitez's former
girlfriend, had dropped domestic-abuse charges against the
reliever only after he agreed to seek anger-management
counseling. She had recognized a pattern of postgame behavior by
Benitez that was linked to success or failure on the mound.

"He either didn't get counseling or he ignored it," O'Neill says
of the Pac Bell Park incident. "[If he did get therapy,] it
obviously didn't do him any good. I guess what I'm worried about
is whether the Mets really want him to be able to manage his
anger. I think they encourage that in him. He was supposed to be
intimidating on the mound, so I would think they wouldn't want
his mentality to change. The other team is supposed to fear him.
That's what a closer is about. He told me he was supposed to
scare people. I told him not to scare me. Be intimidating at work
but not at home. Be like an actor and leave it behind. He
couldn't do that. He was Armando the Intimidator all the time.
That's part of what he said made him successful."

When asked about O'Neill's description of his difficulty
accepting failure, Benitez cuts off the question with a wave of
his hand and says, "I don't want to say anything bad about the
woman. I wish her well. My mind is clear, and I am happy. All my
troubles are gone."

Benitez does say he appreciates the support of his teammates,
especially bullpen mate John Franco's, manager Bobby Valentine's
and equipment manager Charlie Samuels's. With their assistance,
he says, he is learning to recover quickly from defeat. "It's
tough because nobody likes to lose," he says. "But the important
thing is to forget about it and come back tomorrow."

When asked how he puts bad games behind him now, Benitez says, "I
sit around and watch cartoons to relax."

Jay Horwitz, the Mets' vice president of media relations, says
O'Neill's concern that the club facilitated Benitez's anger
"couldn't be further from the truth. We're concerned about
Armando as a person first and as a ballplayer second. We don't
encourage being 'on edge.'"

Benitez is 6'4" and listed at 229 pounds. He is a large man with
the shoulders of a linebacker and the scowl of a prison guard way
too long on the job. He throws 96 mph worth of wicked fury on a
pitching mound. The sensation of burying his heater past the best
hitters in baseball to lock down a victory for New York--the fans
standing, cheering and pleading, with the knowledge that he
alone, not some scoreboard clock clicking off seconds, has the
power to suck the last breath of life out of the opposition--that
sensation has been known to make this bear of a man dance with
joy like a pixie. He might quickly lift one knee, as if he had
stepped barefoot on a hot sidewalk, or give a dismissive wave
with his right hand. He knows that Franco, his mentor, hates it
when he reacts like that ("Never give the other guy extra
incentive to beat your ass," Franco likes to tell him), but such
is the overwhelming power of the moment.

After those triumphs O'Neill knew exactly what Benitez wanted to
do first when he returned home in Queens, N.Y. Armando Benitez
would click on the TV to surf for highlights, so he could watch
Armando Benitez close the game all over again. "Almost like he
had to see it again to believe it," O'Neill says.

On the bad nights, when the crowd did not cheer and the bear did
not dance, the television stayed off. O'Neill says that Benitez
might pour himself a glass of Grand Marnier and retreat to
another room in the apartment, his only companions the drink and
a poisonous feeling he wanted to be rid of. Says O'Neill, whose
three-year relationship with Benitez ended last November, "I
feared for myself after a loss, because stupid things could send
him over the edge." After a succession of poor outings, O'Neill
adds, Benitez might perform a Santerian ritual in which he would
bathe by candlelight in a mixture of water, milk, alcohol, herbs
and flowers to rid himself of bad luck.

Benitez did convert all nine of his save chances through the
first 10 weeks of this season. He has run into trouble in other
situations, such as when he yielded a home run to the
Philadelphia Phillies' Pat Burrell that broke a tie on May 28.
Benitez refused to speak with the media after that game. Is he
Hoffman or Rojas? It is too soon to know. This much is certain:
There is only one active closer who saved even one game before
1991, the Chicago Cubs' Tom Gordon.

"Closers have a short shelf life because it takes an awful lot
out of you," says Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who saved
252 games. "It's the only job where you're not allowed to go into
a slump. Some guys can't get over the bad games, and that's why
they don't become full-time closers. Some guys put up a facade to
protect themselves from the demons, but that usually doesn't last
long. If you don't have the stomach for it, you'll be discovered
before too long. You just have to be mentally tough and shrug it
off no matter how much it hurts."

One night in 1978 New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson waited
for Rich Gossage on the mound at Yankee Stadium. Gossage had been
summoned from the bullpen to save a game. He was in a terrible
slump. This was his first season with New York after the club had
signed him as a free agent, displacing the reigning Cy Young
Award winner, Sparky Lyle, as the team's closer. Yankees fans
booed him. Things were going so badly for Gossage that when he
reached the mound Munson said, "So, how are you going to blow
this one?"

"I don't know," Gossage barked back. "Get your ass behind the
plate, and we'll find out."

Gossage lasted 22 seasons in the big leagues, most of them as a
closer, and rang up 310 saves. The closer "is only one pitch from
disaster all the time," he says. Like Benitez, he forged a
gunslinger's reputation with an imposing physical bearing and a
fastball that looked angry, like one of those pets that resembles
its owner.

"I joke about it now," Gossage says. "People go, 'God, Goose, you
looked so mean!' I was scared to death. Fear of failure is a big
motivator. When you're a closer, every game is huge. You're out
there on the mound s------- down your leg, the game is on the
line, you've got all this adrenaline running through your body,
and somehow you've got to get ahold of your emotions.

"When you fail, it's awful. Sometimes I drank. Sometimes I just
sat around the clubhouse. You go home, you have trouble sleeping.
First thing when you wake up, you feel that sinking feeling in
your stomach. It's like waking up to a disaster, almost like a
sickness in your family. It's almost too much to take. Sometimes
the pressure did get to me. Sometimes I'd be short with my
family. They suffered."

The physical demands of the closer's job have eased since
pitchers like Gossage were asked to put out fires in the seventh
inning and finish the game. Today's closers might throw little
more than half the innings of their counterparts of 20 or 30
years ago, who often did more than 100 innings of heavy lifting
in a season. The evolution of specialized layers of relief
pitching also has turned the closer's job into such a
well-insulated one that the term fireman has disappeared from
baseball vernacular. The typical closer doesn't answer distress
calls anymore. He usually enters a game with no one on base and
is asked to pitch no more than one inning. For instance, Antonio
Alfonseca of the Florida Marlins led the majors with 45 saves
last season and never entered a game with the tying run on base.
Ryan Kohlmeier of the Baltimore Orioles, who is 23 years old and
has 19 career saves, receives the treatment of a sultan; he
hadn't worked more than one inning at a time until last Saturday,
when he pitched 1 1/3 against the Montreal Expos. Jeff Shaw of the
Los Angeles Dodgers pitched exactly one inning in 28 of his first
30 appearances this season.

As closers have moved more deeply into the realm of highly
specialized labor, the mental toll has become more problematic
than the physical one. A closer will pitch only about 5% of his
team's innings over the course of a season--and spend the other
95% of the time waiting, like a storm chaser, for the confluence
of events that requires him to go to work. Surviving the nightly
anxiety, and those inevitable episodes of abject failure, are the
most difficult parts of the job.

There is an old saying among closers that the most important
qualification for the job is a short memory. "I learned from Lee
Smith," Anaheim Angels closer Troy Percival says of the alltime
saves leader, whose major league career ended in 1997. "I've seen
him give up a game-winning grand slam, and 10 minutes later in
the clubhouse you'd never know it. He'd be his usual self."

"I get over the bad games right away," says the Yankees' Mariano
Rivera, who shows as little emotion as any closer in baseball.
"Sometimes I've let it go even before I've left the mound. That
quick. Why? Because it's over. What can you do about it? Nothing.
The only thing you can do is fight if you're still in the game.
After that you can do nothing."

Closers like Benitez and John Rocker of the Atlanta Braves, whose
engines always redline, are increasingly rare. Baseball
executives fear that those emotional, maximum-effort pitchers
will flame out the way Rob Dibble did. The former hard-throwing
Cincinnati Reds righthander blew out his arm and was finished as
a closer at 29. He saved 20 games in a season only twice.

Rivera, lean, perpetually calm and clean-shaven, is the
cutting-edge ubercloser. There is nothing intimidating about him,
other than a hellacious cut fastball and a 0.38 postseason ERA.
"The best there is," Percival says. Like Rivera, Hoffman,
Percival and Robb Nen of the Giants all project an even
temperament. All four served apprenticeships as setup men before
proving they had the fortitude to close games--and they are the
only active pitchers who have saved 30 games in each of the past
three seasons.

"Some guys don't have the stomach for pitching the ninth inning,"
Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly says. "They're great in the
eighth but don't want anything to do with the ninth. You have to
find out. It might take a while, but you'll find out."

The jury is still out on Kelly's 28-year-old closer, LaTroy
Hawkins. The righthander failed as a starter for all or parts of
five seasons with the Twins. Last year he was shunted to the
bullpen and, around the All-Star break, auditioned as a closer.
Suddenly he'd found his niche. Through last Saturday Hawkins had
converted 30 of his 32 save opportunities since then. Easy,
right? Somebody named Matt Karchner tied a Chicago White Sox
record by converting 20 consecutive save chances over the 1997
and '98 seasons. He was traded to the Cubs on July 29, 1998, but
didn't record a single save during the parts of three seasons he
spent with them and disappeared from the majors. Hawkins, like
any aspiring closer, won't know if he's fit for the job until he
slumps.

Boston Red Sox reliever Rod Beck, who has 263 career saves, tried
to make that point to the team's emerging closer Derek Lowe,
while Lowe was converting 42 of 47 save chances last year. "I
told Derek, 'Listen, I don't expect you to understand this, but
you have no idea what this job is about.'" Lowe wound up pitching
in 74 games and went 4-4. "I thought it was the greatest job in
the world," Lowe says. "This year I was 1-5 after 11 games!
Self-doubt began to creep into my mind. I got beat three times on
curveballs. I got beat on pitches in the hittable zone, whereas
last year they were sinking out of the hittable zone. It hurt.
Your team works all game long to get you the ball, and then you
lose it. I've learned you have to push away that doubt. Now I'm
trying to go out there and just pitch, and whatever happens,
happens. I don't want to feel as if it's life or death."

The Texas Rangers promoted setup man Tim Crabtree to closer after
John Wetteland retired at the end of last season. The 31-year-old
Crabtree is a six-year veteran with a live fastball and a hard
slider, the kind of pitches that baseball people like to call
"closer's stuff" because managers typically like strikeout
pitchers to throw the last inning. (The theory is that the less
often the ball is put in play, the less can go wrong.) After six
weeks--including three on the DL with lower-back pain--and two
blown saves, Crabtree lost his closing duties. "You think you're
ready, but it's something you're not going to understand until
you go through it," Crabtree says. "As a setup man I pretty much
knew when I was pitching. Jeff Zimmerman and I knew it was one
guy on and the other guy off every night.

"What I found with closing is you have to recharge yourself every
night," Crabtree continues. "Every day you're on call for that
ninth inning. Mentally, that gets tiring. The other difference is
when you blow a game. You feel like you let down 24 guys and
seven coaches and management. It's tough to look your teammates
in the eye after they worked so hard to get a lead for eight
innings over three hours and you lose it just like that. When you
don't get it done, it's more frustrating than just having a bad
outing as a setup man."

In the 1992 draft the Cleveland Indians used their first pick on
North Carolina righthander Paul Shuey with the intent of grooming
him as a closer. Shuey is 30 and has still never been a full-time
closer in the big leagues. The Indians have converted a
succession of former starters and setup men--Jose Mesa, Mike
Jackson and Steve Karsay--into closers in that time, and last year
they traded a rising star slugger, Richie Sexson, to get another
closer, Bob Wickman, but Shuey still has not graduated from
pitching the seventh and eighth innings. "Shuey has power stuff,
three 'plus' pitches that give him closer's stuff," Cleveland
assistant general manager Mark Shapiro says. "But closing is not
just stuff. Strike-throwing consistency is huge. He's had
problems repeating his delivery. That's not unusual for pitchers
who have violence in their delivery."

Rivera has an easy motion, and his ability to throw strikes is
yet another element that sets him apart. He is so efficient with
his pitches that Yankees manager Joe Torre often uses him in the
eighth inning, knowing Rivera can throw more than one inning and
still pitch the next day. Through the first 10 weeks of this
season he had pitched more than one inning to get a save six
times, the most in the majors. Over the same period 17 closers,
including Alfonseca, Benitez, Hawkins and Wickman, had yet to
work more than one inning for a save.

The closer isn't a modern invention, only a modern convention.
Firpo Marberry saved 22 games for the 1926 Washington Senators
without starting a trend. (The save rule was established in 1969;
previous totals have been derived by researchers from box scores
and game accounts.) Marberry's "record" stood for 23 years,
during which complete games were common and most teams used their
starting pitchers out of the bullpen between starts. The success
of the Yankees' Joe Page, a mediocre starter, as a relief pitcher
from 1947 through '49 prompted other teams to employ a specialist
who was summoned in close games, regardless of which team was
winning. Roy Face won a record 18 games in relief for the 1959
Pittsburgh Pirates in that manner.

Then, in 1979, Chicago Cubs manager Herman Franks came up with a
novel way to use Bruce Sutter, his relief specialist, who was on
the DL with a pulled muscle in '77 and was arm weary in the
second half of '78. Franks lightened Sutter's load by using him
only if the Cubs were winning. Franks was ahead of his time.
(However, he resigned before the end of that season and never
managed again.) In the late '80s La Russa, then the Oakland A's
manager, refined the job further with Dennis Eckersley, who was
used mostly when the A's had a lead and only to start the ninth
inning.

Today, in a game so rich in strategic possibilities that half the
fun is kicking around the what-would-you-have-dones, every
manager agrees in Stepford-like fashion exactly how to run a
bullpen. No manager dares use his best reliever to pitch to the
middle of the order in the seventh inning--and seldom in the
eighth--of a close game. No manager dares not to use his closer
with a lead of three runs or less in the ninth, the main
requirement for a save. Percival, in fact, will start warming for
those situations without Angels manager Mike Scioscia's even
calling the bullpen. No other statistic dictates actual strategic
decisions the way the save does. Indeed, if a home team adds a
fourth run to its lead in the eighth inning, the closer will stop
warming. Someone else will pitch the ninth.

"A good strategy is to try to build on a good year," La Russa
says about the three-run gimme save. "How does he get a good year
going? By piling up saves, like a hitter hits .300 or a starting
pitcher gets wins. So, if you have a three-run lead and your
closer is available, you ought to get him that one because he's
going to have plenty of one-run leads."

Bobby Thigpen of the White Sox set the single-season save record
with 57 in 1990. Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners, who had
24 through last Saturday, could challenge the mark because he
pitches for a winning team that plays close games and has four
reliable setup men to preserve leads.

Still, in this Age of the Specialized Bullpen, the irony is that,
despite the "advances" made in establishing layers of relief
pitchers, teams are no more successful at protecting late leads
now than they were 10 or 20 years ago--in fact, they are slightly
worse. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams taking a
one-run lead into the ninth inning last season won 83.9% of the
time. Given a one- or two-run lead heading into the ninth, they
won 88.7%. In 1990 those conversion rates were 86.4% and 90.7%,
respectively. If you go back to 1980, a year in which only three
pitchers saved 30 or more games (15 did so last year) and the
idea of paying a setup man $4 million was absurd, teams cashed in
84.7% and 89.6% of such opportunities, a better rate than they do
today.

Get the ball to the closer has become the unchallenged strategy.
No starting pitcher has ended a World Series with a complete game
since Jack Morris of the Twins did it in 1991. No team that
played a full season has won a world championship without a
closer getting 30 saves since the 1988 Dodgers, who split the job
primarily among Jay Howell, Jesse Orosco and Alejandro Pena (who
combined for 42). "You want a guy who creates the feeling that
when he comes in, the game's over," says Scioscia, the catcher
for that '88 L.A. team. "You have to use your closer carefully,
because you don't want to burn him out, but you can't be afraid
to use him when a save situation comes up. You worry most about
the mental grind with a closer, and that's why you look for a guy
with the mental makeup to handle the job."

The ones who survive the anxiety and the failure usually forge
their own kind of mental armor, tricks of their trade that become
as unique as a family crest. "You have to treat every day the
same," Beck says, "until it feels like Groundhog Day." Smith
would nap on a training table for the first six innings. Percival
would gulp down a six-pack of cola and a dozen cups of coffee
every night--until a biochemist told him last winter that his body
was grossly dehydrated because of all the caffeine. (Percival has
cut his coffee intake to five cups, maybe three of which are
decaffeinated, while drinking a gallon of water daily.) When Tom
Gordon saved 46 games in 47 opportunities for Boston in 1998, he
spent the early innings of every game chomping fried chicken in
the office of manager Jimy Williams.

Hoffman spends most of the game in the clubhouse "developing a
little quiet zone" while watching television, stretching and
getting a massage. "If I time it right, I'll get to the bullpen
five or 10 minutes before I come into the game," he says. Billy
Wagner of the Houston Astros, currently on the DL with a mild
strain in his left forearm, throws four warmup pitches--and four
pitches only, rather than the customary eight--when he enters a
game "because I want everybody to know I mean business and I'm
ready to go." For three years Billy Koch of the Toronto Blue Jays
has carried a stuffed goat, a gift from his sister in homage to
his wispy goatee.

Facial hair, in fact, is to closers what masks were to Greek
thespians. From Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers (handlebar mustache)
to Gossage (Fu Manchu) to Al Hrabosky (horseshoe mustache) to
Eckersley (swarthy mustache) to Doug Jones (push-broom-style
mustache) to Kerry Ligtenberg (Edwardian sideburns) to Koch,
closers have a long history of assuming an identity through the
creative growth of facial hair, whether intimidation is their
motivation or not. "Hey, I waited 27 years to grow anything on my
face," says Wagner, who sports a mustache and goatee. "I was
trying to get out of that Billy the Kid phase."

Says Gossage, "People think I grew the Fu Manchu to intimidate
people. That wasn't it at all. I grew it to piss off [George]
Steinbrenner."

Some of the worst emotional meltdowns in baseball history involve
closers. Dibble ripped off his jersey--buttons popping--as he
walked off the mound at Shea Stadium after a blown save. Righetti
heaved a baseball from the mound over the right centerfield wall
of Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. A depressed Donnie Moore killed
himself in 1989, and many acquaintances believe he did it in part
because he never got over losing the 1986 American League
Championship Series game that would have put the Angels in the
World Series.

As a rookie with the Reds in 1984 John Franco watched how closers
Tom Hume and Ted Power never seemed to change their demeanor,
whether they saved a game or lost it. Still, when his time came
to close games, Franco, flush with the raw emotions of youth,
"busted up my share of locker rooms in my early years." The more
games he saved, though, the more Franco learned that those
failures would be temporary. He learned, too, how to act like a
closer. There was a certain way you had to stand and walk and
carry yourself on the mound so that every bit of body language
announced to the hitter, "I am supremely confident!"--especially
during those times when Franco knew in his gut that it was a lie.
Hitters are like dogs, he figured, who can sniff the slightest
bit of fear in a person. If he thought his face gave off a faint
hint of doubt, Franco would walk down the back of the mound and
keep his back to home plate until, like an actor finding the soul
of his character, he had fixed the most cocksure look he could
muster.

"Never, ever let them see you sweat," Franco says. That is the
motto that has helped Franco, a 5'10" sinkerballer who couldn't
make it as a starter because he would tire by the fifth or sixth
inning, to 421 saves. That is also another bit of advice he has
passed on to Benitez.

The education of Benitez continues, though Franco knows his
successor as the Mets' closer must figure out for himself how to
handle the bad nights as well as the good. Even Franco, in his
last years as the Mets' closer, struggled sometimes with this
core truth. As he drove from Shea Stadium to his Staten Island
home after blowing a game, Franco would tune his car's radio to
the sports talk show station. He would listen to fans call in
with pronouncements that Franco was finished. He was torturing
himself. "I'd get so angry I'd want to drive off the Verrazano
Bridge," he says. "It's bad enough that the game stays in your
mind. Then you hear this stuff on the radio and think, Hey,
so-and-so from Stony Brook, what the hell does he do for a
living? What does he know?"

These days, as Franco drives over the Verrazano Bridge in the
late hours of the night, he doesn't think about busting through a
guardrail. The radio is off. He pops in a CD of The Three Tenors
or, perhaps, Andrea Bocelli. He has moved on to soothing music.
He is a setup man now. The ninth inning, and all of its good and
all of its bad, belongs to Benitez.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN Mental balance Mariano Rivera rises above his fellow closers with a hellacious cutter and a perpetually calm demeanor. COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE Closers, such as Billy Koch, have a history of assuming an identity through creative growth of facial hair. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Trevor Hoffman is one of only four closers who have 30 or more saves in each of the past three years. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO While serving an apprenticeship as a setup man, Troy Percival proved he had the fortitude to close games. COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG In 1998, when Tom Gordon saved 46 games, he spent the early innings of every game chomping fried chicken. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS Like a lot of other good closers, Robb Nen projects an even temperament in any situation. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BOB ROSATO; MATT MAHURIN (BACKGROUND) After losing a game, Armando Benitez and a teammate did $4,000 worth of damage to Pac Bell Park.

Perfect Endings

Closers are expected to enter a game and, regardless of the
circumstances, mow down opposing hitters without incident. Yet
through Saturday only five closers had been perfect--allowing no
base runners--in 50% or more of their save opportunities.
Conversely, 12 closers put at least one runner on base in 80% or
more of such appearances (minimum five save chances). Here are
the leaders in each category.

Highest Percentage of Perfect Saves

SAVE PERFECT PERFECT
OPPORTUNITIES SAVES SAVES SAVE PCT.

Dave Veres, Cardinals 9 9 6 .667
Jeff Nelson, Mariners 5 4 3 .600
Kazuhiro Sasaki, Mariners 27 24 15 .556
Tom Gordon, Cubs 11 8 6 .545
Billy Wagner, Astros 14 13 7 .500

Lowest Percentage of Perfect Saves

SAVE PERFECT PERFECT
OPPORTUNITIES SAVES SAVES SAVE PCT.

Derek Lowe, Red Sox 9 7 0 .000
Roberto Hernandez, Royals 12 9 1 .083
Antonio Alfonseca, Marlins 15 12 2 .133
Todd Jones, Tigers 15 10 2 .133
Trevor Hoffman, Padres 14 12 2 .143
Bret Prinz, Diamondbacks 7 5 1 .143

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

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)