THE MEN WHO PITCH FOREVER

May 15, 2011

LOOGY (Lefthanded One-Out Guy) is hardly the most flattering acronym, but it can buy you—as it has Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver—a near lifetime in the bigs

They always say, if you're lefthanded and you're breathing, you can pitch forever," Darren Oliver was saying a couple of weeks ago. This, Oliver knows from experience. His first 12 years in the major leagues amounted to what appeared to be a continual attempt by Oliver to kill his own career. Between 1993 and 2004 he pitched in 306 games, starting 228 of them, for six teams, and had an ERA of 5.07. He was sure he'd done the deed in 2005, when at age 34 he had a 9.38 ERA in Triple A, was cut by three organizations by May and failed to make a major league appearance.

The winter meetings that December happened to be in Dallas, where Oliver lives, and his agent suggested a beer. Oliver found himself sitting with two Mets executives, who were less concerned with Oliver's résumé than with the hand with which he raised his glass. If New York was to invite him to spring training on a nonroster basis, they asked Oliver, would he come? He would.

And thus Oliver began his second baseball life, switching full-time to the bullpen. Over the next five seasons he was 20--6 with a 3.07 ERA and made the playoffs five times—once with the Mets, thrice with the Angels and last year with the Rangers. At age 40, he is in the second season of a two-year, $6.25 million contract he signed in December 2009 with Texas.

Still, Oliver is neither the oldest nor the most highly compensated lefthanded reliever on his own club. Those honors belong to Arthur Rhodes, whom the Rangers signed as a free agent in December. Rhodes is making $3.9 million to pitch his 20th major league season, for his eighth franchise. He is, at 41, the fourth-most senior player in the majors. (Oliver ranks ninth.) "I am not saying A. Rhodes is old," observed the noted Twitter wit who goes by the handle Old Hoss Radbourn in mid-April, "but he did once strike out Nebuchadnezzar back in the Nineveh League."

Rhodes knows not of Radbourn's cheek. Social networking does not rank among his interests. "I don't do the Twitter, I don't do no Facebook, I don't do none of that crap," he says. "I don't have time to be on the computer and chat with people." Also not among Rhodes's interests: his own statistics. Last year, when he was with the Reds and a first-time All-Star, he struck out 26 lefthanded batters while walking just one; only two pitchers in history had ever had seasons in which they struck out more lefties while walking one or none. That information came as news to him.

The extent of Rhodes's pastimes can be neatly summarized: "Going out there and throwing strikes and getting guys out," he says. Oliver's and Rhodes's continuing ability to do those things led Jon Daniels, the Rangers' 33-year-old general manager, to sign them to lucrative free-agent deals in consecutive winters, not any particular fetish for aging lefthanded setup men who happen to be African-American, of whom there are currently two. "We're going to see if Chuck McElroy and Ray King are available," jokes Daniels, referring to two other (retired) longtime African-American southpaws. "It was really an individual thing with Ollie and Arthur. They were two guys we targeted because we felt they were winning pieces in the bullpen."

Among lefthanded full-time setup men who pitched more than 50 innings last season, Rhodes—buoyed by a 33-appearance streak from April to June in which he allowed no runs—ranked third in ERA (2.29). Oliver was fifth, at 2.48. Both still possess fastballs that average around 89 miles per hour and sliders they throw roughly a quarter of the time, both of which they throw for strikes. Rhodes walked 18 of the 217 batters he faced last season, Oliver just 15 of his 244.

At last count Rhodes has pitched to 970 different major league hitters, Abbott to Zupcic. One of his most frequent adversaries has been Twins slugger Jim Thome, who debuted two weeks after Rhodes in 1991, and who is now, along with Rhodes and Oliver, one of baseball's 11 players over 40. "The Dinosaur Club, we call it," says Thome. "We've had some great battles, even since Double A. I don't think I've gotten many hits."

In 26 career plate appearances against Rhodes, Thome has one single, one double and two walks. "He's a guy I respect, an old-school guy. Darren Oliver, same thing," says Thome. "They have gotten lefthanders out, or they wouldn't be here."

Neither one, it should be noted, struggles against righthanded batters either. Since 2006 Oliver has held righties to a .241 average. Rhodes, in his 20 seasons, has held them to .243. But it's their work against lefthanded hitters that has kept them in the game and highly valued. (Of the Dinosaur Club's members, only Mariano Rivera earns more than they do.) Over the past six seasons lefties have hit .238 against Oliver. During his career lefties have hit .214 against Rhodes.

Oliver and Rhodes are the latest members of an order of relievers with a rare skill that has allowed them to sustain unusually long careers: the ability to get lefthanded hitters out. The order's patron saint is Jesse Orosco, Rhodes's teammate with the Orioles from 1995 through '99, whose career lasted 24 seasons. Orosco retired in 2004, at 46, after a record 1,252 appearances. Those are marks that Rhodes says he is chasing. To pitch forever, you have to want to pitch forever. Rhodes wants to pitch forever.

All the decisive blows are struck lefthanded," wrote the early 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin. While this is not entirely true in baseball, it is disproportionately so. Last season 656 players had at bats hitting righthanded, 381 lefthanded. Of the top 30 hitters as measured by OPS, however, 17 were exclusively or predominantly lefthanded.

Of baseball's top 30 alltime OPS leaders 15 are lefthanders or switch-hitters who were more productive from the left side, including the top four of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds. Much of this stems from the fact that batters almost always hit better against opposite-sided pitchers, and that there are—naturally, as only about 10% of people are lefthanded—many more righthanded pitchers than lefties.

For most of baseball history, managers were helpless in crucial situations against lefthanded sluggers. Then, in the mid-1980s, came the rise of the LOOGY—an acronym, for Lefthanded One-Out Guy, that is as distinctive as it is inexact, as few relief appearances consist of just one out. If the LOOGY was not invented by Tony La Russa, the former White Sox, A's and current Cardinals manager, it was popularized by him through his use of lefty relievers from Rick Honeycutt in the early 1990s to, currently, 37-year-old Trever Miller. Managers' deployment of lefty specialists has increased steadily for the past quarter century. In the series A History of the LOOGY, published in 2005, Hardball Times writer Steve Treder defined a "hard-core LOOGY" as a lefthanded relief pitcher who appears in at least 20 games in a season and averages less than one inning and fewer than 0.2 saves per game. Between 1987 and '92 there were fewer than 20 each season. Between 1992 and 2000 there were fewer than 40. Between 2001 and '08 there were never more than 47. In '09 there were a record 54, and last season, 53.

The insatiable hunger of managers for LOOGYs has led some to rely on players whose ability to get lefthanders out is more theoretical than practical—or, at least, is mitigated by the LOOGYs' ineffectiveness against righthanded batters, often pinch hitters, that they sometimes must face. Among pitchers who made more than 20 appearances last year, four of the 10 worst ERAs belonged to LOOGYs. George Sherrill, for instance, appeared in more than a third of the Dodgers' games. He finished with an ERA of 6.69. Lefties hit .192 with an OPS of .573 in 85 plate appearances against him. Righties? In 95 plate appearances they clobbered Sherrill for a .427 average and 1.223 OPS.

Still, lefthanded batters hit lefthanded pitchers worse (to a cumulative league average of .242 last season) than righties hit righties (.254). That stems, says Orioles manager Buck Showalter, from unfamiliarity, from the fact that there simply aren't all that many human beings who can throw a baseball well with their left hand. "Nobody sees 'em much," he says.

This year Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is shelling out some $9.2 million to LOOGYs. The plan was for manager Joe Girardi—whose love of playing matchups is well known to anyone who has ever watched him wear a brown path between his binder of statistics and the pitching mound—to have three at his disposal. Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, however, are both injured, leaving Boone Logan as the Yankees' last LOOGY standing. "It's not like with them being hurt, we can just go out and get another lefty," says Logan. "There isn't anybody."

"The demand is high," agrees Oliver. "The supply is low." The natural shortage of effective lefthanded relievers—last year just 15 of the 53 specialists had an ERA under 3.00—is one reason for the longevity of players such as Oliver and Rhodes. (Of those 53 specialists 28 were 30 or older, and 11 were older than 34.) Another reason is that their job limits wear on their arms. Oliver and Rhodes throw around 1,000 pitches in a season, less than 30% as many as the game's top starters.

"I remember Dwight Gooden pitching eight innings, giving up one or two hits, and then I'd go in there and throw five pitches," says Jesse Orosco, now 54 and living in San Diego. "Everyone would be like, Oh, jeez, go get Jesse some ice." The development of the lefty specialist came along at just the right time for Orosco, against whom lefthanded batters hit .209. Orosco pitched as many as 110 innings in a season in the early 1980s, but no more than 57 between 1991, when he was 34, and his last season in 2003—when lefties still hit only .231 against him. "I believe that becoming a lefty specialist gave me an extra eight years in the big leagues," he says.

After opening the season with six games in balmy Arlington, the Rangers flew north for a 10-day road trip, enduring a stretch of cold and rain. While none of them liked the weather, few liked it less than Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes. "My whole body aches on rainy days," said Rhodes, as they waited out a downpour in Baltimore.

"That's when the arthritis kicks in," Oliver said. "My back."

The rain gave Oliver and Rhodes time to reflect, as did the sight of their teammate Nelson Cruz soft-tossing with his little boy in the florescent twilight of the visitors' clubhouse. Oliver thinks more than ever of sunny Texas golf courses, and of his ongoing swing transition ("The transition is: I need to fix it"), and of his sons, who are now 10 and eight and rambunctious, and could use a father who no longer goes on 10-day road trips.

Rhodes passed out cigars in the Mariners' clubhouse when his wife, Leah, gave birth to his third child and only son, Jordan, in April 2003. "I was a little sad on the mound," he said after his first game back with the team. "It's tough when your kid is at home. I'm going to try to get some rest tonight, but I'll probably be up all night playing with him."

Two summers later Jordan was almost old enough to come to the ballpark with his father, who was an Indian at the time. It was then that doctors found a tumor growing on Jordan's spine. It is not Rhodes's way to share such things, and he informed only his manager, Eric Wedge, and the Cleveland front office. "I didn't want it to get out there," he says.

For the next three years, as Rhodes moved from the Indians to the Phillies to the Mariners to the Marlins, with Tommy John surgery in between, Jordan's cancer spread slowly and inexorably. By the 2008 off-season it had reached his brain. He died that December, at the age of five.

Most of Rhodes's teammates knew nothing of what had happened until last summer, when reporters began asking what it was he always traced with his finger in the mound's dirt. The initials j.r., he explained, were for his son, who died of an illness. He didn't say much more. "I can be pissed off or I can be happy or I can just be quiet," he says. "Once I get quiet, he's on my mind."

As Oliver will soon retire for his family, Rhodes will not, if he can help it, for his family: for his wife, and for his daughters, ages 17 and 10, and, most of all, for Jordan. "He is why I'm still playing," he says. "He only saw me pitch a couple of times. I could never bring him to the field with me when he was sick. I'd love him to come in the clubhouse, run around, do like all the other little boys do. But he's still here. He's still here with me."

If he pitches until he is 47, which would make him one year older than Orosco was when he retired, Rhodes will need to average 58 appearances a season to break his erstwhile teammate's record. Rhodes might be able to do it. With each pitch he delivers, he will stride to the plate with his right leg. On his right calf there is a tattoo of an angel's wings.

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TO PITCH FOREVER, YOU HAVE TO WANT TO PITCH FOREVER. RHODES DOES.

OLIVER (ABOVE) AND RHODES (BELOW) ARE THE LATEST MEMBERS OF AN ORDER OF RELIEVERS WITH A RARE SKILL THAT HAS ALLOWED THEM TO SUSTAIN UNUSUALLY LONG CAREERS: THE ABILITY TO GET LEFTHANDED HITTERS OUT.

1993--98: Rangers

1998--99: Cardinals

2000--01: Rangers

2002: Red Sox

2003: Rockies

2004: Marlins

2004: Astros

2006: Mets

2007--09: Angels

2010--11: Rangers

2011: Rangers

2009--10: Reds

2008: Marlins

2008: Mariners

2006: Phillies

2005: Indians

2004: A's

2000--03: Mariners

1991--99: Orioles

PHOTOPhotograph by DARREN CARROLLLEFTHANDED COMPLEMENTS Rhodes (far left) and Oliver have been crisscrossing the baseball landscape for two decades, and as teammates for the first time in their combined 38 seasons, they give the Rangers' bullpen two strong southpaw options. PHOTODOUG DEVOE PHOTOLENNY IGNELZI/AP PHOTOERIC MILLER/REUTERS PHOTODONALD EDGAR/AP PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOCOURTESY HOUSTON ASTROS PHOTOALLEN KEE/WIREIMAGE.COM PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOBRAD MANGIN PHOTOSCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER PHOTOSTEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COM PHOTODAVID SEELIG/ICON SMI PHOTOAL TIELEMANS PHOTOSCOTT SEWELL/CAL SPORT MEDIA TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS PHOTOERICK W. RASCO PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARISPLENTY LEFT IN THE TANK Texas's grizzled southpaws (with pitching coach Mike Maddux) can get righties out, but retiring lefties helps them stave off retirement.

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)