Some are about Reggie Jackson’s swing, Mickey Rivers’ love of handicapping horses, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, the fact that Steve Carlton did everyone a favor by not talking to the press, and of course the dervish that is Larry Bowa.
But lately, the waxing on here has been about the relief pitcher of the 1970s, particularly end-of-the game types like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and (of course) Rollie Fingers. All three of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame and all three blew saves like crazy.
But aside from the romanticism applied to the era of my childhood, I also have a bit of a crush on the way the game was played back then. For one thing the thinking wasn’t as compartmentalized as it is now. People didn’t treat baseball strategy as if it were some sort of scientific dissertation with statistics, or worse, like baseball was played as if it were football with the division of labor, constant meetings and basic boringness.
For instance, a pitcher named Will McEnaney was on the mound to close out the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1975 World Series - that series was regarded by some to be one of the greatest World Series ever played. But have you ever heard of Will McEnaney? The chances are that you never heard that name in your life (unless you are a baseball geek of the highest order) simply because McEnaney saved exactly 32 games in his six-year career, including that one in seventh game of the ’75 World Series.
The thing about that was McEnaney didn’t even lead the ’75 Reds in saves. Rawly Eastwick led the team and the league with 22 saves that year, but manager Sparky Anderson needed his “closer” in five other games in the series and for two others in the three-game NLCS.
In other words, ol’ Sparky Anderson went with the best guy he had at the time. That simply was the norm back then. If a team needed a big out in the seventh inning, it wasn’t uncommon for “the closer” to come into the game. It also wasn’t uncommon for the so-called closer to finish up from the seventh inning on. But if that guy got into trouble there were always a few pitchers like Will McEnaney ready to mop up in the ninth.
This evening I was discussing the very subject with Gary Matthews and mentioned how many four-inning saves Gossage used to get - especially in the final months of the season. Matthews said he remembered facing The Goose in those days and used to complain that "it's not time for him yet."
Hell, back then the hitters didn't want to have to face the closer any more than they had to, but these days they only get an inning.
So what does this have to do with Charlie Manuel and Brad Lidge?
Unlike football, Manuel does not have to label his “closer” before the game as if he were the quarterback or backup or whatever. Labeling a guy a set-up man or a closer and having such hard and fast defined roles is part of that compartmentalized thinking that is so maddening. Maybe the labels and defined roles help folks understand the game better? Maybe the game has been so crunched down and beaten up by statistical analysis that there has to be a signaling of roles for everyone involved. If someone isn't a closer or a set-up man, what is he?
"We called them relief pitchers," Sarge told me.
Manuel is a victim of this thinking, too. Clearly it drives him nuts because Charlie came from the 1970s. He played under managers like Bill Rigney, Billy Martin and Walter Alston. Those were the days when it was OK to color outside of the lines, so to speak. That was the era when the closer changed from game-to-game just like the starting pitcher.
But really, if you really want to know who Manuel’s “closer” will be from here on out, follow one of his old idioms: “Watch the game.”
If you watch the game and see Brad Lidge or Ryan Madson or Brett Myers get the last out of the game, that just might be your closer. Oh sure, he might say Lidge is guy with the label of “closer” just to make easier for everyone to understand, but actions speak louder than words.
Here’s what Charlie says:
“When I tell you he's my closer, I don't tell lies. I don't like to go back on nothing. But the team and the game is bigger than my heart and it's bigger than anything else, if you want to know the truth. Winning a game is what it's all about. It's baseball and why I manage and it's what comes first.”
That means, “watch the game.” Just because a guy is called the “closer,” doesn’t mean he has to be the last pitcher of the game. It also stands to reason that the Phillies' closer hasn't stepped forward yet. Think back to a few World Series winners this decade and you will find championship teams whose closer did not emerge until the last month of the season. There was Francisco Rodriguez setting up in 2002 for the Angels, Bobby Jenks closing games for the White Sox in 2005 and Adam Wainwright stepping up to do the same for the Cardinals in 2006.
Maybe the Phillies are just like those teams?
This ain’t football, folks.