ESPN the Magazine ESPN


ESPNMAG.com
In This Issue
Backtalk
Message Board
Customer Service
SPORT SECTIONS







The Life


September 9, 2002
The Perfect Closer
ESPN The Magazine

You can purchase a new, clean cap just like this one at the souvenir stand. Anybody with $25 and a head can wear one. But a new, clean cap says nothing about its owner, nothing beyond simple allegiance or sense of fashion. This cap, though, the cap in question, sitting on the top shelf of No.38's locker -- about head-high -- well, this cap is significant. It's ripped and stained and misshapen. The sweat marks start near the bill and work their way upward, like topographical lines. This cap has character. This cap talks to you.

Eric Gagne
 
This is Eric Gagne's cap, his work cap, the cap he has been wearing since the second week of spring training. It sits in his locker, as if topping a shrine, until roughly the sixth or seventh inning of every Dodger game. Then, when Gagne's shift draws near, the cap goes on his head and he goes to work.

If you ask, he will tell you a dull story of the cap, how he worked it in perfectly to fit with his goggles back in Florida and doesn't want to take the time to train a new one. You can believe that if you want -- his astigmatism renders him almost legally blind, so there is at least a kernel of truth there -- or you can believe that Gagne got a new job this spring, about the time he got the cap, and he has been nearly invincible since. What better way to end a good time than to change caps?

He sits on a chair below the cap and says, "You look at this thing, you know what you went through. It means something. It's become the routine now: I put that on, I'm ready to work."

Gagne's first year as a closer is the stuff of myth. He was the fastest in history to 30 saves and is a legitimate threat to Bobby Thigpen's single-season save record of 57. He went 16 days without allowing a baserunner (April 12-27). He went nearly two months (May 5 to July 2) without issuing a walk. His antifashion appearance -- the cap, thick goggles, grunge goatee -- inspired a T-shirt sold at Dodger Stadium. A likeness of Gagne's face hovers above two simple words: Game Over.

Given this budding mythology, there's a chance each sweat ring will come to represent a save. One myth, however, should be put to rest: The cap is not dirty. Gagne is disturbed by this assumption. "It's clean," he says. "It's just stained and ripped and stuff. There's a lot of hard work in there."

This cap, then, provides just a tiny glimpse into Gagne's world. Enter at your own risk.

This cap explains, at least partially, a man for whom "goon" is not only a term of endearment but once was considered a viable career option as well. It explains why his hands and knuckles are covered with raised, wormlike scars from so many hockey fights. It explains another scar -- again hockey, this time double-figure stitches -- beneath his lower lip, amid the flora and fauna of his facial hair.

It also gets you a little closer to understanding how this 26-year-old Montreal native, who spent three years battling his own emotions as a starter, has found a measure of catharsis as a closer, the one job in baseball where self-control and restraint are looked upon as professional failings.

And, finally, by this point the cap may at least lead you to understand why Gagne (pronounced gan-YAY), sitting in the dugout at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, wants to fight. Not right now, three hours before game time, but at some point during the night he'd at least like to have the option. It's a surprisingly humid late July afternoon in San Diego. The Dodgers have lost 10 of 12 and Gagne is looking for a little outlet. It's nothing personal; he has no quarrel with the Padres. It's just time. "One thing about this game: It's really frustrating," he says ("frus-TRAY-ting," through his French-Canadian accent). "In hockey, if your team's losing, you can start a fight. You can get your frustrations out."

Baseball frustration just sits there, usually, until someone throws a ball at a hitter's body or launches into a spasmodic attack on an umpire. (Gagne's version of this came on Aug.1, after he was ejected from a game in Cincinnati by umpire Dan Iassogna for hitting Adam Dunn with a pitch.) This whole repression thing bothers Gagne, because as he looks at his team's situation on this night, he has made the following assessment: If this were hockey, he'd come raging out of the bullpen in about the fourth or fifth inning, choose the biggest guy out there and start fighting. "Then it would be over after 30 seconds and everybody would get back to playing, no hard feelings," he says. "In hockey, that's how it works. I was a goon, the guy who does the police work. In a way, that's kind of what I do now. The closer is the closest thing to a goon in baseball. Maybe that's why I like it so much."

***

Dodger reliever Paul Quantrill is issuing an alert: "Standard Goon article going on," he calls out to penmates Jesse Orosco and Terry Mulholland, whom LA would trade on July 28. Among the three -- lockered side by side by side -- are 47 seasons of big league experience. Upon hearing Quantrill, Orosco and Mulholland both roll their eyes, as if they're ditch-diggers who've been asked to dig six more.

"What's it this time?" Orosco asks.

"Goon's brownnosing again, saying we taught him everything he knows," Quantrill says. "How can that be true when he's just a big dumb animal who throws 100 mph? I guess we should say we taught him everything he knows, then ask for 20% of his next deal."

"Sounds about right," Mulholland says.

Despite his 46 saves in 50 opportunities and near-comic dominance of opposing hitters, Gagne's penmates have a serious problem with him: He's horrible on the bag. The junior member of the Dodgers bullpen must carry the bag from clubhouse to bullpen before every game. The bag contains all the necessary provisions -- seeds, gum, chew, drinks. Some teams attempt to make the chore as humiliating as possible. The Padres' bag, for instance, is a pink Barbie backpack. The Dodgers, mercifully, use a standard leather ball bag.

"He can close, but he does a horsebleep job on the bag," Quantrill says. "It's just a lack of preparation. You've got to make sure there are some seeds in there. Not barbecue seeds, because nobody eats those. He consistently forgets to reload the seeds and gum -- horrible selection of gum. Drinks? Inconsistent. He brings down the drinks we like one day, then the next day you get a hodgepodge of garbage. I guess it's just a maturity thing."

Eventually, the conversation turns into a serious discussion of Goon's abilities. "He's devastating," Quantrill says. "He throws 95 to 100 mph, he can put it pretty much where he wants it and his best pitch is his changeup. That's pretty scary."

Orosco, standing off to the side, stuffs his cap onto his head and grabs his glove out of his locker. In a deadpan groomed over more than 22 years in the bigs, he looks over his shoulder on his way out of the room and says, "Me? Honestly, I don't know how he's closing with the stuff he throws up there."

***

Padre outfielder Trenidad Hubbard is standing at the plate, full of hope and preparation, watching a two-strike pitch approach him with the speed and trajectory of an object being dropped out of the sky. It is 0-2, and this pitch makes strike three a mere formality. No amount of preparation could prepare Hubbard for this morphine drip of a pitch. He is watching, narcotized and powerless. It floats just above his knees, the ump throws his right arm into the air and Hubbard heads for the dugout.

Eric Gagne
Gagne's intensity is what every team wants in a closer.
Strike one was 97 mph on the outside corner. Strike two was 97 over the heart of the plate. On those, Hubbard had a chance. "I would have hit 'em if they'd been 95 instead of 97," he says. But then, down 0-2, Hubbard faced the Gagne curveball.

The next day, Hubbard stood in his locker with a bemused look on his face. "Someone told me he used his breaking pitch as a 'show' pitch. Yeah, right. I call it a 'show-you-back-to-the-dugout' pitch. There needs to be an ordinance against that, something like, 'You can't reduce speed from one pitch to the next by 20 mph.'" He should talk to Shawon Dunston, Benito Santiago and Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Gagne whiffed them all in a game against the Giants, throwing 11 of 13 pitches for strikes. "Most dominant single inning I've witnessed," says Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn.

Gagne's four-pitch repertoire is unique for a closer, as is his ability to show hitters pitches that fall into three speed categories. His fastball consistently hits 97 mph, his changeup runs 85-87 and mimics a split-finger. He throws a slider on occasion. And if you get too deep in the count or he's feeling playful, you'll get the Hubbard treatment -- a 75 mph curveball that needs a parachute. "If you get a 97 mph fastball," says Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca, "you better hit it. It might be your only chance. And the scary part? He's still learning."

That Gagne has this job at all is a product of circumstance and need. The Dodgers had at least an outline of a plan, of course, because they knew Gagne had closer stuff, a closer mentality, and a disappointing 1114 record in three scattered years as a starter. The Dodger braintrust -- senior VP for baseball operations David Wallace, GM Dan Evans and manager Jim Tracy -- knew Gagne's hockey-inspired attitudes had a chance to carry him through the ninth inning.

In the name of patience, Tracy instituted a dreaded "closer by committee" policy coming out of spring training. Then on April 11 against the Giants, with Gagne on the mound, one out and Barry Bonds coming to the plate in the ninth inning, Tracy went to the mound to replace Gagne with Orosco, whose 45-year-old left arm is one of Bonds' least favorite (3-for-23, .130 career average against Orosco). As he got closer to the mound, Tracy realized he was being stared down. "I could see in Eric's eyes he had something he needed to show me," Tracy says. "His eyes said, 'Don't you dare take me out.'" And since it was April, not September, Tracy patted Gagne on the butt and said, "It's your game. Have some fun."

How many games did Tracy win by walking off that mound? This year, next year, the years after? Gagne walked Bonds intentionally, struck out Jeff Kent and got Reggie Sanders to fly out to end it. The next day the committee consisted of one man.

Gagne's style can be described, affectionately, as feral. In the late innings, he stretches violently in the bullpen, with his glove draped over his head. He works himself into a pretty fierce psychological lather, telling himself the opposition wants to take his job, beat him up, leave him for dead. "Anything I can think of to get pissed," he says. Before this year, he had the same approach, but he was expected to make it last through at least six innings. Before a start he'd turn the heavy metal up high in the clubhouse and pump himself up. He prepared obsessively between starts, watching videotape after videotape to discern hitters' weaknesses, but game day was not a cerebral exercise.

He learned English the same way, more or less. Gagne spoke only French until he left Montreal for Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. He taped his instructors and listened to them repeatedly. That's why he must be the only known human with an accent that sounds like the latest in trendy fusion cuisine: French-Canadian-Okie.

As a closer, studious has given way to ornery. He does what he does best and lets the hitters sort out the rest. "I don't think about delivery, I don't think about mechanics," he says. "I just think about throwing hard." Says Padres closer Trevor Hoffman: "His enthusiasm for the game fits the role of closer. The mystique he brings to the mound is great, but it pales in comparison to the stuff he brings. It's one thing to be flamboyant or have antics, but you can't intimidate big league hitters."

Take Gagne's 29th save, June 28 at Anaheim. The Angels Rally Monkey is going nuts on the big screen as Gagne barges in from the bullpen. The sound system is blaring something heavy and metal. This is meant to fire up the home team, so why is Lo Duca, catching these turbocharged warmup pitches, laughing to himself? Because this music, this Rally Monkey business -- it was all a severe miscalculation. "I thought to myself, 'They chose the wrong guy tonight,'" Lo Duca says. "This guy likes the pressure. He likes the attention."

What Lo Duca saw was this: Gagne on the mound, singing and yelling, tilting his head back under that tattered cap and howling to the skies. Bouncing, even, keeping time with the monkey. Here was the feral closer, letting it loose. To Lo Duca and the Dodgers, this scene can be summed up in two words: Game Over.

This article appears in the September 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.


Latest Issue


Also See
Keown: Case closed
In taking a chance on Eric ...

Eric Gagne player page
Super saver

L.A. Dodgers clubhouse
Dodging an early off-season

MLB front page
The latest news and stats

ESPNMAG.com
Who's on the cover today?

SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...


 ESPN Tools
Email story
 
Most sent
 
Print story
 


Customer Service

SUBSCRIBE
GIFT SUBSCRIPTION
CHANGE OF ADDRESS

CONTACT US
CHECK YOUR ACCOUNT
BACK ISSUES

ESPN.com: Help | Media Kit | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | PR
Copyright ©2002 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. For ESPN the Magazine customer service (including back issues) call 1-888-267-3684. Click here if you're having problems with this page.