What would my idol say about K-Rod's chase of the saves record?
Frankie Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels has reached 40 saves faster than any pitcher in history and is making a run at the single season record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen of the 1990 White Sox. That's great for K-Rod, but for anybody with a cursory understanding of the save rule and the job description for the modern closer, it brings one question to mind: What the heck does it mean?
Hits, doubles, triples, wins, strikeouts, home runs ... we get how such records convey a shorthand for greatness. (Well, OK, maybe not so much home runs in the juiced-player era.) But saves? The value saves carry is only slightly higher than Monopoly money.
This is not the kind of value envisioned by the late Jerome Holtzman, the gentleman and gifted writer who is recognized as the father of the save rule, though the qualifications for a save were watered down from his original premise. Holtzman, who died last Saturday, was every bit the template of what a professional baseball writer should be. He so loved the game and its people that he unfailingly brought a smile to the ballpark. Even the inevitable calamities of the job -- a balky laptop on deadline, a surly ballplayer, a ninth-inning comeback to make moot the column he'd just filed -- would be met by Jerome's ceaseless charm and wit, the weapons against which cynicism had no chance.
As a young writer starting out, I marveled at his enthusiasm and curiosity. I also considered myself fortunate to have known his generosity. See, Jerome, known to everybody in and out of uniform, dressed in a suit with suspenders, cigar smoke swirling about his head, almost as if there were column ideas in those blue-gray clouds, was an icon of the keyboard. And yet he treated me, a nobody, a kid so green I once put my chunky computer through checked baggage on one flight (it survived), as a welcomed peer. He introduced me to players and executives with his seal of approval, an endorsement in the writing business none other could surpass. I took to calling him "my idol," making sure to laugh when I said it, to keep the compliment unvarnished, because I knew Jerome wasn't one for fuss and status. We were all brothers in baseball and in writing. But there was great truth in my small joking with Jerome. His kindness, a great, wide reservoir of kindness, truly was something for the rest of us to aspire.
In the pre-Internet days, reading Jerome ranked with Wrigley, Eli's Steakhouse and Rush Street as what defined the quintessential Chicago to a baseball writer. His columns sparkled with dead-on observations and dialogue (he would often include himself in the treatment) that revealed the game and, more so, the people who played it. We laughed, amazed, that Jerome's technique was the equivalent of turning on a camcorder and capturing in raw footage what was happening on the field and in the clubhouse. The simplicity of it was brilliant, but the genius of it was Jerome's touch. He knew where to find a column and knew the questions and how to ask them (fearlessly).