Reardon, in turn, removes his figurative fire chief's hat in tribute to the save's inventor. "Jerome Holtzman," says Reardon, who is in the final year of a three-year, $6.8 million contract, "is a friend of mine."
Is it any wonder? Holtzman hatched the save while working as the Cubs' beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1960, when ElRoy Face of the Pittsburgh Pirates was believed to be the game's best reliever. "ElRoy Face was 18-1 in 1959, and everybody thought he was great," says Holtzman. "But when a relief pitcher gets a win, that's not good, unless he came into a tie game. Face would come in in the eighth inning and give up the tying run. Then Pittsburgh would come back to win in the ninth."
The Cubs, meanwhile, had a pair of marvelous relief pitchers in righty Don Elston and lefty Bill Henry. Both protected leads like a good editor, but there was no way to quantify their accomplishments. According to Holtzman's first save formula—you can see him scratching out equations like Einstein—a relief pitcher had to enter the game with the tying or go-ahead run on base or at the plate, and he had to finish the game with the lead.
The save formula that baseball's rules committee finally adopted nine years later stipulated that a reliever had to protect a lead until the end of the game or until he was lifted for a pinch hitter or pinch runner. If more than one pitcher qualified, the official scorer judged which of the pitchers was most effective. "But we didn't want it to become a judgment call," says Holtzman. "We didn't want it to become like an assist in basketball."
In 1973 baseball, like Goldilocks, judged the rule to be a little too soft. That's when it was decided that a reliever had to pitch three innings or enter the game with the tying run on base or at the plate. (It was also at this point that the official scorer's discretion was, for all practical purposes, taken out of play.) Too hard, ruled the rules committee two years later, when it was decreed that the tying run could be on deck. Thus was completed the evolution of the save rule we have today.
And be certain of this: The save rule we have today has inflated egos to the size of passenger-side air bags. "From a financial standpoint, I don't think teams put enough emphasis on a closer," says San Diego closer Randy Myers. "They'll pay an every-day player $5 million, but your top relievers, average, are probably only making $3½ million."
Piteous chump change, to be sure, Randy, but without the save rule, relievers wouldn't be making nearly that much jack. "With guys who have been doing what Jeff Reardon is doing," says Reds reliever Norm Charlton, "[the save] is the only way to legitimize their salary. If there's no such thing as a save, what do you look at?"
Anything else, many in the media are now saying. Soon after Reardon's passing of Fingers's record, the St. Louis Cardinals' Lee Smith (326 saves) will overtake Fingers too, and that has lately led columnists to suggest that the save itself is in need of salvation. "What's the most overblown, overrated and overpublicized statistic in baseball?" asked Tom Verducci of New York Newsday last week. "That's easy. It's the save."
Indeed, the raw number of saves reached an alltime high of 1,132 last season, while complete games hit an alltime low of 366. Last week Reardon pitched the ninth inning of a 4-1 win against the California Angels after Red Sox starter Roger Clemens threw a two-hitter for the first eight. "Years ago," says Reardon, "the manager would have never taken the starter out in a situation like that."
Reardon threw 16 pitches that evening in Anaheim. Time was, when the starter got in trouble early, the closer would enter the game in the seventh inning and pitch the rest of the way. "I was always seen as a guy who was good once through the lineup," says Quisenberry, who nevertheless sees "the new wave" of setup men and ninth-inning closers as an improvement. Quiz pitched 139 innings when he saved a then record 45 games in 1983. Reardon pitched 59⅓ innings in saving 40 games last season. Fingers pitched 119 or more innings in a season eight times in his career. Reardon has pitched as many as 100 innings only twice. Fingers will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer. And what about the 36-year-old Reardon?