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The Pen Ultimate
Steve Rushin
June 08, 1992
Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon is about to overtake Rollie Fingers as baseball's alltime save leader, but with saves as cheap as they are today, how much is that record really worth?
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June 08, 1992

The Pen Ultimate

Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon is about to overtake Rollie Fingers as baseball's alltime save leader, but with saves as cheap as they are today, how much is that record really worth?

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Save Inflation

Since their introduction in 1969, saves have shown some ups and downs that reflected changes in the rules, but the steady increase in their frequency over the past 10 years indicates a sea change in the way relievers are used.

PERCENTAGE OF GAMES WITH A SAVE

1969

38%

1970

46%

1971

35%

1972

40%

1973
Rule change

42%

1974

28%

1975
Rule change

32%

1976

35%

1977

40%

1978

38%

1979

39%

1980

43%

1981

44%

1982

45%

1983

47%

1984

48%

1985

46%

1986

48%

1987

46%

1988

51%

1989

52%

1990

54%

1991

55%

1992*

53%

52.4%

*Through May 30

Perhaps you've noticed. The men at the top of baseball's alltime saves list are at the bottom of baseball's alltime shaves list. "Facial hair," says Jeff Reardon, the Boston Red Sox relief pitcher whose visage is landscaped with luxurious mug shrubbery. "It seems like most great relievers have some kind of facial hair. That's not why I grew mine—I just hate to shave. But you're right. I have noticed that."

Baseball's closers have, historically, come from a can of mixed mustachioed nuts. And Reardon has closed more often than the most prolific of Century 21 agents: Through Sunday, Reardon's 339 career saves left him three short of breaking the alltime mark held by Hall of Famer-elect Rollie Fingers. Fingers, you'll recall, carried his teammates on the waxed handlebars of his curlicue mustache. Remember, too, the road-kill beards of Bruce Sutter (300 saves) and Gene Garber (218), the hood-ornament-steer-horns 'stache of Sparky Lyle (222) and the fearsome Fus of Goose Gossage (308) and Mike Marshall (178).

Long before the invention of the Gillette Atra twin-blade razor, these flamboyant relievers were causing heads to pivot. But few got the attention, adulation or remuneration afforded today's premier closers. In fact, the term closer doesn't do justice to the glamorous head-liners of the 1990s. Does Sinatra close for Steve and Eydie? No. They open for him, much as starter Tom Browning opens for stopper Rob Dibble in Cincinnati.

The reason: the save. The save has saved bullpen stoppers from the kind of obscurity suffered by the wretched middle reliever. "I knew the save would be important," says Jerome Holtzman, the eminent Chicago baseball writer who invented the statistic 32 years ago and saw it officially adopted in 1969. "It was the first major scoring change that baseball made since RBIs in the 1920s. But I had no idea it would become as big as it has."

Not that there isn't still some confusion over what constitutes a save. "I was never good enough at math to know whether or not I was entering a game in a save situation," says former relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry, he of the 244 career saves.

A relief pitcher receives a save if he does one of the following:

1) Pitches three effective innings to end the game, regardless of the size of his team's lead when he enters. "It can be 100 to nothing," notes Reardon.

2) Pitches one full inning to end the game after entering with a lead of three runs or fewer. "Nobody likes the three-run rule," says Baltimore Oriole closer Gregg Olson, "except for the closers."

3) Closes the game after entering with a lead of three runs or fewer and with the tying run on base, at the plate or on deck. (On deck? How much of a threat is a man kneeling on a circular portrait of Chief Wahoo? you might well ask.)

It is those three little clauses that have forged baseball's closers into a tight fraternal organization, one that even has the requisite funny hats. "Every Fireman of the Year has to tip his fireman's hat in Reardon's direction," says Quisenberry.

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