One night in 1978 New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson waited for Rich Gossage on the mound at Yankee Stadium. Gossage had been summoned from the bullpen to save a game. He was in a terrible slump. This was his first season with New York after the club had signed him as a free agent, displacing the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Sparky Lyle, as the team's closer. Yankees fans booed him. Things were going so badly for Gossage that when he reached the mound Munson said, "So, how are you going to blow this one?"
"I don't know," Gossage barked back. "Get your ass behind the plate, and we'll find out."
Gossage lasted 22 seasons in the big leagues, most of them as a closer, and rang up 310 saves. The closer "is only one pitch from disaster all the time," he says. Like Benitez, he forged a gunslinger's reputation with an imposing physical bearing and a fastball that looked angry, like one of those pets that resembles its owner.
"I joke about it now," Gossage says. "People go, 'God, Goose, you looked so mean!' I was scared to death. Fear of failure is a big motivator. When you're a closer, every game is huge. You're out there on the mound s———- down your leg, the game is on the line, you've got all this adrenaline running through your body, and somehow you've got to get ahold of your emotions.
"When you fail, it's awful. Sometimes I drank. Sometimes I just sat around the clubhouse. You go home, you have trouble sleeping. First thing when you wake up, you feel that sinking feeling in your stomach. It's like waking up to a disaster, almost like a sickness in your family. It's almost too much to take. Sometimes the pressure did get to me. Sometimes I'd be short with my family. They suffered."
The physical demands of the closer's job have eased since pitchers like Gossage were asked to put out fires in the seventh inning and finish the game. Today's closers might throw little more than half the innings of their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, who often did more than 100 innings of heavy lifting in a season. The evolution of specialized layers of relief pitching also has turned the closer's job into such a well-insulated one that the term fireman has disappeared from baseball vernacular. The typical closer doesn't answer distress calls anymore. He usually enters a game with no one on base and is asked to pitch no more than one inning. For instance, Antonio Alfonseca of the Florida Marlins led the majors with 45 saves last season and never entered a game with the tying run on base. Ryan Kohlmeier of the Baltimore Orioles, who is 23 years old and has 19 career saves, receives the treatment of a sultan; he hadn't worked more than one inning at a time until last Saturday, when he pitched 1? against the Montreal Expos. Jeff Shaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched exactly one inning in 28 of his first 30 appearances this season.
As closers have moved more deeply into the realm of highly specialized labor, the mental toll has become more problematic than the physical one. A closer will pitch only about 5% of his team's innings over the course of a season—and spend the other 95% of the time waiting, like a storm chaser, for the confluence of events that requires him to go to work. Surviving the nightly anxiety, and those inevitable episodes of abject failure, are the most difficult parts of the job.
There is an old saying among closers that the most important qualification for the job is a short memory. "I learned from Lee Smith," Anaheim Angels closer Troy Percival says of the alltime saves leader, whose major league career ended in 1997. "I've seen him give up a game-winning grand slam, and 10 minutes later in the clubhouse you'd never know it. He'd be his usual self."
"I get over the bad games right away," says the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who shows as little emotion as any closer in baseball. "Sometimes I've let it go even before I've left the mound. That quick. Why? Because it's over. What can you do about it? Nothing. The only thing you can do is fight if you're still in the game. After that you can do nothing."
Closers like Benitez and John Rocker of the Atlanta Braves, whose engines always redline, are increasingly rare. Baseball executives fear that those emotional, maximum-effort pitchers will flame out the way Rob Dibble did. The former hard-throwing Cincinnati Reds righthander blew out his arm and was finished as a closer at 29. He saved 20 games in a season only twice.