Rivera, lean, perpetually calm and clean-shaven, is the cutting-edge �bercloser. There is nothing intimidating about him, other than a hellacious cut fastball and a 0.38 postseason ERA. "The best there is," Percival says. Like Rivera, Hoffman, Percival and Robb Nen of the Giants all project an even temperament. All four served apprenticeships as setup men before proving they had the fortitude to close games—and they are the only active pitchers who have saved 30 games in each of the past three seasons.
"Some guys don't have the stomach for pitching the ninth inning," Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly says. "They're great in the eighth but don't want anything to do with the ninth. You have to find out. It might take a while, but you'll find out."
The jury is still out on Kelly's 28-year-old closer, LaTroy Hawkins. The righthander failed as a starter for all or parts of five seasons with the Twins. Last year he was shunted to the bullpen and, around the All-Star break, auditioned as a closer. Suddenly he'd found his niche. Through last Saturday Hawkins had converted 30 of his 32 save opportunities since then. Easy, right? Somebody named Matt Karchner tied a Chicago White Sox record by converting 20 consecutive save chances over the 1997 and '98 seasons. He was traded to the Cubs on July 29, 1998, but didn't record a single save during the parts of three seasons he spent with them and disappeared from the majors. Hawkins, like any aspiring closer, won't know if he's fit for the job until he slumps.
Boston Red Sox reliever Rod Beck, who has 263 career saves, tried to make that point to the team's emerging closer Derek Lowe, while Lowe was converting 42 of 47 save chances last year. "I told Derek, 'Listen, I don't expect you to understand this, but you have no idea what this job is about.' " Lowe wound up pitching in 74 games and went 4-4. "I thought it was the greatest job in the world," Lowe says. "This year I was 1-5 after 11 games! Self-doubt began to creep into my mind. I got beat three times on curveballs. I got beat on pitches in the hittable zone, whereas last year they were sinking out of the hittable zone. It hurt. Your team works all game long to get you the ball, and then you lose it. I've learned you have to push away that doubt. Now I'm trying to go out there and just pitch, and whatever happens, happens. I don't want to feel as if it's life or death."
The Texas Rangers promoted setup man Tim Crabtree to closer after John Wetteland retired at the end of last season. The 31-year-old Crabtree is a six-year veteran with a live fastball and a hard slider, the kind of pitches that baseball people like to call "closer's stuff" because managers typically like strikeout pitchers to throw the last inning. (The theory is that the less often the ball is put in play, the less can go wrong.) After six weeks—including three on the DL with lower-back pain—and two blown saves. Crabtree lost his closing duties, "You think you're ready, but it's something you're not going to understand until you go through it," Crabtree says. "As a setup man I pretty much knew when I was pitching. Jeff Zimmerman and I knew it was one guy on and the other guy off every night.
"What I found with closing is you have to recharge yourself every night," Crabtree continues. "Every day you're on call for that ninth inning. Mentally, that gets tiring. The other difference is when you blow a game. You feel like you let down 24 guys and seven coaches and management. It's tough to look your teammates in the eye after they worked so hard to get a lead for eight innings over three hours and you lose it just like that. When you don't get it done, it's more frustrating than just having a bad outing as a setup man."
In the 1992 draft the Cleveland Indians used their first pick on North Carolina righthander Paul Shuey with the intent of grooming him as a closer. Shuey is 30 and has still never been a full-time closer in the big leagues. The Indians have converted a succession of former starters and setup men—Jose Mesa, Mike Jackson and Steve Karsay—into closers in that time, and last year they traded a rising star slugger, Richie Sexson, to get another closer, Bob Wick-man, but Shuey still has not graduated from pitching the seventh and eighth innings. " Shuey has power stuff, three 'plus' pitches that give him closer's stuff," Cleveland assistant general manager Mark Shapiro says. "But closing is not just stuff. Strike-throwing consistency is huge. He's had problems repeating his delivery. That's not unusual for pitchers who have violence in their delivery."
Rivera has an easy motion, and his ability to throw strikes is yet another element that sets him apart. He is so efficient with his pitches that Yankees manager Joe Torre often uses him in the eighth inning, knowing Rivera can throw more than one inning and still pitch the next day. Through the first 10 weeks of this season he had pitched more than one inning to get a save six times, the most in the majors. Over the same period 17 closers, including Alfonseca, Benitez, Hawkins and Wickman, had yet to work more than one inning for a save.
The closer isn't a modern invention, only a modern convention. Firpo Marberry saved 22 games for the 1926 Washington Senators without starting a trend. (The save rule was established in 1969; previous totals have been derived by researchers from box scores and game accounts.) Marberry's "record" stood for 23 years, during which complete games were common and most teams used their starting pitchers out of the bullpen between starts. The success of the Yankees' Joe Page, a mediocre starter, as a relief pitcher from 1947 through '49 prompted other teams to employ a specialist who was summoned in close games, regardless of which team was winning. Roy Face won a record 18 games in relief for the 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates in that manner.
Then, in 1979, Chicago Cubs manager Herman Franks came up with a novel way to use Bruce Sutter, his relief specialist, who was on the DL with a pulled muscle in '77 and was arm weary in the second half of '78. Franks lightened Sutter's load by using him only if the Cubs were winning. Franks was ahead of his time. (However, he resigned before the end of that season and never managed again.) In the late '80s La Russa, then the Oakland A's manager, refined the job further with Dennis Eckersley, who was used mostly when the A's had a lead and only to start the ninth inning.