Today, in a game so rich in strategic possibilities that half the fun is kicking around the what-would-you-have-dones, every manager agrees in Stepford-like fashion exactly how to run a bullpen. No manager dares use his best reliever to pitch to the middle of the order in the seventh inning—and seldom in the eighth—of a close game. No manager dares not to use his closer with a lead of three runs or less in the ninth, the main requirement for a save. Percival, in fact, will start warming for those situations without Angels manager Mike Scioscia's even calling the bullpen. No other statistic dictates actual strategic decisions the way the save does. Indeed, if a home team adds a fourth run to its lead in the eighth, inning, the closer will stop warming. Someone else will pitch the ninth.
"A good strategy is to try to build on a good year," La Russa says about the three-run gimme save. "How does he get a good year going? By piling up saves, like a hitter hits .300 or a starting pitcher gets wins. So, if you have a three-run lead and your closer is available, you ought to get him that one because he's going to have plenty of one-run leads."
Bobby Thigpen of the White Sox set the single-season save record with 57 in 1990. Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Seattle Mariners, who had 24 through last Saturday, could challenge the mark because he pitches for a winning team that plays close games and has four reliable setup men to preserve leads.
Still, in this Age of the Specialized Bullpen, the irony is that, despite the "advances" made in establishing layers of relief pitchers, teams are no more successful at protecting late leads now than they were 10 or 20 years ago—in fact, they are slightly worse. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams taking a one-run lead into the ninth inning last season won 83.9% of the time. Given a one-or two-run lead heading into the ninth, they won 88.7%. In 1990 those conversion rates were 86.4% and 90.7%, respectively. If you go back to 1980, a year in which only three pitchers saved 30 or more games (15 did so last year) and the idea of paying a setup man $4 million was absurd, teams cashed in 84.7% and 89.6% of such opportunities, a better rate than they do today.
Get the ball to the closer has become the unchallenged strategy. No starting pitcher has ended a World Series with a complete game since Jack Morris of the Twins did it in 1991. No team that played a full season has won a world championship without a closer getting 30 saves since the 1988 Dodgers, who split the job primarily among Jay Howell, Jesse Orosco and Alejandro Pena (who combined for 42). "You want a guy who creates the feeling that when he comes in, the game's over," says Scioscia, the catcher for that '88 L.A. team. "You have to use your closer carefully, because you don't want to burn him out, but you can't be afraid to use him when a save situation comes up. You worry most about the mental grind with a closer, and that's why you look for a guy with the mental makeup to handle the job."
The ones who survive the anxiety and the failure usually forge their own kind of mental armor, tricks of their trade that become as unique as a family crest. "You have to treat every day the same," Beck says, "until it feels like Groundhog Day" Smith would nap on a training table for the first six innings. Percival would gulp down a six-pack of cola and a dozen cups of coffee every night—until a biochemist told him last winter that his body was grossly dehydrated because of all the caffeine. ( Percival has cut his coffee intake to five cups, maybe three of which are decaffeinated, while drinking a gallon of water daily.) When Tom Gordon saved 46 games in 47 opportunities for Boston in 1998, he spent the early innings of every game chomping fried chicken in the office of manager Jimy Williams.
Hoffman spends most of the game in the clubhouse "developing a little quiet zone" while watching television, stretching and getting a massage. "If I time it right, I'll get to the bullpen five or 10 minutes before I come into the game," he says. Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros, currently on the DL with a mild strain in his left forearm, throws four warmup pitches—and four pitches only, rather than the customary eight—when he enters a game "because I want everybody to know I mean business and I'm ready to go." For three years Billy Koch of the Toronto Blue Jays has carried a stuffed goat, a gift from his sister in homage to his wispy goatee.
Facial hair, in fact, is to closers what masks were to Greek thespians. From Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers (handlebar mustache) to Gossage (Fu Manchu) to Al Hrabosky (horseshoe mustache) to Eckersley (swarthy mustache) to Doug Jones (push-broom-style mustache) to Kerry Ligtenberg (Edwardian sideburns) to Koch, closers have a long history of assuming an identity through the creative growth of facial hair, whether intimidation is their motivation or not. "Hey, I waited 27 years to grow anything on my face," says Wagner, who sports a mustache and goatee. "I was trying to get out of that Billy the Kid phase."
Says Gossage, "People think I grew the Fu Manchu to intimidate people. That wasn't it at all. I grew it to piss off [George] Steinbrenner."
Some of the worst emotional meltdowns in baseball history involve closers. Dibble ripped off his jersey—buttons popping—as he walked off the mound at Shea Stadium after a blown save. Righetti heaved a baseball from the mound over the right centerfield wall of Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. A depressed Donnie Moore killed himself in 1989, and many acquaintances believe he did it in part because he never got over losing the 1986 American League Championship Series game that would have put the Angels in the World Series.