One Eighteenth of a ball game belongs to Eric Gagn�, and in that fraction he defines himself. "I'm me on the mound," the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer says. "I like to show my emotion, be real aggressive and give everything I've got for one half inning. I don't have to act. What you see on the mound is what I am in real life."
With his headbanger's demeanor, menacing entrance—the bullpen gate swings open like a saloon door and an eardrum-thrumming Guns N' Roses riff blares over the P.A. system as he walks slowly to the mound—and two near-unhittable pitches, Gagn� has fast become baseball's most overpowering finisher. Through Sunday he had been brought in to save 74 games since April 2002 and had done so 70 times; he also had a 1.93 ERA and 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings, the best strikeout rate in the majors over that span. "Not only does he go out and get it done," says Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, "but he gets it done with such devastation. That's how he's built a reputation so quickly."
On May 16, against the Florida Marlins, Gagn� began a virtuoso stretch in which he would retire 18 of 19 batters, 14 of them by strikeout, and save six consecutive games as Los Angeles won 10 straight and gained a tie for first place with the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. A chill wind whipped through Dodger Stadium that night as Gagn� toddled in from the bullpen to Welcome to the Jungle, looking as if he were walking off a B-movie production lot in Burbank. His uniform shirt untucked, his cap crammed low over Oakley goggles, an underbrush of goatee around his chin, Gagn� finished his warmups as Axl Rose let loose a protracted howl. "There's something about putting on the closer's clothes that gives Eric a special armor of invincibility," says pitching coach Jim Colborn. "The music, the demeanor, the style—he's not just a pitcher coming out of the pen, there's an aura coming with him."
Gagn� madly windmilled his right arm and then threw baby jabs with his bare right hand as he pawed at the mound with his spikes. Like all of his childhood friends in Mascouche, Que., an eastern suburb of Montreal, Gagn� played hockey. He was a burly defenseman always up for a fight—he compares himself with Derian Hatcher, the snarling Dallas Stars captain—and when he flexes his knuckles, he displays a crisscross of white scars.
Gagn� golfs for fun but admits to having broken three or four clubs and pitched as many into lakes. During one minor league season he was ejected five times for throwing beanballs. "He's an ornery guy," says Lloyd Simmons, Gagn�'s coach at Seminole ( Okla.) State College in 1995, "but if a ballplayer doesn't have a little orneriness, you're wasting your time."
The most common explanation for Gagn�'s successful conversion to closer—before changing jobs early last year he was 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA in parts of three seasons as a starter—is that pitching in the ninth inning better suits his personality. "Being a starter, you have to be more mellow, more relaxed," Gagn� says. "It was boring. I'm not that kind of guy." Although the lower pitch counts in relief appearances have allowed him to speed up his fastball from the low 90s to the mid-90s, the primary benefit of the switch has been that Gagn� no longer has to endure four off days between performances. As a starter he would watch video of himself obsessively, then replay at bats in his mind, beating himself up over mistakes. He relishes the closer's quick turnaround and the amnesia that is essential to the job.
After he enters a game, Gagn� stands behind the mound, drinking in the noise. "Sometimes, I just step off to feel the energy?' he says. "The louder [the fans] get, the better I feel. Nothing else goes through my mind." He has always been a bit unconventional, moving out of his parents' home at 15 and into a downtown Montreal apartment provided by the sports-oriented high school at which Gagn� was majoring in baseball. "I just had so much more fun playing baseball than hockey," he says, "maybe because I dominated."
At 18 he was chosen in the 30th round of the 1994 draft by the Chicago White Sox, but he did not sign, enrolling instead at Seminole on a baseball scholarship. Gagn� didn't speak English but picked it up by attending two tutoring sessions a day, listening to audiotapes of lectures for hours and watching sitcoms such as Mad about You and Everybody Loves Raymond. ("Twenty times a show, somebody comes in the door and asks, 'How you doin'?' " Gagn� says. "It's pretty easy to follow.")
Through a technicality Gagn� became a free agent, and Claude Pelletier, a Montreal-based Dodgers scout who had been tracking him, persuaded L.A. to sign him. "He had so-so stuff and a lot of baby fat, but when you see a 16-year-old throwing his fastball close to 90 with great command, you take notice," Pelletier says.
In the Dodgers' system Gagn� learned to finesse hitters. Most closers depend on one pitch that becomes synonymous with their success: Trevor Hoffman's changeup, Mariano Rivera's cut fastball. Gagn� thrives on the dizzying oscillation between his changeup and his fastball. They have the same release point and the same arm speed. The fastball is straight gas—"It always exploded out of his hand," Simmons says—but the changeup is a devious thing, a bowling ball rolled off a picnic table. It travels some 10 mph slower than his fast-ball, anywhere from 83 to 88 mph, and like a splitter it breaks late and sharp.