Larry Haney, the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen coach, waved his cap at the dugout to signal that the relief pitcher was ready. It was the bottom of the eighth last Thursday night in Fenway Park, and there was nothing unusual about Haney's semaphore, except that the relief pitcher was Rollie Fingers.
Yes, the Rollie Fingers is up and throwing in the Milwaukee bullpen after a year's layoff and an eternity of doubt. By Sunday he was in double digits in saves for the season with 10, and he would have even more if the Brewers were higher than sixth in the American League East. He has an ERA of 1.50, and in 24 innings he has allowed 22 hits and five walks while striking out 20. All this after many people thought they'd never see his mustache enter a game again. In the language of baseball, you could have stuck a fork in Fingers—he was done.
But that wasn't an apparition taking the mound in the bottom of the ninth with the Brewers leading the Red Sox 6-3. After his eight warmup pitches, Fingers got two quick strikes on pinch hitter Rick Miller before Miller received a hard-earned base on balls after fouling off a few. The next pinch hitter, Chico Walker, grounded to first, advancing Miller. Rich Gedman, a third pinch hitter, hit a fly ball that moved Miller to third. Fingers then induced Wade Boggs to pop up to leftfield.
Rollie accepted the hearty congratulations of his teammates as he came off the field, but once inside the clubhouse, he berated himself: "I am ticked. A walk!" Then he got a glass of milk and went into the trainer's room to have his elbow iced.
Fingers is a natural for Comeback Player of the Year, but what he has done transcends that mundane award. He is, quite simply, the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived, and his return to form is a wonderful gift to baseball. Consider that he has 36% more lifetime saves, 311 to 229, than the No. 2 man, Bruce Sutter.
Fingers became a full-time relief pitcher in 1972, and in the strike-shortened '81 season, with a 1.04 ERA and 28 saves, he became the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award and be named MVP in the same year.
He kept rolling along until Sept. 2, 1982—"a day," says trainer John Adam, "that will live in infamy in the annals of Brewer history." Fingers came in to save the first game of a doubleheader against Cleveland, but after 1[1/3] innings he motioned to Harvey Kuenn, then the manager, to come out to the mound. "It wasn't any one pitch that did it," says Fingers. "It was 20 years of pitching. I felt this light burning sensation in my arm, and the umpire, Russ Goetz, was telling me I was losing velocity." Fingers had an 0-2 count on Andre Thornton when Pete Ladd was called in to save the 2-1 victory.
At first everyone figured he had just strained some flexor muscles in his right forearm. "I thought everything would be fine and dandy in a week," Fingers says, "but on the eighth or ninth day, I couldn't throw the ball 16 feet, much less 60. I waited another five days, and couldn't throw it any farther." He kept applying ice and taking anti-inflammatory drugs while the Brewers fought off the Orioles to win the AL East.
Milwaukee activated Fingers for the World Series, and on the second day of the Series he threw well in batting practice. But the next day he was too stiff and sore to go again, and he ended up spending the rest of the Series talking over the back bullpen fence with the Cardinals' Sutter.
"I figured with rest I'd be fine by the spring," says Fingers. He pitched a little and felt O.K. during spring training, but not well enough to leave with the Brewers, so, he stayed in Tucson and threw batting practice. "It just got worse and worse, though," he says. The last straw came in an exhibition game against Vancouver in early June. Fingers threw one inning. a shutout inning, "but my arm just killed me. I waited three or four days. It didn't get any better, and I knew I had to have surgery."