The Sports Bookie -- Pitchers who save best for the last (inning)

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During spring training in 2002, a columnist walked up to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and tried to engage him in a conversation about the previous year’s World Series. In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Rivera uncharacteristically blew a lead in the ninth inning and allowed the Arizona Diamondbacks to win as Tampa native Luis Gonzalez blooped a single to drive in the winning run.

ivera waved off the question, saying, in effect, “that’s over and done with, I forgot about it the next day.”
That’s the credo of a successful closer, echoed by John Smoltz, who says “you better have a short-term memory.”

There is nobody more successful (and with a shorter memory) than Rivera, who has a major-league record 608 saves and a 0.70 ERA and 42 saves in postseason play. Rivera announced Saturday that 2013 would be his final season, which makes a new paperback book by Kevin Neary and Leigh A. Tobin quite timely.

Closer: Major League Players Reveal the Inside Pitch on Saving the Game,” (Running Press: $15, paperback, 288 pages) looks at the careers of 62 different relievers. Relief specialists really did not come into vogue in the majors until after World War II, although Wilcy Moore and Johnny Murphy (Yankees) and Firpo Marberry (Senators, Tigers) were prominent out of the bullpen before that.

Neary has worked for the Walt Disney Company the last 20 years and has the “Ultimate Disney Trivia Book” series under his belt, along with “Major League Dads,” which he wrote last year with Tobin, a Philadelphia resident who has worked for more than 20 years with the Phillies in public relations.

“Closer” is partitioned into three sections: the early years, which traces 15 relievers from Joe Page in the late 1940s to men who saved games in the 1970s, like Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Dan Quisenberry; the transition years, which includes 19 relievers like Dennis Eckersley, Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter; and the modern day closer, which has insights from Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Smoltz and 25 other closers.

The authors trace the evolution of the closer, from the washed up starter who mopped up with two or three innings of work, to today’s specialized pitchers who enter the game with an anthem blaring over the public address speaker and generally work just one inning.

Rays fans will enjoy the insights of relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney.

I thought the exclusions of Mike Marshall and Sparky Lyle was curious. Both were Cy Young Award winners, and were in fact the first two relievers to take that award. Marshall earned the 1974 National League award after appearing in 104 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Lyle won the American League award three years later after going 13-5 with 26 saves for the New York Yankees.

Where possible, every chapter showcases the player as he looked on a Topps baseball card, which I thought was a nice touch.

The writing is clear, straightforward and anecdotal, although the authors seem intent on finding every synonym for the word “said”: examples include recalled, stated, analyzed, remembered, concluded, explained, added, exclaimed, continued, confirmed, shared, philosophizes, admitted, confessed, reflected, reasoned, reminisced, noted … you get the idea.

To be fair, the word “said” also is used. But that’s just a personal pet peeve on my part: to me, nothing says “said” better than “said.” That being said, it should not distract the reader too much.

Relievers seem to tell the best stories, as pitchers-turned-authors Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton discovered to their profit during the 1960s and ’70s. Neary and Tobin do a nice job letting the player tell those stories. They also show, with great effect, the mentality a closer must have to be successful.

“As a closer, you’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to believe you are nasty and do whatever it takes,” Smoltz said.

“We don’t get in trouble unless we mess up,” Kevin Gregg said.

The best ones rarely do.
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