Relievers owe a debt to Holtzman's baseball vision

I don't know if Jerome Holtzman was larger than life, but I do know life is smaller without him.

He died last Saturday after an extra-inning illness, was buried this past Tuesday, and will be remembered by friends, colleagues, readers and fans Monday, Aug. 4 at the only place that makes sense.

A baseball field.

Holtzman, 81, was a cigar-chomping, suspenders-wearing Chicago baseball writer. He didn't aspire to more because that was more. A ballgame. Deadline. A story to tell. That was Holtzman's idea of a perfect work day.

Even if you think you've never heard of him, you have. Holtzman is the reason why Goose Gossage will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. He's why Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm are in there, too. In fact, if you're a big league reliever, you owe it to Holtzman to write his initials under the bill of your ball cap.

Holtzman invented the save category in 1966. It isn't the same as inventing the dialysis machine, but it's not bad.

Anyway, Holtzman's new category gave statistical meaning and clarity to the closer role. It made millionaires out of late-inning specialists. It eventually gave every fantasy baseball geek in America (guilty) another precious category to agonize over in their 5x5 or 4x4 league drafts.

If Old School had a valedictorian, it would have been Holtzman. He was respected, maybe even a little bit feared by ballplayers, managers, management and whoever had to compete against the former Marine on the baseball beat. He broke stories. Big ones. Small ones. Didn't matter; his notebook was always open, his pen always uncapped.

Jerry Reinsdorf bought the Chicago White Sox the same year -- 1981 -- Holtzman moved from Wacker Drive and the Chicago Sun-Times to the rival Chicago Tribune on Michigan Avenue. That was the same year Holtzman broke the story on the end of the baseball strike.

Holtzman and Reinsdorf developed a working relationship and, later, a friendship. Owners and sportswriters don't usually spend much time together, but Holtzman wasn't your usual sportswriter. He was a romantic, a historian, an author (if you don't own a copy of "No Cheering In The Press Box," you are weak and useless), a worker bee, a man of conviction and, in 1989, an inductee into the writer's wing at Cooperstown.

Some of us listen to iPods when we write; Holtzman hummed to himself. Out of habit he would eat peanuts in the press box and toss the empty shells on the floor -- even if the floor was carpeted. Nobody said a word.

Holtzman retired from the Tribune in 1998, but you'd still see him at Wrigley Field or new Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field. He used to drive himself to the stadiums from his lovely Evanston home. As his health began to fade, a grandson or friend would do the driving. And more than a few times, Reinsdorf arranged for a limo service. It became a standing offer.

He'd sit in the dugout before the game and it wouldn't take long before players, coaches, managers and writers would stop by to shake his hand or say hello. Respect.

Later, he'd make his way upstairs and usually spend the game with Reinsdorf in the owner's private suite. Cigars were known to be smoked.

When Holtzman died, it was his son Jack who later called Reinsdorf with the news.
Reinsdorf, who spoke to Holtzman at least once a month, was visibly shaken by the loss of his friend. Another offer was made: Have a memorial service at The Cell.

I'll be there at the stadium's Scout Lounge the evening of Monday Aug. 4. So will Commissioner Bud Selig. And Reinsdorf. And sportswriters. Lots of sportswriters.

Late in 1995 I was hired to cover the Cubs for the Tribune. The sports editor told me to report to the January MLB owners meeting in Los Angeles. Introduce myself to Holtzman, I was told.

So I did. He had eyebrows so thick that they needed their own lawn service. He wore a white shirt, suspenders, and he scared the living hell out of me.

This was the great Holtzman. The man known simply as "The Dean." A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And here's what he did. He introduced me to every stuffed suit he could find. Owners, league officials, team officials -- Holtzman knew them all.

It was a busy day. The owners had just voted in favor of interleague play. The then-California Angels were being sold to Disney. A handful of TV deals were up for formal approval. So I asked Holtzman if there were anything I could do to help out.

"No, no," he said. "I'm fine."

Less than 20 minutes later, Holtzman was done writing. Amazing. It would have taken me three times that amount to finish.

I couldn't help myself; I stole a peek at his computer screen. There was his famous byline. Then a handful of tight, no-nonsense graphs. Then, in parentheses, Pick Up Wire.

Holtzman had done the hard part. He figured the Associated Press could do the rest.

A month later, at spring training in Mesa, Ariz., Holtzman invited me to dinner. We ordered steaks as thick as first base, and he spent the next hour telling stories. The Marines ... WWII ... how he courted his wife, Marilyn ... the Chicago newspaper wars ... baseball ... the Cubs ... the White Sox. It was the one time I wished the waitress never brought the check.

So a moment of silence, please, for The Dean. But only a moment. Holtzman wouldn't want you to miss any of the game because of him.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.