It was his boys being on a roll, going 46-28 in the second half, including 18-7 in their last 25. You ignore what your body is saying at a time like that; you forget how cranky your shoulder is. Your heart is the one doing the driving. "It was a phenomenal time," Nen says. "I kept imagining getting the final outs of every game and series, and it just kept happening."
It was the right time of year. "They were in the middle of a pennant race," Jendi, his wife, says. "There was just no way he would give up pitching then."
It was the fact that he could. Maybe he couldn't go like he once did; maybe he couldn't go like he'd like. But he could go. "If I could play catch before a game," he says, "I knew all I'd need was to get between the lines and then deal with the pain the next day."
The fantasy about the kind of commitment Nen made is that there is some defining moment, some particular instant in which, like Doyle Brunson at the tables at Binion's, or Gary Cooper in the streets of Hadleyville, he went all-in.
The truth is more gradual than that. It's a decision he made bit by bit, warm-up by warm-up. Like a kid puffing anxiously into a balloon, he kept stretching the skin, wondering how much and how long it would hold.
It was the sense he had, never spoken but always clung to, that in this day and age, the doctors could fix him up when the season was over, no matter what he did. "You see what they do with Tommy John surgeries and things now," he says, "and you feel like there's nothing they can't do, you know?"
It was the indescribable giddiness he'd felt winning with the Marlins back in '97, and the fervent hope of sharing it with his Giants friends and teammates in '02. "When we beat St. Louis in the LCS, and guys were jumping around the clubhouse, laughing and shouting, pouring champagne everywhere," he says, "I remember I just sat at my locker for a minute and watched it. To see their faces light up like that
that's what I pitched for."
It was the personal high, too. Forty thousand screaming fans in the stands. TV cameras. Bright lights. The guy in the box wanting a piece of you, and you looking to take him down. The game in the balance. It's an intoxicating blend.
"I remember during my rehab, we were in L.A., and I drove to the stadium that afternoon and all I could think about was maybe I'd never get another chance to take the mound in front of a full house," he says. "I'd never get that adrenaline rush again. The little white towels waving in the air, the moment, everyone screaming. There's no better rush than that."
But I'm telling you, the guy is a gamer; he's an iron worker who goes up on a bridge.
And maybe more than any of those things, it was simply Nen being Nen, something not easily reduced to explanations, something intrinsic. "It sounds like a cliché, I know," Conte says. "But I'm telling you, the guy is a gamer; he's an iron worker who goes up on a bridge."
Closer is a job. Teammate is a role. But gamer is an identity. Somewhere along the way, gut-check becomes the principle by which you organize your life and stalwart becomes the prism through which you see the world.
Who knows when it starts? Maybe it's the first slap on the back from a Little League coach for a job well done. Maybe it's the wave of confidence and self-certainty that comes with your first strikeout or first save. Maybe it's something you see in your dad, and in your ball-playing idols, and try to model. Maybe, like perfect pitch in the ear of a musician or the deft touch in the hands of a sculptor, it's something you're blessed with -- and cursed with. However it comes to you, there comes a time when it's simply a part of you, when you can't remember being and wouldn't know how to be any other way.
The cost of Nen being true to his identity (and, in the classic Brian Wilson way, true to his school) and of the Giants being true to their dreams of a first World Series championship in San Francisco, was steep.
It cost the team at least $18 million, the benefit of Nen's lights-out services over two years of the Barry Bonds era, and the day-in-day-out presence of someone Snow calls the "tone-setter" for the ballclub.
It cost Nen at least two years of pitching, another shot at the postseason (in 2003), a sense of belonging and a fitting end to his career.
It's July 9, 2005. Robb Nen Day at SBC Park in San Francisco. Nen stands awkwardly in the Giants' dugout, waiting to be introduced to the crowd. He's got one foot up on a step and he's nervously jamming and yanking his hands in and out of his pockets.
He knows the park by heart, but he's out of his element now. He walked the clubhouse tunnel in street clothes and loafers. He's in the dugout and not the pen. There's a podium, not a hitter, waiting for him out on the field. It all feels wrong.
"You know you're not going to play forever," he says. "But you have this fantasy that, when the end comes, it will come on your terms. This was not the way I wanted to go."
Now Nen lives a full and happy life in Orange County with Jendi and their two daughters, Rylee and Taylor. His shoulder is considerably better. He can still move around, wrestle with the girls on the lawn, play golf with friends and work out at the gym. But he lives with the loss, too, with the sense that things are, and always will be, unfinished for him.
Maybe it would be easier to swallow if he'd gotten Glaus out, if there was a Series ring to show for his efforts, if the devil had paid up. More than rings, though, Nen tends to measure the loss in terms of connections. "I miss the clubhouse," he says. "I miss guys ragging on each other. I miss being there for each other. I miss being a part of that."
The guys miss him, too.
At the Nen-Day festivities, Gardner tears up.
Righetti, with a crack in his voice, tells you: "Without a doubt, my biggest high in this job was watching Robbie do what he did that fall, and without a doubt, my biggest low is knowing he can't ever do anything like it again."
Snow sits in front of his locker and puts his head down in the pregame clubhouse, almost three years after Game 6 and the disappointment of the Glaus at-bat, and says, "You just wish he could still be here."
Was it worth it?
Nen says, quickly, with the automatic voice of a man halfway trying to convince himself that it's true, that he has no regrets. "I was fortunate to get to play in the big leagues, and I was fortunate enough to be in the All-Star Game three times, and I was fortunate enough to get a World Series ring and to play in two World Series," he says. "Really, I was grateful for everything I got."
Listening to him, wondering at how he pushed his body when it was at its weakest, and feeling frustrated by the unquestioned will to win that drove him to pitch and drove the team to use him, you experience regret on his behalf.
But that's not the whole of it. In the end, it's a more complicated feeling than that. Because there he is at the podium between home plate and the pitcher's mound on that July afternoon, sun shining down and the bass-heavy opening bars of "Smoke on the Water," his bullpen theme song, ringing out, the crowd is rising to its feet. The lady with a hat made of Giants baseball cards takes it off and waves it wildly. The transplanted fan who drove from Portland just for this moment claps his hands above his head like he's at a Queen concert. Two women wearing "We Love Robb" T-shirts dance like joyful lunatics in the first row behind the dugout. Fathers point him out to their sons. Mothers whisper stories of his exploits to their daughters. It's been almost three years since he last pitched for them, but they haven't forgotten.
Nen waves and nods in appreciation. Then he puts his right hand to his chest, as if to keep it from bursting, and you can see it on his face
it's not a blush, it's a rush. And in that moment, you think, yes, there's been a loss, but he's gained something, too, something enviable and rare, something that might only come with the sort of sacrifice he made.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. Comment on E-ticket at ESPN.firstname.lastname@example.org