Monday, September 9, 2002 Updated: September 10, 1:12 PM ET
By By Tim Keown
You've got to believe a failed starter like Eric Gagne would be the perfect case study for what it takes to be a dominant closer in the big leagues. The guy goes from being an over-amped, under-victorious starter with a tenuous grasp on the finer elements of pitching to being a phenomenal, consistently nasty closer with a shot at breaking the single-season record for saves.
Sounds like a good time to pull up either a couch or a lab table and go to work on delving into the nether-reaches of the vaunted Closer Mentality. He's got to know the something everyone in baseball would love to know, right?
Take a failed starter and what do you get? A dominant closer.
It's not that easy, of course. You start with an atomic arm (Gagne throws a consistent 97-mph heater and can inch upward, slightly, from there), a deceptive off-speed pitch (a changeup impersonating a split-finger) and a complete disregard for the opposition.
That last part might be a stretch, but not by much. The best closers don't care who's hitting, because the best closers believe they're better than any bat out there. They can overpower any of them, and overpowering beats overthinking every time.
"I've gotten to where I don't care who's up there," Gagne says. "I mean, I respect every guy, but I don't pitch to scouting reports anymore. I do what I do."
The Dodgers wouldn't be within a day's drive of a hunt if manager Jim Tracy hadn't benched his own overthinking on April 11. On that day, as he walked to the mound in the ninth inning of a game against the Giants, Tracy made a decision that, in a sense, put the Dodgers where they are today. And it put Gagne, owner of 48 saves, in position to enter the nation's biggest tax bracket.
Tracy's decision was really no decision at all. He went out there to replace Gagne with Jesse Orosco and went back to the dugout with Gagne still on the mound. In between he looked into Gagne's begoggled eyes (color at the time: rage) and thought, What could it hurt? Tracy had the closer-by-committee thing going before this (it has worked once, and won't work again, ever), but he always thought Gagne was the guy for the job.
"He was the one," Tracy says. "It was just a matter of when, and how much pressure was too much pressure."
This is a different Dodger team. It used to have a knack for doing the least with the most, and now Tracy has helped it flip the equation. There's still a high payroll with a lot of expectations, but it's guys like Gagne and Dave Roberts and Paul Lo Duca who have lifted the Dodgers out of the malaise. The common thread among those three is Tracy, who put them in position to succeed. It seems Tracy is one of those guys who judges talent on talent alone, which is a nice quality to have in a manager.
Gagne, the hockey nut from Montreal, comes to us in the tradition of Al Hrabosky -- lots of added drama and a true lack of self-consciousness. His makeup is a combination of Rob Dibble (when in doubt, throw harder) and Dennis Eckersley (in case of failure, stand up and take the heat).
So, back to the original question: What's it take to be a closer? That's still open for debate, but it's clear what the first requirement is: A chance.