Commentary

Predictable, yet practically unhittable, Goose was a rare bird

Updated: July 28, 2008, 7:46 AM ET
By William Nack | ESPN.com

Rich Gossage was the most overpowering relief pitcher in the history of baseball, the absolutely ideal closer of his day or any other day, and the occasion of his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown on Sunday -- after a ridiculous nine-year wait to make it through the gates -- brings back the most vivid memories of just how truly dominant he was.

When was the last time, for instance, that you heard a great veteran hitter say, after striking out, that he had just whiffed on the single greatest pitch that he had ever seen? For anybody who has ever covered baseball over any length of time, even in the hyperbolic chamber of a postgame clubhouse, it is not a line that one is accustomed to hearing. Yet it was uttered, with considerable humility, by one of the great clutch hitters of the past 50 years, a man on his way to Cooperstown.

The moment is now largely forgotten in the sunken vaults of American sport, hidden from all but the most ardent archeologists of the national pastime, but let history record that it was June 30, 1980, in Fenway Park, on a night when the Boston Red Sox were entertaining the Goose and his New York Yankees. Gossage was 28 years old then and still in his prime, throwing rising peas past befuddled hitters from Boston to Anaheim, and Tony Perez was nearing the close of a 23-year career in which he had honored himself and the game. Perez had played mostly in the National league, beginning with 13 glorious years for the Cincinnati Reds as they evolved into The Big Red Machine, then another three years with the Montreal Expos, and now here with the Red Sox, where he was on his way to hitting 25 home runs with 105 RBIs for the season.

There's smoke coming out of his nose and his cap is down over his eyes and he's so big and hulking. You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat.

--Tom Paciorek

Perez had faced all the hardest-throwing National League pitchers of his era -- from Bob Gibson to Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan to Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax to J.R. Richard -- so he knew how hot the fire could get in that kitchen. Now he was lumbering to the plate against the hardest reliever to hit in baseball.

It was Perez against the Goose in a classic face-off.

The Yankees were leading, 6-3, in the bottom of the ninth.

There were two outs.

The bases were loaded.

Gossage fired a fastball that cut the outside corner of the plate, Perez taking. Strike one.

The second arrow split the first. Perez swung but missed.

Rearing back, Gossage fired the pitch that Tony Perez would never forget, another fastball that came whistling towards him, only faster this time, in the 100 mph range, and three feet in front of the plate the ball suddenly jumped and rode along the outside corner. Perez took a feeble half-swing and missed.

"That pitch was unhittable," Perez told me later, for a 1981 article I was writing on Gossage for Sports Illustrated. "I have to say, the best pitch I ever saw. I don't think anybody can hit that pitch, especially right-handed hitters. It was too hard and too on the black, and the way he threw it, there was no way I was going to hit it. When he makes good pitches, you're dead."

For all the drama that Richard Michael Gossage created in his 22 years in the big leagues, for all the fear he inspired by his scowling, snorting presence on the mound, the central irony is that his art was simplicity itself.

No masks. No mirrors. No artifice. No tricks.

The moving force behind it all, of course, was that lively fastball that he often threw like a dart -- with a precision rarely seen at such speeds. Occasionally mixing in a nasty 95 mph slider, he had future Cooperstown dignitaries declaring him to be unhittable by mortal men. Indeed, Gossage's pitching feats became the stuff of legend in the late 1970s and early 1980s, turning him into a sort of latter-day Lefty Grove, the fireballing Hall of Famer from the '20s and '30s. There were the days when Gossage, his confrontation with Perez aside, used to strike out the side on 10 or 11 pitches -- as he did, for instance, in his first year with the Yankees, in 1978, against the Seattle Mariners.

"I remember he threw three pitches to me and I was out," the Mariner's Tom Paciorek recalled to me a few years later. "And then he threw three pitches to Bob Robertson and he was out. And then Julio Cruz was up, and he really had a good at bat against him. Julio took one pitch for a ball and fouled off another with two strikes. So he actually took Gossage to five pitches. Eleven pitches and we were out. That was the ball game. That was the most awesome display of relief pitching I've ever seen. … He put guys like me on his cereal for breakfast. The most intimidating pitcher I've ever seen."

[+] EnlargeRich Gossage
Louis Requena/MLB Photos/Getty Images)When the bullpen phone rang, Richard Michael Gossage was ready to unleash his own brand of fury. He made 965 relief appearances over 22 seasons.
No pitcher in the modern era brought a more palpable aura of menace to his work. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, drooping handlebar mustache and all, his eyes as big as pie tins, Gossage would turn his back to batters as he wound up -- actually facing toward left field and showing them his number -- then explode towards home plate in a tangle of arms and legs, like a man falling out of a tree, hiding the ball until it finally came spinning out of the pinstriped blur. It's no surprise many opposing hitters would wonder, does he have any idea where this pitch is going? And then, discreetly, step to the back of the batter's box.

Cliff Johnson, one of Gossage's Yankee teammates, said simply, "When he turns that ball loose, he looks like the guy that Jack killed in the beanstalk."

The sweet simplicity of it all, of course, made him the most predictable of all pitchers. In fact, in 1977, when Gossage had that brilliant year relieving for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- he saved 26 games and pitched 133 innings, ending the season with an ERA of 1.62 -- his catcher, Duffy Dyer, used to anger opposing players by not bothering to hide his signals as he beckoned for fastball after fastball. One night against Los Angeles, as though daring them to hit the heater, Dyer was so blatantly calling for the fastball that the Dodger hitters, fuming at being shown up, simply grew more feckless as they became more frustrated.

Goose's Pittsburgh teammate and friend, pitcher Bruce Kison, recalled, "They were taking; they were swinging; they weren't even fouling the ball off."

One day in 1978, when Yankees catcher Thurman Munson began doing the same thing, simply waving his right hand to casually beckon for the fastball, like he was fanning himself -- while batters turned and watched him -- Gossage looked down at Munson and started towards home plate. Munson walked out to meet him halfway.

"Let's at least try to fool em!" Gossage said.

Munson just cocked his head and gave Gossage that goofy little grin, as he always used to do, and said, "Who are you tryin' to fool?"

I pitch that ball, and I can feel a shudder go through my body. ... It's like a thousand hearts are beating all over my body. It's scary. It's weird.

--Goose Gossage

He was fooling no one, to be sure, especially when he would storm in from the bullpen breathing that unearthly fire, his eyes flashing and aglow with menace. "When he comes out of the bullpen," Paciorek told me for that S.I. story, "that's just what he looks like -- a bull. There's smoke coming out of his nose and his cap is down over his eyes and he's so big and hulking. You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat."

What further gave him such an intimidating aspect was the almost demonic intensity that he brought into the game. For Gossage, the sense of urgency would begin to build in the middle innings of a game, grow more acute as the game progressed into the seventh inning, and become almost unbearable when he would hear the phone ring in the bullpen and then see coach Jeff Torborg, after answering it, turn to him and say, "Goose!"

That is when the adrenaline would begin kicking in. To hear Gossage talk about this experience, as I did in 1981, was to begin to understand what he meant when he described it as something quite alien to anything experienced by the mass of men when they toddle off to work. "Oh, I love it," Gossage said then. "The tougher it is, the more I love it. The better I am. I need the adrenaline. I don't get it unless the game is on the line. I love the excitement. I just love it. I thrive on it. I feed on it. Sometimes I feel like I'm gonna blow up. … I pitch that ball, and I can feel a shudder go through my body. At times I get so high I don't even know what happens. I feel like I'm almost on the end of the world. I feeling like I'm on the brink of going over. It's like a thousand hearts are beating all over my body. It's scary. It's weird."

There were days when Gossage got so weird that people around him thought he might be on amphetamines, so-called "greenies," which were commonly used by players in those days. In fact, his manager at the White Sox, Chuck Tanner, was concerned enough that Gossage might be on some upper that he asked him about it after removing him from a game. "I had men on base and I was pumped up," Gossage recalled. "He came out to the mound. My eyes were weird. Real big. He called me into the office after the game, and he looked worried and he asked me, 'Do you take something?' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Do you take something, like greenies?' I was 21 or 22 years old. I didn't even know what a greenie was. I just go crazy out there."

Such was the adrenal rush that Gossage brought in from the 'pen for that most unforgettable of Goosian moments.

Again, the place was Fenway Park, Boston. The date: October 2, 1978, the last regular season game in his first year as a Yankee. After playing 162 games, a full season, the Red Sox and the Yankees were dead-even in the American League East standings, with 99 wins and 63 losses apiece. At the moment, Gossage's ERA was a tick over 2.00; he had already pitched more than 130 innings, and he was on his way to leading the league in saves, with 27. This was, for a man as roughly constituted as Gossage, the perfect culminating moment to the year: the last inning of a one-game playoff for the AL East title.

Goose Gossage
Jon SooHoo/Getty ImagesGossage, pictured here with the A's in 1992, pitched 1,809.1 innings in a career that spanned from 1972 to 1994.
It was the bottom of the ninth. The Yanks were leading, 5-4.

There were two out, two on. And to the plate walked Carl Yastrzemski, another future Hall of Famer and one of the game's best players with a game, or a season, in the balance.

So it was Goose against Yaz for all the cheese.

"I went to bed the night before thinking about coming into the game, and I thought I might be facing Yaz with the game on the line," Goose has said. "I thought about facing him because he was such a great clutch hitter. … It might have been the biggest game of my life."

Numerous hitters said that Gossage fastballs, upon arrival at the station, did everything but the tango. Depending on whom you spoke to, they "sailed," they "darted," they "drifted," they "tailed," they "rose," they "sank," they "swerved."

Whatever it was, they did enough. Rearing back with the count 0-1, Gossage smoked one right down the middle, his hardest pitch of the night. Appearing to rise slightly, it then tailed in very hard on lefty-hitting Yaz. Swinging late, he cut under it, lifting a towering pop-up over third. I watched it rise from an aisle behind home plate, and I instinctively looked up at the ball, then at the sea of faces in the stands behind me.

That they could preserve that moment, in a diorama under glass, in some small corner at Cooperstown -- the roaring crowd going instantly silent, as if cut off by a switch. Nearly 33,000 horrified faces looking up, all mouths open. The ball seeming to rise forever, hanging like a blue moon over Fenway, before plunging like an arrow into the heart of … Graig Nettles' glove.

The victory led to a chaotic Yankees clubhouse at Fenway, and Gossage slipped into the trainer's room to catch his breath. Suddenly Munson appeared at the door. "Where did you get that last pitch?" he asked. "It had another foot on it."

They all grew another foot when the game was at stake, and by the end of his career, Gossage had 310 saves to show for falling out of all those trees. Of the big closers who preceded him to the Hall, including Rollie Fingers (341 saves) and Bruce Sutter (300 saves), Gossage was by far the most fearsome and intimidating, the guy you'd really want facing Yaz in the bottom of the ninth. Gossage was the last of a special breed: the durable closer who often pitched as many as three innings to earn a save, a practice unheard of today. Indeed, during his major league career, Gossage had 193 saves that required more than three outs, Sutter 188; by comparison, one of the leading savers of today, Mariano Rivera, had nearly 100 fewer than Gossage going into this season.

Like Fingers and Sutter, too, Gossage was a cutting-edge figure in a revolution in baseball -- one that turned the bullpen from a boneyard of washed-up, has-been starting pitchers to an elite band of highly gifted men whose job was to put out fires. They turned bullpens throughout the major leagues into so many Millionaires' Rows. The 'pen has never been the same.

So open wide the gates at Cooperstown. Take a final gander at The Goose. You will not see his like again.

William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a wide variety of sports and on a wide range of subjects. He is the author of three books: "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."