Closing games for all those years taught Rich Gossage the value of a short memory, and maybe a little too well. Because it's early January, the time of year when National Baseball Hall of Fame voting results pop, and excitement is coursing through Gossage.
He should know better, of course, having taken a balled-up fist to the chin from the voters each of the last eight years. And yet every time the announcement rolls around, Gossage acts as though the past is just that, a long-gone event and not a harbinger for one more letdown.
"I don't want to get too crazy, but it's impossible not to," Gossage said this week from his Colorado Springs, Colo., home. "You don't want to set yourself up for failure – or failure to get in. You don't want to feel that terrible disappointment.
"But … "
But this is the Hall of Fame, and the journey for Gossage has been more like Hajj. Finally, mercifully, it should end Tuesday, if a small sampling of the voters is any indication, with Gossage receiving the necessary 75 percent and the public getting one more chance this summer to bellow "Goose" in unison.
The frivolity of it all is that Gossage's case hasn't changed. He still has 310 saves. He still has nine All-Star appearances. He still remains one of the scariest men ever to grip a baseball, his fastball better suited for the Autobahn, his Fu Manchu for a Western baddie, his temperament for a guy serving 20 to life. Though Gossage didn't originate the closer role, he defined what it could be: pure, unencumbered dominance.
So without any clear-cut first-time candidates, and with the election two years ago of his contemporary – and, many believe, his lesser, Bruce Sutter – Gossage has drummed up support from longtime abstainers who, for one reason or another, now consider him worthy.
"People are starting to realize how the bullpen changed baseball," Gossage said. "I'm the only pitcher who saw the total evolution of the bullpen. I've done every job in it. I've done short, pitching one inning. I've pitched three or four. I came into jam after jam after jam from the seventh inning to ninth inning.
"When I broke into the big leagues in '72, it was a junk pile where old starters went. You didn't want to be a part of the bullpen. Chuck Tanner put me in the bullpen with Terry Forster. Right then, along with Rollie Fingers, it started to change."
The power reliever was an anomaly, and with the role as yet undefined, Gossage helped do so. He spent plenty of time with teammate Dick Allen, the 1972 AL MVP and another questionable Hall of Fame snub. Over drinks – too many quite often – Allen taught Gossage the hitter's approach, and how his best friend could be an armpit-high fastball aimed at the batter.
"And I'd tell him, 'You know, Dick, I'm afraid I'm going to put him on by hitting him,' " Gossage said. "He said, 'You'll get over that.' "
It took all of a half-second, the time Gossage needed to see the looks on hitters' faces when his fastball tickled their nerves. Jim Rice has built his entire Hall of Fame campaign around the fact that pitchers were afraid to face him. Figuratively, yeah, maybe.
Hitters truly feared Gossage, like an altar boy fears sin. By 1977, he was the best reliever in baseball with Pittsburgh. In '78, after signing as a free agent with the Yankees, he closed out Boston in the Bucky Dent game – "The most nervous I've ever been going into a game," he said, "and then some guy in the bleachers spit in my face right before I went in" – and the Dodgers in the World Series.
He closed full time for seven more seasons, never posting an earned-run average above 2.90, and kept trucking: to San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Oakland and Seattle, where he retired at 42.
Perhaps playing for nine teams lent an air of journeyman to Gossage and helps explain why his induction has taken so long. Or the fact that he never won a Cy Young Award. Or the prejudice against voting relief pitchers to the Hall of Fame.
Or that his facial hair just wasn't as resplendent as Fingers' nor Sutter's.
Whatever the case, by any objective measure, it's tough to argue against Gossage, and for at least a quarter of the bloc to have done so eight years running is an effort in collective incompetence normally reserved for government committees and the Pirates.
Best he can, Gossage tries to ignore it. His mother, Sue, always told him how proud she would be to attend his induction, how much she looked forward to it. She died in September 2006.
"I thought if I was deserving of it, I would go in while she was alive," Gossage said. "That urgency, that part of it, the frustration – it's over."
So Gossage thinks he'll play it like any other year. Yeah, he'll hover over the phone, but he doesn't want to let any photographers in to capture the moment. Just him and his family, hopefully celebrating a moment none of them will forget.
- Rich Gossage