Rock, paper, scissors? Jose Valverde(notes) asks this question every day at least a dozen times, usually more. Sometimes he does it in Spanish – piedra, papel o tijera? – and usually he does it with the stern look of a policeman interrogating a suspect before his façade cracks into laughter.
"Everyone is so serious in the bullpen," Valverde said. "The bullpen is so boring. You have to do something. And so we play."
Of course Valverde would be the one to bring rock-paper-scissors into the stodgy old game. If baseball is a Norman Rockwell painting, Valverde is Basquiat, an enfant terrible whose antics, no matter how much they dare disrespect the game's order, go without punishment because of his talent.
Which this season as much as any is on display. Valverde converted his 33rd consecutive save for the Detroit Tigers on Thursday night, another one-run affair in a run full of them. Of Valverde's first 20 saves, all but one came after he entered the game with a two- or three-run lead. Over his last 13 opportunities, nine have come in one-run games, and in them just five men have reached base.
At the end of each, particularly the one July 6 that he punctuated with a strikeout, the right-handed Valverde did a dance. His jigs vary. He will go primal and beat his chest and yell like Tarzan. He will take a knee like a player who just scored a touchdown and caterwaul. He will drop down the same, only to play pat-a-cake with the mound. After Valverde retired Miguel Montero(notes) last season, he curtsied and tipped his cap.
Montero, his former teammate with the Arizona Diamondbacks, had said "the way he acts – it's not right," among other things, verbalizing what would seem like a common sentiment about the 33-year-old Valverde. And for those unfamiliar with Valverde, it can be.
"I hated him," Tigers ace Justin Verlander(notes) said. "When he was in Houston, he beat us one night and was dancing all around. It was like, who does this guy think he is? I didn't know him, didn't know he was a good guy, so I didn't like it."
Now in his ninth season, Valverde is familiar enough in name, face, stuff and celebration to get away with what would've been interpreted in the past as an entirely unnecessary celebration that spits at proper comportment. Which it is and does. By now, with Valverde having said often he intends no disrespect, opponents believe him enough to treat it accordingly.
"It's something he's always done," said Jeff Jones, the Tigers' pitching coach and previously their bullpen coach. "The other team realizes he's not trying to show them up. It's just his way. There were a couple instances when he first came to us that the opposition was questioned whether it bothered them. No. It's just an accepted thing."
The variance shows that it's more organic than Brian Wilson's(notes) crossing his arms and looking at the sky or the trio who take adorable, tiny hops. Still, this is baseball. There are limits. Valverde may mix in a spin every so often, but if he were to drop down and do a push-up or pull out a Sharpie to sign the final out or fake moon the crowd, the opinion of him might skew more toward Montero than now.
"You can think whatever you want to about me," Valverde said. "I like my game. I play my game. I dance. I dance for my team and my fans. The other thing is, see how many hitters hit home runs and stand at home plate? Nobody says anything about those guys. See what Sammy Sosa did. People loved it. Why?
"You have to enjoy the game. You sign when you're 18, and from that moment on it's business."
Business took a bit to pick up for Valverde. After years of on-and-off closing, he locked down Arizona's job in 2007, spent two fruitful years in Houston and signed a two-year deal with the Tigers. His innings often come with a handful of beta blockers, though Valverde has ridden the ninth well enough this year to set a no-blown-save streak more than three times longer than the next, 10 from the Los Angeles Dodgers' Javy Guerra(notes).
"This is my baseball," Valverde said. "I don't want him to touch it. The ninth inning is mine. I couldn't dance after the eighth inning. When I was setting up for Matt Mantei, I didn't like the eighth. I felt better, more comfortable, in the ninth. I get angry."
Which makes Valverde's save situations all the better. When he exits the bullpen, he stops, spits water to the right, left, then in front of him, crow hops and starts his jog in. Everyone welcomes the arrival of Papa Grande, which former Diamondbacks announcer Jim Traber thought meant Big Daddy. Turns out "papa" in Spanish is potato, which is how Valverde became the Big Potato.
Nobody is mashing him this year, either. In save situations, he's striking out more than one hitter an inning and has a 0.55 ERA – two runs allowed, both on solo home runs. Valverde is throwing his fastball nearly three-quarters of the time after relying mostly on his split-fingered fastball last season. He's evolving. Into a better pitcher, he hopes.
As long as no one forces him to change anything else and Valverde can keep asking his six relief mates the same question. Rock, paper, scissors? They'll smile like they always do, high five him as is custom before anyone shoots and hope like crazy they beat him two of three.
It's no fun losing to a potato. Even a dancing, rollicking, game-saving one.
- Jose Valverde