Day 2: Dodgers | Extra Innings
VERO BEACH, Fla. – He's a reformed hockey goon – "How do you win a hockey fight? Hit the other person first."
He prefers sideburns, a ratty baseball cap and big prescription goggles. He enters games to Guns N' Roses, music signaling that opponents soon will exit with a loss. He hasn't blown a save since 2002 and won the Cy Young Award despite being a reliever, yet he still acts like a humble rookie sometimes.
Like, say, when he reported to Dodgertown here Monday for the start of training camp and found a new worker guarding the players' parking lot.
"Hi, I'm Eric," the superstar multi-millionaire said.
"Hi, I'm Vinny," the parking attendant said.
Eric Gagne isn't just the best thing Canada has sent to L.A. since Gretzky (well, excluding Pam Anderson, of course). He simply is one of the best things going in the majors.
He's a breath of fresh air in an era of quarter-billion dollar contracts and BALCO depositions. He's a baseball player with a hockey attitude, a down to earth, down in the dirt workhorse who doesn't take himself too seriously even as his save streak reaches a more than serious 63 consecutive conversions.
About the only thing Gagne has lost in the last season and a half is his salary arbitration. He wanted $8 million this year. The Dodgers wanted to pay him $5 million. How the heck do you lose arbitration after you saved all 55 games you could, ostensibly putting together a perfect season for a closer?
"I don't know," he said. "I thought our case was pretty strong and we were going to win. I don't know. We lost the case."
And that is that. Your typical self-centered player would have spouted off. But Gagne, 28, is too blue collar to start complaining that he is only making 5 mill. So the reporters looking for sour grapes wound up looking for a new story line.
Gagne says he is true to Dodger Blue.
"It has nothing to do with baseball," he said. "That is just the business side. So I just have to go out and perform and have fun like I did the last couple of years."
And what fun he's had. It's not just all those saves in a row. It is the way they are done, especially near Hollywood, which has always appreciated a good show. It only takes the first few guitar cords of "Welcome to the Jungle" for Dodger Stadium to erupt. By the time the bullpen door is opened, you can hardly hear Axl Rose.
"Amazing," said Gagne, who at 17 attended a G&R concert that ended when the crowd rioted. "It is just so much fun. The fans get into it. It is just electric."
And after that, no one really has a chance. In two full years as a closer he has converted 107 of 111 save opportunities. Last year, he posted a 1.20 ERA.
"Watching Eric Gagne [last season] all I could say is, 'I see it but I don't believe it,' " Dodgers vice president Tommy Lasorda said. "I have never witnessed a relief pitcher enjoying the success he did."
Added manager Jim Tracy, "Perfection is pretty tough to accomplish in baseball, period, much less the major leagues. And that is what you are talking about. Perfection."
But Gagne is more than just a big, clutch, late-inning arm. He's a teammate's teammate, a we-first mentality in the era of the pampered mega-star.
"You couldn't ask for more," pitcher Darren Dreifort said. "For a guy who's had his success the last couple years he is just so humble."
That's the Montreal native's hockey upbringing talking. He played both sports until age 18, when he left junior hockey to concentrate on pitching. But he never lost the mentality of a sport in which he wasn't a star but rather an enforcer.
"Goon," corrected the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pounder. "I was a goon. I used to fight a lot and just try to protect [smaller teammates]. I was always bigger than anyone else and I like to hit people."
He smiled at the memory and then turned back to baseball, his amazing streak and his sudden star status.
"It's fun. It is really gratifying," he said. "It is overwhelming; I never expected anything like it.
"I don't want to pinch myself just in case I wake up."