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Original Issue

The Pen Ultimate

Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon is about to overtake Rollie Fingers as baseball's alltime save leader, but with saves as cheap as they are today, how much is that record really worth?

Perhaps you've noticed. The men at the top of baseball's alltime saves list are at the bottom of baseball's alltime shaves list. "Facial hair," says Jeff Reardon, the Boston Red Sox relief pitcher whose visage is landscaped with luxurious mug shrubbery. "It seems like most great relievers have some kind of facial hair. That's not why I grew mine—I just hate to shave. But you're right. I have noticed that."

Baseball's closers have, historically, come from a can of mixed mustachioed nuts. And Reardon has closed more often than the most prolific of Century 21 agents: Through Sunday, Reardon's 339 career saves left him three short of breaking the alltime mark held by Hall of Famer-elect Rollie Fingers. Fingers, you'll recall, carried his teammates on the waxed handlebars of his curlicue mustache. Remember, too, the road-kill beards of Bruce Sutter (300 saves) and Gene Garber (218), the hood-ornament-steer-horns 'stache of Sparky Lyle (222) and the fearsome Fus of Goose Gossage (308) and Mike Marshall (178).

Long before the invention of the Gillette Atra twin-blade razor, these flamboyant relievers were causing heads to pivot. But few got the attention, adulation or remuneration afforded today's premier closers. In fact, the term closer doesn't do justice to the glamorous head-liners of the 1990s. Does Sinatra close for Steve and Eydie? No. They open for him, much as starter Tom Browning opens for stopper Rob Dibble in Cincinnati.

The reason: the save. The save has saved bullpen stoppers from the kind of obscurity suffered by the wretched middle reliever. "I knew the save would be important," says Jerome Holtzman, the eminent Chicago baseball writer who invented the statistic 32 years ago and saw it officially adopted in 1969. "It was the first major scoring change that baseball made since RBIs in the 1920s. But I had no idea it would become as big as it has."

Not that there isn't still some confusion over what constitutes a save. "I was never good enough at math to know whether or not I was entering a game in a save situation," says former relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry, he of the 244 career saves.

A relief pitcher receives a save if he does one of the following:

1) Pitches three effective innings to end the game, regardless of the size of his team's lead when he enters. "It can be 100 to nothing," notes Reardon.

2) Pitches one full inning to end the game after entering with a lead of three runs or fewer. "Nobody likes the three-run rule," says Baltimore Oriole closer Gregg Olson, "except for the closers."

3) Closes the game after entering with a lead of three runs or fewer and with the tying run on base, at the plate or on deck. (On deck? How much of a threat is a man kneeling on a circular portrait of Chief Wahoo? you might well ask.)

It is those three little clauses that have forged baseball's closers into a tight fraternal organization, one that even has the requisite funny hats. "Every Fireman of the Year has to tip his fireman's hat in Reardon's direction," says Quisenberry.

Reardon, in turn, removes his figurative fire chief's hat in tribute to the save's inventor. "Jerome Holtzman," says Reardon, who is in the final year of a three-year, $6.8 million contract, "is a friend of mine."

Is it any wonder? Holtzman hatched the save while working as the Cubs' beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1960, when ElRoy Face of the Pittsburgh Pirates was believed to be the game's best reliever. "ElRoy Face was 18-1 in 1959, and everybody thought he was great," says Holtzman. "But when a relief pitcher gets a win, that's not good, unless he came into a tie game. Face would come in in the eighth inning and give up the tying run. Then Pittsburgh would come back to win in the ninth."

The Cubs, meanwhile, had a pair of marvelous relief pitchers in righty Don Elston and lefty Bill Henry. Both protected leads like a good editor, but there was no way to quantify their accomplishments. According to Holtzman's first save formula—you can see him scratching out equations like Einstein—a relief pitcher had to enter the game with the tying or go-ahead run on base or at the plate, and he had to finish the game with the lead.

The save formula that baseball's rules committee finally adopted nine years later stipulated that a reliever had to protect a lead until the end of the game or until he was lifted for a pinch hitter or pinch runner. If more than one pitcher qualified, the official scorer judged which of the pitchers was most effective. "But we didn't want it to become a judgment call," says Holtzman. "We didn't want it to become like an assist in basketball."

In 1973 baseball, like Goldilocks, judged the rule to be a little too soft. That's when it was decided that a reliever had to pitch three innings or enter the game with the tying run on base or at the plate. (It was also at this point that the official scorer's discretion was, for all practical purposes, taken out of play.) Too hard, ruled the rules committee two years later, when it was decreed that the tying run could be on deck. Thus was completed the evolution of the save rule we have today.

And be certain of this: The save rule we have today has inflated egos to the size of passenger-side air bags. "From a financial standpoint, I don't think teams put enough emphasis on a closer," says San Diego closer Randy Myers. "They'll pay an every-day player $5 million, but your top relievers, average, are probably only making $3½ million."

Piteous chump change, to be sure, Randy, but without the save rule, relievers wouldn't be making nearly that much jack. "With guys who have been doing what Jeff Reardon is doing," says Reds reliever Norm Charlton, "[the save] is the only way to legitimize their salary. If there's no such thing as a save, what do you look at?"

Anything else, many in the media are now saying. Soon after Reardon's passing of Fingers's record, the St. Louis Cardinals' Lee Smith (326 saves) will overtake Fingers too, and that has lately led columnists to suggest that the save itself is in need of salvation. "What's the most overblown, overrated and overpublicized statistic in baseball?" asked Tom Verducci of New York Newsday last week. "That's easy. It's the save."

Indeed, the raw number of saves reached an alltime high of 1,132 last season, while complete games hit an alltime low of 366. Last week Reardon pitched the ninth inning of a 4-1 win against the California Angels after Red Sox starter Roger Clemens threw a two-hitter for the first eight. "Years ago," says Reardon, "the manager would have never taken the starter out in a situation like that."

Reardon threw 16 pitches that evening in Anaheim. Time was, when the starter got in trouble early, the closer would enter the game in the seventh inning and pitch the rest of the way. "I was always seen as a guy who was good once through the lineup," says Quisenberry, who nevertheless sees "the new wave" of setup men and ninth-inning closers as an improvement. Quiz pitched 139 innings when he saved a then record 45 games in 1983. Reardon pitched 59‚Öì innings in saving 40 games last season. Fingers pitched 119 or more innings in a season eight times in his career. Reardon has pitched as many as 100 innings only twice. Fingers will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer. And what about the 36-year-old Reardon?

"Because I'm pitching 65 or 70 innings a season now, that isn't my fault," he says. "This is what the job is now." And where is it going? The Chicago White Sox's 28-year-old stopper, Bobby Thigpen—whose 57 saves in 65 opportunities in 1990 are two records unlikely to be broken in this century—need average only a conservative 28 saves per season to reach 400 by the time he's 36.

Onetime starter Dennis Eckersley, now the stopper for the Oakland A's, reached 200 saves faster than any reliever in history. It has taken him little more than five seasons. Eckersley's manager, Tony La Russa, has a reputation among American League relievers for finding the cushiest of save situations in which to pitch the Eck. "People look at a three-run lead and say it's an easy save," says Eckersley, "but in this job you can't afford to have one bad inning, the way a starter can."

"There is no such thing as an easy save," says La Russa indignantly. "The rule is defined to prevent that. They are all hard."

Reardon, though, is a bit more forthright. "I'm not stupid," he says, "I know-some are easier than others. I get more enjoyment out of a tough two-or one-run game than when it's 6-2 with two guys on base. But that's just the way we're used."

Those who argue that saves are too easy and cheesy, that the stat is so much hype and tripe, might cite consecutive saves by Reardon in May. On the 18th he entered with a 3-0 lead against the Seattle Mariners, promptly yielded a double and a two-run dinger but nevertheless got the parenthetical S after his name in the next morning's box score. The next night he was credited with a-save for throwing one pitch.

This isn't an entirely modern phenomenon. The Washington Senators' Fred (Firpo) Marberry was the Jeff Reardon of the Jazz Age, the most dominant relief pitcher of the 1920s. According to one report he once "saved" games on three consecutive days in Cleveland while throwing a total of five pitches.

But today's game is fairly designed for such scenarios. If Boston encounters a save situation, Reardon will pitch—and, most likely, pitch no more than one inning. (Former Cub manager Herman Franks may have begun this trend in the late 1970s, first by overworking Sutter and then using the arm-weary stopper no more than an inning at a time.) If you are any other relief pitcher for the Red Sox, you will close about as often as Denny's. Conversely, Reardon has only pitched four times this season in nonsave situations, and in two of those games the score was tied when he came in. But that is not because he is unwilling to pitch whenever called upon—unlike one marquee reliever, who is said to have told his manager this spring that he wanted to pitch no more than one inning in any appearance.

Mercifully, such monsters remain the exception. But should they multiply, get used to them, because the save rule is here to stay. "It's not perfect," says Holtzman, "but I always tell people to show me a better formula. So far, nobody has."

"The save leaves just enough room for a little error," says Olson of the Orioles. "It's amazing how quickly that room for error is gone."

Say this much. They stick together, these guys. "I get a kick out of the good ol' boys like [California's Bryan] Harvey and Olson and [the Toronto Blue Jays' Tom] Henke," says Thigpen. "That's because I'm one too. About the only one who doesn't talk much is Reardon, but that's just the way he is. It's not that he doesn't like us or we're the enemy. I was shagging in the outfield once, and he was out jogging. We had a nice talk for quite a while about everything. But that was about the only time."

This might be surprising to Thigpen, but Reardon is not merely the game's leading conservationist; he's an engaging conversationalist, as well. When he was pitching in both Minnesota—where he helped the Twins win a championship in '87—and Boston, his silence was mistaken by some for arrogance. "I might give one-word answers after a game," he says, "but that's just the way I am. I'm quiet."

There is danger in denigrating the record that Reardon is about to fracture. Set aside debate about the save statistic, and what the mark means is that he has done the job asked of him more often than anyone else in the game.

"It is the second-proudest accomplishment of my career," he says.

And the proudest?

The son of a security guard, un-drafted out of college, from a paper-mill town in Massachusetts, Reardon doesn't hesitate. "Pitching the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series," he says.

Naturally, Reardon got the save. Which is not a bad note on which to end this story. Once again, Jeff Reardon has closed successfully.



...but Eck, Oakland's current stopper, rarely throws more than one inning.