By Kevin Neary
By Leigh A. Tobin
Foreword by Brad Lidge
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Elroy Face is proof that you do not have to be a giant to succeed in not only baseball, but as a major league pitcher. The five-foot-eight, 155-pound right-hander is arguably considered the pioneer of the modern day closer. In his sixteen years in the majors, he went 104-95, with a 2.48 ERA and 193 saves in 848 games.
Against all odds, Face succeeded even though he did not even start playing baseball until he went to Averill Park High School in 1944. “I didn’t start playing baseball until I was sixteen years old in high school,” said Face. “We didn’t have a Little League from the small town I came from. By the second year I played in high school we won the championship. In 1946, I joined the army. Shortly after that, I was drafted by Branch Rickey, not once, but eventually twice. I was drafted first by the Dodgers from the Phillies, and then again from the Dodgers, I went on to the Pirates.”
A Stephentown, New York native, Face was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1949 and assigned to Class D. After two seasons with the Phillies and no promotion, he was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers on December 4, 1950, in the minor league draft. Two years later, he was drafted again, on December 1, 1952, by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft.
Like most pitchers from his generation, he began his career as a starter. “I remember in 1949 I was a starter in the minors at Bradford and I went 14-2, and then I went 18-5 the following year, and then the Phillies let me go!” Face recalled. “So, again, that is when Branch Rickey was able to grab me for the Dodgers. At Pueblo, Colorado, for the Dodgers minor league affiliate, I went 23-9 for a sixth-place team. Overall that year, I started thirty-two games and completed twenty-five of those and I led the league in ERA [2.78].”
After being drafted by the Pirates, Face stayed on the major league roster for the 1953 season, making his major league debut on April 16 versus the Phillies in a 14-12 win at Forbes Field. He entered the game in the fifth inning, allowing three runs on four hits and a walk, and managed just one out. Overall he had a very mediocre season, starting thirteen of his forty-one games, going 6-8, with a 6.58 ERA. It was then he knew he needed another pitch in order to have success.
Veteran and former Yankee reliever Joe Page was in camp with the Pirates in 1954, working on a comeback. “I would watch Joe Page and how he threw his forkball, and I knew I needed an off-speed pitch,” Face remembered. “I saw what it was doing for him, so I went down to New Orleans to work on a new pitch. It probably took me a half season to get it working for me. Prior to throwing the forkball I was strictly throwing the fastball and curveball and that was my complete repertoire.”
Face spent the 1954 season pitching for the New Orleans Pelicans under Manager Danny Murtaugh—and perfecting his forkball, the pitch that would make his career. Contrary to the belief of some, Page did not teach the pitch to the young pitcher. “I didn’t even ask him to compare it to his until I learned to pitch it on my own first,” Face said. “We actually didn’t even get together until he retired. I worked on the pitch, and he and I compared it to the one he threw then.”
So, it wasn’t Page, but Danny Murtaugh who probably had the greatest impact on his career, “because he was the one who took me out of the starting rotation and made me strictly a closer,” Face said.
In 1955, Face returned to the majors and his stellar career—mainly in relief—began.
That first year with his new pitch, he split his time between starting and relieving (3.58 ERA, ten starts in forty-two games, with five saves). In 1956, he led the National League with sixty-eight appearances as his start total dropped to three games. It was in 1956 that he pitched in nine straight games (September 3–13, sixteen and one-third innings), a feat unheard of these days.
“If I didn’t pitch for four or five straight games, I felt as though I wasn’t as sharp,” Face recalled. “In 1952, when I was in the minors in Fort Worth, Bobby Bragan was the manager; he eventually became the manager of the Pirates (1956–57). During those days he was my manager in the minors, and I was one of his starters, but during my off days and in between starts, he put me in the bullpen because my arm could bounce back and responded so well. So, that is why when he came to the Pirates as the manager, he knew what I could do, and that is why he let me pitch nine straight games in a row and he wasn’t afraid to use me.”
He made one last career start in 1957, appearing in fifty-nine games (second-highest total in the NL) and picking up ten saves. In 1958, Face went 5-2 with a 2.89 ERA. He led the NL with twenty saves and forty games finished, and his seventy-seven games were the second highest in the NL. But all that faded in comparison to his 1959 season.
His sensational 1959 season marked his first selection to the all-star teams (there were two All-Star Games each season from 1959–62). His legendary 18-1 record (.947 winning percentage), still stands as a major league record; he earned seventeen straight wins before his first and only loss on September 11 at Los Angeles. His win streak actually reached twenty-two games, including five from the previous season. The loss was also his first in ninety-nine appearances, also dating back to 1958. Not only did he win eighteen games, he added ten saves to account for twenty-eight of the club’s seventy-eight wins for the season and compiled a 2.70 ERA.
“A blown save happens,” Face stated. “I remember a blown save I had in 1959, the same year I went 18-1, and it was on a broken-bat single. I remember Charley Neal hit it and I still remember that blown save to this day.” (That blown save against the Dodgers resulted in his lone loss of the season.)
Face’s durability and consistency over the next several years put him in the All-Star Games in 1960 and 1961. He led the league in: saves, with seventeen in 1961 and twenty-eight in 1962; games finished, with sixty-one, forty-seven, and fifty-seven from 1960 to 1962 respectively; and appearances in 1960 (sixty-eight). With two exceptions, his ERA stayed below 3.50 in each of his seasons with the Pirates through 1968.
His greatest moment came in his lone postseason series—the Pirates’ 1960 World Series triumph over the New York Yankees in seven games. “I closed them down in three games,” Face recalled. “I’m not certain, but I think I was the first closer to record three saves in a World Series. I almost had a fourth save, if the situation was right in game seven.” Face did join an elite club of closers who have three or more saves during a World Series.
In his sixteen years of Major League Baseball, there were sure to be a few funny moments as well. “I remember I was pitching in this game in Chicago,” began Face. “I came in to close. I had a runner on first and one out. I got the next out and then Billy Williams stepped up to bat. I eventually got a 1-1 count on Williams, and then I throw the next pitch right down the plate and he took it for strike two. The next thing I know, the catcher came out to visit me on the mound and he said, ‘Do you know the runner on first is now standing on second?’ I said, ‘How did that happen?’ And he said, ‘Because you wound up, and as soon as you did, he took off, and that is why Williams took the pitch.’ Williams, you see, took the pitch—this way, the runner would be in scoring position and he could knock in the tying run. Eventually, I got Williams to pop up and end the inning and the game. When I got to the dugout, the manager, Danny Murtaugh, was standing at the top step and said, ‘What are doing out there?’ The best answer back I could muster up was, ‘I knew what I was doing, and it was the only way I could get Williams to take a strike!’” he concluded with a big laugh.
The eighty-four-year-old rarely entered the game in the ninth inning, with no one on and no outs. In his day, most relievers/closers pitched multiple innings. “Every team had a closer back then,” Face said, “but a closer had to be ready by the sixth or seventh inning. It wasn’t just a one-inning save back then, with no one on and your team has the lead. We normally faced batters with runners on base and many times the game was tied.
“I remember I came as a closer into a game in the ninth inning against Chicago and we were tied,” he recalled, “and I eventually got the victory in the fourteenth inning. In 1956, I pitched in nine straight games. The bullpen was always considered the workhorse on the team and it didn’t matter if there was a lefty or a righty up to bat. It didn’t make a difference. When I finished my career I pitched in a total of 848 games and worked 1,375 total innings, which is almost an average of two innings per appearance.”
Like closers of today, Face usually had an idea if he was coming into a game, although he had to be prepared earlier in the game. “I knew whenever that call came down to the bullpen from the seventh inning on that it was for me to come in,” said Face. “I remember on the days that I didn’t feel 100 percent or when I was tired, I would go to the clubhouse and take a nap, and when the seventh inning came around, someone would come into the clubhouse and say, ‘Elroy, it’s the seventh inning, time to get up!’Then my nap would be over, but once in a while I got to sleep a little longer if we were up five or six runs or down five or six runs. But if the situation called for me to win or save the game, that call would be for me.”
ROLAND “ROLLIE” FINGERS
Roland “Rollie” Fingers was born on August 25, 1946. The right-hander, widely considered the pioneer of modern relief pitching, is probably more known for his famous handlebar mustache than his hall-of-fame career.
Fingers’ career began in 1964 when he received the early Christmas present of being signed by the Kansas City Athletics as an amateur free agent on December 24. But his signing was not his first taste of baseball.
“I grew up with baseball,” Fingers stated. “When I was little my dad played in the minor leagues in the St. Louis organization. He and Stan Musial were roommates. This is when Stan Musial was a pitcher. They roomed together, and then suddenly one day Stan played in a game in the outfield and went four for four and never went back to pitching another baseball game. I guess that is how Stan became ‘the Man.’ I grew up in the middle of baseball all of my life. My father taught me everything about the game. Most of all, he taught me the proper mechanics of how to throw a baseball correctly. That is the biggest thing when you are a kid is to find someone who knows the proper way of throwing a baseball so you are not hurting your arm. There is a certain way of throwing a baseball and he taught me the right way. So, I’ve been around this game all of my life, playing when I was nine when I first got to Little League and then all of the way up through Pony League, high school, American Legion, and then in the professional ranks. I have been around it forever.”
In 1968, the same year the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland, Fingers made his major league debut. In the early years, he made a few starts, but his niche was relief. Over the course of his career, of the 944 games he pitched, 907 came in relief. He earned 341 career saves, with a career-best of thirty-seven in 1978 (in 107 innings).
Something like 10 percent of his saves were three innings or more—unheard of these days. “I don’t know the exact number,” Fingers laughed, “but I know there were a lot of them. I do know that I had fourteen or fifteen saves that were four innings. The starter went five innings and I went the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. I also know that I had two hundred saves that were one and two-thirds of an inning to two innings. I’m not too much into the statistics of how long or how many innings I went. Your closer role of today is totally different than the game we played, coming in for just one inning with the lead and with no guys on base. When I played the game, the starter would go out there and finish unless they were really in trouble, and then the relief pitcher would come in. I don’t know how many games I came into with the bases loaded and nobody out. They don’t do this nowadays. These guys of today come in with nobody on and nobody out.”
If he were pitching today, his approach would vary greatly. “It would be different because when I was playing I had to be ready to go in at the sixth inning,” said Fingers. “If the pitcher would get into trouble, I’d be warming up. If he then got out of it, then I’d sit down. In a game I might be up three to four times in the bullpen. These guys today, they are only going to go in at the ninth inning, so in the eighth inning they can get up and start getting loose and they know they are only going to pitch one inning. They only have to get up and throw once! I was constantly getting up and sitting down. When I was playing, you had to learn how to warm up. You had to watch the game while you were standing on the mound in the bullpen. You had to see the whole game from down there.”
He shared that the biggest asset a relief pitcher can have is control. “You have to be able to throw the ball where you want,” explained Fingers. “You have to be able to get a first-pitch strike. You have to be ahead of the hitters. If you stay ahead of the hitters and throw the ball where you want to then you can be a successful relief pitcher. What good is a 96 mph fastball if you can’t throw it through an open garage? You have to be able to hit the glove, and if you hit the glove, the tenth man who is on the field will be your friend, and he is the umpire. If you show the umpire that you’ve got great control, then he is probably going to give you a lot of pitches that are slightly off the plate. You’ll be getting more third strikes when you show great control and that you know what you’re doing on the mound. It’s all about throwing strikes and not wasting pitches, that is why pitchers like Greg Maddux and Mariano Rivera have been so successful. They can both hit spots. They are not overpowering, but their ball is always moving. I don’t think the two of them ever threw a straight ball. In Mariano Rivera’s case, he is such a great pitcher. You know that the cut-fastball is coming every time, and he doesn’t make mistakes. That is the key to being a great relief pitcher—not making mistakes and knowing where to throw the ball.”
Relievers were a different breed in the seventies. They had to be prepared for any situation. “That is how it was back then. If something happened in the sixth inning with the starter and he was getting racked up, I would have to go in. There was no such thing as a long reliever or a setup man and a closer. I was everything, and we had to do it all back then. The difference today, teams carry sometimes up to thirteen pitchers. In my day, when I was playing, we had nine or ten pitchers at the most. When you looked down at the bullpen you usually saw only three or four guys down there. Today, you look down, there could be seven, eight, or nine guys down in the bullpen. When I played, I had to be the long reliever, the setup man, and the closer all in the same game. And when you did come in, it wasn’t like it was like bases empty and there was no jam to get out of.”
Despite the physical demands, most relievers in the early days believe the job then was more mentally challenging and Fingers is no exception. “By the end of the year you were more mentally and emotionally tired than physically tired. If you pitched in seventy some games in a year, you probably came into sixty of those games with the game on the line. It could wear on you more mentally, I believe, than physically because of all the pressure situations. After a while it was just another job. I mean you come in and just do what you have to do. You don’t even think about it really. That is why if you do it enough times in a season, it will just wear on you.”
In Fingers’ experience, coaches would only visit the mound to give him a breather. “Usually when I came in, I wasn’t going to see a coach again unless I got completely rocked. I do remember one game when A’s manager, Dick Williams, came out to the mound,” Fingers recalled with a slight smile. “He was there ’cause I just gave up three consecutive hits in a row in a game against Chicago. The lead went from 4-1 to 4-3. Dick Williams came out to the mound, and he was pissed off. He looked to [catcher] Gene Tenace because he didn’t want to talk to me because he said I wasn’t going to give him the truth anyway. He said to Gene Tenace, ‘How’s he throwing?’ And Gene said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t caught anything yet.’”
The six-foot-four reliever has a signature mustache that makes him look like a throwback to the early 1900s. “I have the handlebar moustache and it’s always worked for me,” explained Fingers. “The owner of the A’s, Charlie Finley, offered any of us $300 if we could grow a moustache by opening day in 1972. That was a lot of money back then. He did it because there wasn’t any facial hair in baseball back then. We started it as a team in 1972 with the Oakland A’s, and the only reason why we did it was to get $300 out of Charlie Finley. And then we started winning, beginning in 1972. And then we won the series in ’73 and ’74, and after three World Series Championships it was tough to think about cutting the moustache off.”
Needless to say, those World Series Championships were very meaningful to Fingers. “You grow up as a kid and dream of being in the World Series and getting that last out in the game and standing on the mound. I got the opportunity to do that twice. It doesn’t get any better than that. Getting that last out in the World Series and winning it. I got Pete Rose to fly out to left field in 1972, and then got a ground ball back to me in game five in 1974 to win my second World Series. They are the two moments in my life that I will keep with me forever!”
Fingers retired following the 1985 season. It took seven years, but in 1992 Fingers became just the second reliever to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Hoyt Wilhelm preceded him).
Gene Garber was a reliever who pitched during the early formation of the closer role. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the twentieth round of the 1965 draft and ended up pitching in the majors for nineteen years with the Pirates (1969–70; 1972), Kansas City Royals (1973–74; 1987–88), Philadelphia Phillies (1974–78), and Atlanta Braves (1978–87).
The sidewinding right-hander, like many other closers, began his career as a starter. He made his major league debut on June 17, 1969, in a start against the Chicago Cubs, earning a no-decision in the Pirates’ 4-3 win.
For the next couple of seasons he bounced between the majors and minors, and pitched mainly as a starter, but had a few relief appearances sprinkled in. It wasn’t until he was in his second season with the Royals, in 1974, that he pitched solely in relief.
Garber pitched for nineteen seasons and feels he had two defining moments in his career. “I will always be remembered for stopping Pete Rose’s forty-four game hit streak when I was on the Braves.”
It happened on August 1, 1978, when Rose’s Cincinnati Reds were facing the Braves. Garber entered the game in the seventh inning and got Rose to line into a double play. He insisted on remaining in the game to face him again in the ninth inning, despite a 16-4 lead. Rose was due to bat third, and Garber ended up striking him out on a change-up.
After the game, an irritated Rose said, “Those guys were pitching like it was the seventh game of the World Series.” To which members of the Braves replied, “He was hitting like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”
His other defining moment came with the Phillies in 1977. “Over the years it has been referred to as Black Friday. It was a playoff game against the Dodgers in 1977,” Garber explained. “It was the seventh inning and I was called in. We had a one-run lead. I got three outs in the seventh and three outs in the eighth inning. I then got the first two outs in the ninth. I even had a two-strike count on the pinch hitter, Vic Davalillo, but he was shocked to notice Ted Sizemore, our second baseman, playing unusually deep, so he laid down a drag bunt for a single. We never had a play on the ball. From then on it just kept mushrooming, and worst of all we went on to lose that game and the Dodgers went up 2-1 in games.
“I remember the ball that Manny Mota hit to left and how it went off Greg Luzinski’s glove,” said Garber, thinking back to the Black Friday loss. “It was so windy that day and honestly that was the first time I ever remember a ball hitting his glove that he didn’t catch. I thought the game was over then, but things just continued to go bad for us. There were five things that happened in that inning that never happened before. But that’s how funny things are—we always seem to remember the negative.
“That loss set the table for the next game, taking all of the wind out of our sails, when Tommy John for the Dodgers faced off against our Steve Carlton. It poured all night long, but we continued to play and again we went on to lose that game by the score of 4-1, and we were out of the playoffs.”
Garber compiled 218 career saves, only eighty-eight of which were one inning or less. In his day, the word closer was not used. “Back then you were either a long reliever or a short reliever. If you were a short reliever, you could go in anytime from the sixth inning on. The long reliever could go in for the first five innings,” explained Garber.
“You never thought about the save back then; rather it was about closing out the game and getting the victory,” he continued. “Today it is the opposite. You play the game in order for you to give the closer the opportunity to get the save. It’s all a part of the show.”
Garber is not particularly fond of some of the new “rules” of the game. “One of my pet peeves is charging the closer with a blown save if he doesn’t preserve the victory, regardless of what the circumstances were along the way, like a passed ball or an error,” he said. “It is still a blown save and it rests all on the closer.
“I remember in 1979, I broke the record for most losses by a relief pitcher in a season and I picked up three of those losses in one week, and the ball never made it out of the infield in any of those games. I ended the season 6-16 that year. It’s ironic how the closer of today is supposed to be perfect.”
Garber went on, “Another one of my pet peeves is pitch count. It is the worst thing that ever happened. Today’s mind-set for starting pitchers is just to get in six or so innings, and then at that point they are only looking to come out. You tell them they should be tired now. I remember Jim Kaat had this expression he’d like to use: ‘You gotta use it, but don’t abuse it, so you don’t lose it!’ I remember in our day if you didn’t complete games, you were not perceived to be a complete pitcher. I remember I pitched one thousand innings in the minor leagues before being called up for good. Yet, I don’t think it took years off my career because I was still pitching until I was forty years old.
“My philosophy is if you don’t expect much out of someone then you aren’t going to get it. If the expectation is low, then everyone is satisfied with just the minimum. I’m not sure why these pitchers, who are making the money that they do, can’t consistently pitch every four days if they are only going six innings anyway. You even hear some managers today complain that they don’t have enough pitching and yet they might have thirteen pitchers on their staff. In our day, we had eight pitchers normally on staff.
“I remember when I got traded from the Phillies to the Braves I got Bobby Cox in trouble. The reason was I had pitched for eight straight days and we were headed into Dodger Stadium. The first night Bobby turned to me and said, ‘I’m giving you the night off.’ And it looked that way when the Dodgers went up 8-0. But, wouldn’t you know it, we struggled back and went ahead 9-8. Bobby called down to the bullpen in the eighth inning and asked me, ‘Could I pitch?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can pitch.’ I went in and saved the game and got the victory for the team. Then the next day someone came up to me when I got to the clubhouse and said, ‘Did you look at the lineup today?’ Then I looked at it and it had Gene Garber batting second and playing centerfield. So, I went up to Bobby and asked, ‘Do you want me to take batting practice?’ Bobby said, ‘Yep, you’re taking batting practice.’ So, I went ahead and took batting practice with the regulars. I remember being on deck after the first guy got out and before I walked to the plate Bobby called time and put a pinch hitter in. He turned to me and said, ‘Good game! I’m pinch-hitting for you.’ After the game he got a call from the league president, who said, ‘What are you doing? You’re making a farce out of this game!’ Bobby said, ‘I’m not making a farce out of the game. This was the only way I could assure Garber was getting the day off!’ It was a pretty funny story for us all.”
The pitcher, who grew up on a dairy farm, is now a farmer himself in Pennsylvania. He was hardworking as a pitcher and continues with that work ethic in his current position. “I’ve had two jobs in my life,” said Garber, “and I’ve loved them both.”
Each job is physically demanding, but “there is a mental part to baseball, too, meaning you have to want the ball,” Garber explained. “You have to be able to say to yourself, ‘If my club has the lead, then I am the best pitcher out there for our team to secure the win.’ You had to have this mental toughness to be able to do that. Of course, that was tough to say when you pitched after Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro,” he said with a grin. “But once you got the ball, that was the mind-set you had to take going in and before you were ready to pitch.”
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- Mar 5, 2013
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