Huston Street says he’d retire if he was used like a 1970s-style fireman

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There was a time, back in ancient history, when dinosaurs and Gerald Ford and doubleknit pullover uniforms roamed the earth, in which managers used their best relief pitchers in the most critical, highest-leverage situations in the game. Two-men on and the middle of the order coming up in a close game in the seventh? Get Goose Gossage in there! Or John Hiller. Or whoever. They were said to put our fires and became known as “firemen.”

Then a bright young boy named Tony La Russa came along and realized that, in some cases, it may actually be better not to have the best overall reliever come in when things got hairy. Rather, in some cases, a specialist may match up better against the middle of that order — or at least make things more difficult for the middle of that order — than the fireman. A lefty who is harder on a big lefty bat than Gossage or Hiller may be, for example. The best guy still had to pitch, of course, so La Russa gave him the ninth inning to give the opposition an almost humiliating kick in the teeth. “You couldn’t capitalize an inning or two ago, and NOW you have to face my best!” he seemed to say. “I shall now foreclose any chance you have to win!” And thus the modern, one-inning closer was born.

La Russa was a smart, smart lad and he used this approach to great advantage, winning multiple division titles, pennants and World Series and managing himself and a closer named Dennis Eckersley into the Hall of Fame.

In baseball, maybe more so than anywhere else, people copy what the smart young lads do, and many began to copy young La Russa. Except not everyone is as bright a boy as La Russa and, over time, the lessons of his specialization were sort of muddled and watered down and in some cases forgotten completely. Oh, sure, everyone is playing those matchups and talking about specialization, but the tail has come to wag the dog. Managers overwhelmingly start with the idea that their closer must pitch the ninth in save situations only — and getting that save is important! — and then they work backwards, giving those specialists their very own innings, as if their success was based on what inning it was rather than the matchup. In fact, the idea that, if you don’t have a specialist as good as the ones young La Russa had, using your best reliever to put out fires is the best idea has been all but lost to history. Today the best relief pitchers exclusively pitch the ninth inning.

Once in a while, people talk about going back to the old ways and using one’s best relievers as old fashioned firemen rather than just in save situations. It’s an interesting idea that people talk about but rarely if ever do anything about. Some closers, however, don’t even want to talk about it, so convinced that they have become that the ninth inning and the save matters more than anything else.

Like Huston Street of the Angels, who was asked what he thinks about reverting to the old fireman model:

“I’ll retire if that ever happens,” Street said. “If they ever tell me, ‘Oh, we’re gonna start using you in these high-leverage situations.’ … All right, good. You now can go find someone else to do that, because I’m going home.”

“It’s a ridiculous idea. It really is,” Street said. “The fact is, a bullpen functions best when you have roles. If you want to have a good ‘pen, you need three or four guys that you trust. And if you trust them, give them roles, so they know what they have to do every day.

“You talk to anybody that’s ever been part of a bullpen where they don’t know their roles — it’s the most miserable experience, it’s the most miserable season. Every single player — good relievers who know exactly what they’re doing in a ‘pen, know exactly how to warm up — they absolutely hate it as a person.”

He says more on that subject to David Adler of MLB.com. And perhaps he has some good points in there about the importance of routine. But perhaps it’s also the case that the model of bullpen usage he describes as “ridiculous” lasted much, much longer than the model which he believes to be ideal. Which isn’t to say that the old ways are better — they often aren’t — but that, in baseball as in life, the current way isn’t always best either and that changes should be expected as new ideas, strategies and efficiencies are uncovered.

Or maybe he should just retire and leave all of that to players who are more flexible.

(h/t Big League Stew)

 

Gaylord Perry, two-time Cy Young winner, dies at 84

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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GAFFNEY, S.C. — Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, a master of the spitball and telling stories about the pitch, died at 84.

Perry died at his home in Gaffney, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said. He did not provide additional details. A statement from the Perry family said he “passed away peacefully at his home after a short illness.”

The native of Williamston, North Carolina, made history as the first player to win the Cy Young in both leagues, with Cleveland in 1972 after a 24-16 season and with San Diego in 1978 – going 21-6 for his fifth and final 20-win season just after turning 40.

“Before I won my second Cy Young, I thought I was too old – I didn’t think the writers would vote for me,” Perry said in an article on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. “But they voted on my performance, so I won it.”

“Gaylord Perry was a consistent workhorse and a memorable figure in his Hall of Fame career,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, adding, “he will be remembered among the most accomplished San Francisco Giants ever … and remained a popular teammate and friend throughout his life.”

Perry was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and spent 10 seasons among legendary teammates like Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who said Thursday that Perry “was a good man, a good ballplayer and my good friend. So long old Pal.”

Juan Marichal remembered Perry as “smart, funny, and kind to everyone in the clubhouse. When he talked, you listened.”

“During our 10 seasons together in the San Francisco Giants rotation, we combined to record 369 complete games, more than any pair of teammates in the Major Leagues,” Marichal said. “I will always remember Gaylord for his love and devotion to the game of baseball, his family, and his farm.”

Perry, who pitched for eight major-league teams from 1962 until 1983, was a five-time All-Star who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991. He had a career record of 314-255, finished with 3,554 strikeouts and used a pitching style where he doctored baseballs or made batters believe he was doctoring them.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame said in a statement that Perry was “one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.” The Texas Rangers, whom Perry played for twice, said in a statement that the pitcher was “a fierce competitor every time he took the ball and more often than not gave the Rangers an opportunity to win the game.”

“The Rangers express their sincere condolences to Gaylord’s family at this difficult time,” the team’s statement said. “This baseball great will be missed.”

Perry’s 1974 autobiography was titled “Me and the Spitter,” and he wrote it in that when he started in 1962 he was the “11th man on an 11-man pitching staff” for the Giants. He needed an edge and learned the spitball from San Francisco teammate Bob Shaw.

Perry said he first threw it in May 1964 against the New York Mets, pitched 10 innings without giving up a run and soon after entered the Giants’ starting rotation.

He also wrote in the book that he chewed slippery elm bark to build up his saliva, and eventually stopped throwing the pitch in 1968 after MLB ruled pitchers could no longer touch their fingers to their mouths before touching the baseball.

According to his book, he looked for other substances, like petroleum jelly, to doctor the baseball. He used various motions and routines to touch different parts of his jersey and body to get hitters thinking he was applying a foreign substance.

Giants teammate Orlando Cepeda said Perry had “a great sense of humor … a great personality and was my baseball brother.”

“In all my years in baseball, I never saw a right-handed hurler have such a presence on the field and in the clubhouse,” Cepeda added.

Seattle Mariners Chairman John Stanton said in a release that he spoke with Perry during his last visit to Seattle, saying Perry was, “delightful and still passionate in his opinions on the game, and especially on pitching.

Perry was ejected from a game just once for doctoring a baseball – when he was with Seattle in August 1982. In his final season with Kansas City, Perry and teammate Leon Roberts tried to hide George Brett’s infamous pine-tar bat in the clubhouse but was stopped by a guard. Perry was ejected for his role in that game, too.

After his career, Perry founded the baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney and was its coach for the first three years.

Perry is survived by wife Deborah, and three of his four children in Allison, Amy and Beth. Perry’s son Jack had previously died.

Deborah Perry said in a statement to The AP that Gaylord Perry was “an esteemed public figure who inspired millions of fans and was a devoted husband, father, friend and mentor who changed the lives of countless people with his grace, patience and spirit.”

The Hall of Fame’s statement noted that Perry often returned for induction weekend “to be with his friends and fans.”

“We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Deborah, and the entire Perry family,” Baseball Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said.