Closer craziness: Is it the job or the person?
Ninth-inning pitchers maintain unique personalities, appearances
The ninth inning belongs to closers, often called upon when the game hangs in the balance. As much as they impact the game, the game might also impact them. Let's just say that many of them are "out there."
Before elbow surgery ended his season before it even began, staring at Brian Wilson's beard was like peering into an abyss. The thick, black forest that conceals the bottom of his face symbolizes the unique persona that the San Francisco closer puts on display during interviews and in commercials.
Chris Perez, appropriately nicknamed "Pure Rage," riles himself up by directing challenges at the opposition, the Cleveland fanbase or any others in his path.
Though not as nimble on his feet as Fred Astaire, a not-so-svelte Jose Valverde hops, skips and jumps his way to the mound when Tigers skipper Jim Leyland summons him from the bullpen.
And then there's Mariano Rivera, perhaps the coolest, calmest, most relaxed cat to ever step foot on a mound.
Rivera is the exception to the burgeoning rule, the anomaly at a position lauded for passion, fire, unconventional hairstyles and, of course, dancing.
"A lot of people feel that you need a different kind of personality to have that job," said Indians manager Manny Acta. "You need to have a short memory and so forth. It comes with the personality. We can't ask everybody to act like Mariano does, because there's not going to be another one like him. It comes with the personality and the high-pressure situations."
People cope with pressure in different ways. Some squeeze stress-relief balls. Some talk to themselves. Others pump their fists and unleash emphatic screams upon the conclusion of a successful inning.
"You don't see that calmness from a closer," said Carlos Baerga, who patrolled Major League infields for six teams from 1990-2005. "It's because of the pressure that's on you to close the game. The only closer that I've seen that is relaxed is Mariano Rivera. Everybody else is kind of crazy."
The chicken-or-egg debate will eternally persist. In the baseball world, a parallel yet more prudent argument is whether the closer's role breeds edgy personae, or if those personalities steer pitchers toward the pressure-packed inning. Which came first: the job or the behavior?
Perez believes being fierce prepares closers for the challenges of the ninth.
"I think it's because of the situation we come into," Perez said. "Not many people want to volunteer for that role. You're on the line every time. It's the thrill-seeking bunch who will gravitate toward that."
Perez personifies today's prototypical closer. His unkempt, scraggly beard matches his long, surfer-dude locks. He yells, derives motivation from unruly fans and often pumps his fist.
Wilson's beard has its own Twitter account, with more than 15,000 followers. Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan sports a goatee that extends several inches off his chin, similar to the style of former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. Brewers bullpen captain John Axford dons a mustache suitable for a character in an old Western film.
The sporting of eye-popping facial hair dates back four decades to the development of the modern bullpen. Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley fashioned iconic mustaches. Al Hrabosky -- "The Mad Hungarian" known for working himself into a state of anger before pitching -- had a bushy Fu Manchu. Bruce Sutter maintained a thick, scruffy beard to mesh with his untamed, curly hair. The facial hair reflects the atypical nature of their duties.
"Not too many starters are known for their facial hair," Perez said. "I think if I was a regular guy, the team might have told me to shave it by now or clean it up. You get more leeway in the ninth. That's just how it is.
"In the grand scheme of a game, we're out there for an inning. A starter is out there for six, seven, eight innings. We're there at the end of the game; there's a bunch of energy, whether on the road or at home. It's like a walk-off. When we get the third out, the game is over."
Twins closer Matt Capps isn't usually as animated as many of his peers, but he understands why his counterparts are so different.
"I think with the role, it's more magnified at the end of the ballgame," Capps said. "But you see fire and you see excitement out of a starting pitcher quite a bit, too. It's just not more magnified in the third, fourth or fifth inning."
Of course, a starter won't last seven innings if he exerts energy celebrating after each out.
"It's harder for a guy who's going to throw 120 pitches to be pumping his fist after every three and pointing to the sky," Acta said.
So, would the stoppers tame their acts if they were in a starting role? Perez said he couldn't envision himself behaving in any other manner. Valverde said it's impossible to speculate.
"We'll never know," Valverde said. "I've never started in my life."
If anyone is to judge the difference in intensity between pitching duties, it's Tigers right-hander Octavio Dotel. The mild-mannered journeyman reliever has filled just about every role during his 14-year career. He began as a starter with the Mets in 1999 before transitioning to the back-end of Houston's bullpen. Throughout his tour of 13 Major League teams, he has served as a closer, a long reliever and everything in between.
"Coming in the eighth, if you get three outs, you say, 'OK,'" Dotel said. "But just knowing the game is over after facing three tough hitters -- to be [crazy] like that after going through that particular ninth inning, I understand that."
Dotel's bullpen buddy said the job can knock a few screws loose in a pitcher's head.
"You have to be a little crazy, because it's hard," Valverde said. "There's so much pressure."
Baerga played with a slew of closers, from Jose Mesa in Cleveland to John Franco in New York to Trevor Hoffman in San Diego to Ugueth Urbina in Boston. He's seen every personality imaginable. After 1,630 games in the big leagues, he came away with one conclusion.
"All of the closers are crazy," Baerga said. "They're on fire all the time. They have to be like that. Your blood has to be cold to be a closer."