Isringhausen, now a 300-saves club member, knows how volatile closer's role can be

Aug 19 2011 - 6:37pm

ST. LOUIS -- Noted English writer and poet Walter Raleigh once observed, "Hatreds are the cinders of affection." Were he thinking of baseball closers, Raleigh might have added, "And vice-versa."

On a late Monday night in San Diego, New York Mets reliever Jason Isringhausen secured the 300th save of his career, becoming the 23rd major-leaguer to reach the plateau. He did the bulk of his security work in St. Louis, where he is the franchise leader with 217 saves.

He also can testify that protecting leads in late innings might be the ultimate "What have you done for me lately" occupation. His years of good work withstanding, "Izzy" was booed off the mound a few times in 2008, his difficult final season in St. Louis.

When asked last month about the possibility of returning to St. Louis in a trade, the Brighton, Ill. product observed, "There's been enough history that I don't think they want to go through that again."

Neapolitan nature of the job is not so perplexing. In terms of intensity, hatred is the only human emotion that matches love. When it comes to baseball closers, those opposites are sometimes applied in equal proportions.

In football, it is the quarterback. In hockey, it is the goalkeeper.

In baseball, in which the outcome of a game often rests solely in their hands, as they must certify eight innings of success with one inning of infallibility, the closer can bring out the best -- and the worst -- in all of us.

That love-hate counterfeiting can sour even the most congenial of men. Slightly more than a season after recording 38 saves and a 1.92 earned-run average for the Cardinals, Ryan Franklin went from prized pitcher to public enemy No. 1 this spring. As his struggles mounted, and his receptions grew more rancid, the mild-mannered Arkansan experienced a code red.

"They're supposed to be the best fans in baseball . . . yeah right," Franklin said after hearing the boos in early May. He regretted the outburst afterward, before being released in June.

Local line

St. Louis has been a Graceland of sorts for dominating closers. Since 1980, a Cardinals closer has had a share or the outright hold of the National League saves lead seven times, more than any other NL team.

Of the 23 pitchers who have recorded 300 or more saves, five spent time here and collected significant numbers in a Cardinals uniform -- Isringhausen, Lee Smith, Tom Henke plus Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley. Former Cardinal Todd Worrell is among the 30 with 250 or more saves.

Henke, who collected 36 saves in 38 opportunities for the Cardinals in 1995, played portions of his career in Texas and Toronto as well. He acknowledged it's not easy for a pitcher to be pulled from a situation in which he has failed, only to have the fans pile on. But the territory is clearly marked.

"That type of thing maybe makes the job a little tougher," said Henke, who had 311 saves and will be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame this week. "It's a tough enough job as it is.

"Sometimes, maybe in New York or Philadelphia where expectations are a little bit higher, it can be pretty rough. But in St. Louis, where the fans are so good and so fair, you can get away with maybe few bad games. They understand it's part of the game. Some other places are a little less tolerant."

In 1975, when Cardinals lefty Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky tied Cincinnati's Rawly Eastwick for the NL lead with 22 saves, the league standard for most saves in a season was 37. Since 1985, when Bruce Sutter set a new mark with 45 saves for the Cardinals, the league leaders have had less than 40 saves only five times in 25 seasons.

But as the job has become more specialized, the do-or-die art undergoes more scrutiny and the emotional extremities spike. It seems logical to surmise the advent of all-sports radio has played a big part in putting targets on the backs of closers. At the same time, Hrabosky suggested, escalating prices in sports entertainment have encouraged a sense of entitlement.

"Especially in these economic times," Hrabosky said. "Instead of people going to a game, escaping the day-to-day things and just going to enjoy themselves, now we always have to find fault. We have to place blame here and there.

"I didn't have to deal with a lot of that. I was fortunate in my time here that people just went to the game to enjoy themselves."

Hrabosky had a unique way of handling the gravity of the moment and the determination of the foe. He grew a Fu Manchu mustache and had a scowl to go with it. He often went behind the mound between pitches, pausing to meditate before stalking up the hill, angrily slamming the ball in his glove and pawing at the dirt like an enraged bull.

"The interesting thing is I'm one who thinks some managers, pitching coaches or people put too much emphasis on the ninth inning," Hrabosky said. "I kind of took an approach that, if I can succeed here, I can separate myself and become someone more desirable so, 'Hey, go have fun!'

"I mean, I wanted to pitch when the game was on the line. I thought anybody could pitch five runs up or five down."

Now part of the Cardinals telecast crew, Hrabosky said the act wasn't about bravado as much as it was about distraction.

"A guy might go to the plate 600 times a year, but he might only face me five or six times," Hrabosky said. "In those five or six times he would forget about situational hitting, or what his job was, and just want to knock my head off."

Modifying the rules

The "save" was embraced by baseball rules in 1969. The rule was redefined in 1974, with no save to be credited unless a pitcher worked with the tying run on base or at the plate, or unless he pitched three effective innings.

A year later, it was tweaked again, crediting pitchers a save if the tying run is on deck.

As late as 1987, more than 60 percent of the saves involved a pitcher recording four outs or more. Two-out saves were 20 percent of the mix. By 2008, two-out saves were 80 percent of the breakdown.

Henke's 311 saves came in 14 seasons, only the last of which was spent in St. Louis.

Talk about going out on top, the farm boy from Taos, Mo., fulfilled a life-long dream by playing with the Cardinals, converting 36 of 38 save chances and fashioning a 1.82 earned-run average.

At one point, he converted 22 of 22 chances, still the franchise record.

A different era

Times were different. Henke worked 74 or more innings in a season five times from 1982-1985. Likewise, Hrabosky (1970-1982) worked 80 or more innings five times and more than 95 inning twice.

In contrast, when Francisco Rodriguez set the major-league mark with 62 saves for the 2008 Angels, he pitched 68 1/3 innings in 76 appearances.

"Having close to 100 innings is pretty much unheard of with today's closers," Henke said. "Probably over half of my career, it was more often a three-inning job as opposed to one or less."

Regardless of the changing formulas or times, the bottom line is no less impressive.

Henke has become friends with Isringhausen and talked to the former Cardinal over the winter about returning this season, about leaving no business unfinished.

Isringhausen was out of baseball altogether in 2010, sitting on 293 career saves, when he elected to attempt his comeback. Now he is a member of the 300 Club.

"I don't know if it had any impact on his decision or not, but I told Jason, 'You owe it to yourself to go back and try to get that 300th save,' and I'm just very happy for him," Henke said. "He worked hard and went through some serious injuries and adversities in order to do that."

Isringhausen was relieved to reach the milestone.

"I'm just glad it's over with so we can move on," he told reporters in San Diego after gaining No. 300. "...Now it's time to move on for myself and keep playing baseball and hopefully get a few more saves before the end of the year."

Henke was analytical about Isringhausen's accomplishment.

"When you think about it, to get 300 saves you have to have 10 seasons of 30 saves or more; and just to have 10 years in the big leagues is an accomplishment itself."

For closers, a lot of love goes into 300 saves, if not a lot of hate.

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