By NIKITA DUBNOV
The save statistic in baseball started being recorded in the 1960’s as a simple way to judge the effectiveness of late-inning relievers in close games. As the measure began to be more widely used, so did the role of a specific player on each team wrapping up a victory on the mound in the ninth inning. Once referred to as the stopper or the fireman, the closer can now be found on every professional baseball roster as the reliever who shuts the door on the opponent’s hope for victory.
The average example of the modern closer is not so average at all. The position has come to be defined by a certain archetype. Closers tend to have an attitude that is unconventional compared to that of the average professional baseball player. Certainly, many closers in today’s game act skillfully and simply get their jobs done. However, more often than not, the position seems to attract wild personalities and interesting characters. Baseball closers are generally some blend of professionals, showmen and crazy people.
In a sport that has so many unwritten rules, baseball gives closers some leeway when it comes to excessive celebration and outlandish acts. While it is common that a post-homerun bat flip may easily get some blood boiling on the opposing team, the post-save shenanigans of many MLB closers do not seem to be taken as seriously. Fernando Rodney of the Mariners has his famous bow-and-arrow routine. Former Giants closer Brian Wilson, the same player who donned his trademarked lumberjack beard and wore a spandex bodysuit to the ESPYs during his tenure in San Francisco, has his two arms forcefully crossed to the sky idiosyncrasy. And most recently, there is the Mets Jenrry Mejia’s addition of a sumo stomp to end games. These moves are certainly a slap in the face for the losing team, but nobody storms the field in protest.
A couple of years ago, several MLB players commented on the antics of Jose Valverde. The then Detroit Tigers closer was known for his wild behavior on the mound. Valverde would not wait for the save to be complete, as he was known to exude an irrational yell on certain pitches and perform a celebratory fist pump when recording an out. Many opponents argued that his actions were rude and unsportsmanlike, to which Valverde responded by saying that it was all about his own intensity and how he plays the game.
Intensity is a big part of the average closer’s game. Opposing batters are especially desperate and focused in late innings, and the intimidation factor is a great tool to get inside the head of a hitter. Players like Craig Kimbrel and Jonathan Papelbon are known for their unnervingly intense stares prior to their pitches. TV cameras always tend to capture the right angle of the closers’ stares as they look towards home plate. The looks are pure intimidation and mimic those of a wild animal ready to attack. Unfortunately, sometimes this intensity can carry over away from the game.
On the field, closers throw hard, work fast and get the job done. However, there have been several incidents that show that the intense personalities of closers sometimes transcend the field. During his tenure with the New York Mets, Francisco Rodriguez notoriously brought his frustration off of the field and assaulted his girlfriend’s father after a loss at Citi Field. The star closer was arrested, suspended and injured all due to this incident.
When closers contain this intensity and channel it strictly for competitive purposes on the field, however, it can make all the difference. As unsportsmanlike as many closers’ actions can be, going that extra mile can be instrumental in a sport where the mental game is just as important as the physical game. The position carries huge responsibility. A closer has the weight of his team’s performance on his shoulders. Mistakes in the last moments of a close game are costly., Perhaps it takes somebody who may have a screw loose to take on this responsiblity. That is why it is reasonably fine for closers to exude an air of confidence that sometimes comes with wild antics and theatrical characters.
At the end of the day, it makes the game more interesting. Baseball closers are showmen. If they can get under the other team’s skin, they add heat to the rivalry, and a fierce rivalry only adds to the game. The unconventional personalities that have come to define closer roles in baseball have my support, and it will always be interesting to see who will come up with the next wild celebration, outrageous hairstyle, or intense staredown.