When you think about it, there should be no wonder why the baseball closer has been known throughout history as being the one guy on the roster with a screw loose.
The closer is the guy who has to cut the wires—the right wires—without detonating the bomb. He’s the one who has to land the plane after the pilot and the co-pilot are knocked unconscious. He has to raid Entebbe on a nightly basis.
He has to be perfect. He’s the one player who can deliver 50 times in a row but have them all canceled out by a bad 51st outing. It’s like if they booed DiMaggio after he went hitless in Game 57.
They say the closer has to have a certain “mentality.” Notice that “mental” is in there.
If you’re going to be the closer, you have to be prepared for going from hero to zero at warp speed. They want to build a statue in your likeness on Friday and want to have it razed on Saturday. They’ll boo you when you enter the game on Sunday and want to buy you drinks following it.
It’s a job that asks, “what have you done for me lately?”—between hitters. You walk the leadoff man in the ninth and there’s a murmuring in the crowd like in one of those courtroom dramas.
It can be the loneliest job in America. You can’t hide on the pitcher’s mound.
These days, the closer doesn’t inherit his trouble, like the guys in the seventh and eighth innings do. The closer enters the game in the ninth inning, the frame pristine on everyone’s scorecard.
If things get dicey, the closer has no one to blame but himself. If the bases get juiced with runners, the closer put them there, nobody else.
No one remembers your 1-2-3 performance from the night before.
Going 1-2-baserunner-3 is barely tolerated. Walk a guy and the fans are yelling that your mother had you out of wedlock.
So you’ll allow the closer his eccentricities. You’ll forgive him, his zaniness. Frankly, you shouldn’t be surprised if they bring him out for his next appearance in a straitjacket.
It’s no wonder that closers have weird hairdos and shaggy goatees, and have their Popeye forearms illustrated with tattoos that make them look like a treasure map. It’s no wonder that they come out of the bullpen with nervous ticks and looks on their faces like George “The Animal” Steele.
It’s no wonder that they have nicknames like… "The Animal."
Closers look and act like guys who nobody sits next to on the team bus. Even catchers think they’re weird.
Closers have the margin for error of a heart surgeon but don’t get their empathy. They’re expected to be perfect on Opening Day and then improve from there.
You would never place a rookie in such a tenuous position.
Or would you?
The Tigers said goodbye to closer Jose Valverde after last season, following three years of meritorious service that ended like Custer’s. Jose’s last stand came in New York, when he coughed up four runs in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the ALCS, damn near costing the Tigers the game.
Certainly, it cost him his job.
Valverde’s contract expired with the final pitch of the World Series and to no one’s surprise after an uneven year, the Tigers declined to offer up an extension.
So now the Tigers are considering something so mad, so against baseball axiom, that to hear some folks say it, it will either be a stroke of genius or the worst experiment since the Chicago White Sox wore shorts in 1976.
Bruce Rondon is a 22 year-old, slightly tubby Venezuelan with a big moon face, who needs a translator. But that’s OK because so many closers before him have needed translators—and they were American dudes.
Rondon is 22 and regularly throws baseballs 100 mph or above.
They say he has a nasty slider (you always have to put “nasty” before a good slider). He hasn’t stepped foot on a big league diamond. He’s pitched professionally for all of three seasons. He started as a catcher but he wasn’t impressive with the bat, so the scouts and coaches told him to throw away his shin guards and start working on a fastball.
Rondon can’t speak English, per se. He speaks heat.
Rondon, working his way up the ladder last year, pitched for three teams in three different leagues: Lakeland, Erie and Toledo. In none of them could the hitters figure him out. Combined, Rondon (doesn’t rhyme with London, by the way—it’s Ron-DOAN) threw 53 innings and surrendered a paltry 32 hits. He struck out 66, about 11 per nine innings.
Rondon is whiffing his way to the top.
The Tigers, with a vacancy in their closer spot, have eschewed their usual fascination with big names and owner Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough, and decided to toss the keys to Rondon, who was born in 1990—barely (his birthday is December 9).
They’ll give the kid a shot and see how he does at clipping the wires.
Rookie closers, the baseball people say, are for the bottom-feeding teams. They’re for clubs who are “rebuilding.” Peach fuzz, they say, belongs on a closer for a contending team as much as a beard on a lady.
The Tigers are about to experiment. And everyone from top to bottom seems comfortable with it.
Rondon, through an interpreter (in this case, fellow bullpenner Joaquin Benoit) said last week, according to Benoit, “(Rondon) thanks everybody who believes in him. He feels he’s going to contribute and not let anybody down.”
Those are nice thoughts, but already the kid has trouble telling the truth. Of course he’s going to let people down. He wouldn’t be a closer if he didn’t, on occasion.
GM Dave Dombrowski put in his nomination for understatement of the year when he told the media the other day, “(Rondon)’s unproven.”
Yet D.D. says Rondon is the “leading candidate” for the closer’s job. So what if Rondon is 22 and figures to close for the defending American League champs?
“When something bad happens, he’ll get a little wild and overthrow,” Dombrowski added about Rondon, who pitched in 18 games in Venezuela this winter, posting a rather unsightly 4.41 ERA.
Well, something bad will happen, make no mistake.
There will be a blown save, a two-run homer in the ninth or some such catastrophe, and everyone will be looking to see how Ron-DOAN handles it.
How long before he grows a goatee, tattoos himself and dyes his hair orange?
And, how long before the fans cry to get him out of there and try someone else?