Phil Coke, one of the members of the Tigers Closers Committee
The funny thing about baseball’s unwritten rules is that they find themselves written down eventually.
And, just to be sure, I’ll prove it:
Don’t steal a base when leading by six runs in the eighth inning.
Don’t try to break up a no-hitter with a bunt.
Don’t make the first out at home plate.
Don’t walk the leadoff hitter.
Don’t walk the pitcher, no matter where he’s hitting.
Don’t swing at the first pitch if you make an out doing so.
Swing at the first pitch because it might be the only good one you see in that at-bat (yes, some of these are contradictory).
Don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch, unless your last name is Aaron, Mays, Cobb or Ruth.
Don’t perform a home run trot that takes longer than the National Anthem.
Don’t bet on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Don’t root for the Yankees.
To name a few.
Oh, but there is one more of these “unwritten” rules, and it’s about to be violated—and right here in Detroit.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland is taking the unwritten rule book and throwing it out the imaginary window.
He’s flipping a bunch of baseball people the bird, and frankly, I love it.
The unwritten rule that Leyland is about to break says that you can’t have “closer by committee.”
The unwritten book says that every team must designate one pitcher, and one pitcher only, to serve as the closer. This is a corollary to the other unwritten rule that says the closer cannot be used earlier than in the ninth inning.
Leyland is trashing this “one closer” unwritten rule. He plans on doing so as soon as the curtain is lifted for the 2013 season on Monday, in Minnesota.
The Tigers experimented with breaking yet another closer-related rule, but that plan has been scrapped.
The Tigers were going to violate the “you can’t have a rookie closer and expect to win a World Series” rule, when they experimented with 21-year-old Bruce Rondon in spring training to be their ninth inning guy.
The roly-poly, cherubic-faced Rondon smiled a lot, but he smiled more than he got hitters out, so he’s being returned to Triple-A Toledo for, as they say, “more seasoning.”
With the cashiering of erstwhile closer Jose Valverde after his playoff meltdowns, the Tigers are now left with the dreaded “closer by committee.”
The unwritten rule says that no MLB manager can dare to consider such a thing without disastrous results.
I, for one, can’t wait to see how this shakes out.
I have been a proponent of my own unwritten axiom, which states that any big league pitcher on a 25-man roster ought to be able to get three outs in the ninth inning.
Call me crazy. Fit me for a straitjacket. Force me to listen to Roseanne sing the National Anthem on an endless loop. I don’t care.
It’s not that I believe closers are overrated. I believe the closer’s circumstances are overrated.
Think about the closer’s job. He starts every appearance with a clean slate—bases empty and nobody out. To qualify for a save, his team can be as many as three runs ahead when he enters the game.
He waltzes in from the bullpen under no real duress. There isn’t a fire he has to put out. In a sport where his bullpen brethren preceding him are often dancing on a high wire with no net, the closer’s job, in comparison, is that of a school crossing guard. He just has to make sure no kid runs into the street and gets clobbered by a Mack truck.
Yet closers are held in such high esteem that the mere thought of a manager calling his bullpen coach in the eighth inning and saying, essentially, “Surprise me,” is thought to be folly.
Shouldn’t any big league reliever be able to get three outs once or twice a week without his world crashing down?
Leyland and the Tigers are about to find out.
When Leyland spoke of closer by committee earlier this week, he wasn’t kidding. The manager named just about everyone in his bullpen when discussing who could close games for the Tigers in 2013.
Which is exactly as it should be.
I have a hunch that Leyland, Mr. Old School himself, is going to have a blast with his closers committee, for as long as it lasts. I think he’ll revel in the freedom—and challenge—of determining who to summon to close games, based on a myriad of criteria.
And if it works, that unwritten rule can be torn up—imaginary paper and all.