On June 23, the New York Yankees will host their 67th annual Old-Timers' Day to celebrate their retired stars. Hall of Fame reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage regularly attends, as he has a genuine appreciation for the tradition.
"When I played, Old-Timers’ Day was my favorite day of the whole season," he told Bleacher Report, "because I got to share a locker with one of the great Yankees...It was an out-of-body experience."
Upon retiring from baseball in 1994, Gossage was thrilled when the team invited him back to participate as one of its living legends. He grew up a Yankee fan, after all.
With his 62nd birthday approaching, Gossage still speaks with the same enthusiasm and conviction that made him such an intriguing character decades ago. Barely past 7:00 a.m. on the east coast, which must feel even earlier to the Colorado resident, he eagerly reflected on his successful tenure in the Bronx.
The 1978 season marked the beginning of a six-year, free-agent deal. Sure, the intimidating right-hander eventually justified it with four All-Star nods, three top-five finishes in AL Cy Young Award voting and excellence in the playoffs. The initial anxiety, however, is still fresh in his memory:
"First of all, they gave me Sparky Lyle’s job. A Cy Young Award winner, they gave me his job. That was enough pressure in itself. I didn’t think anybody has ever come over to a team and taken a Cy Young Award winner’s job. They gave it me on a silver platter. Of course that was a lot of pressure."
Gossage was coming off an extraordinary campaign with the Pittsburgh Pirates: 151 K in 133.0 IP, 0.96 WHIP, 6.0 WAR in 72 appearances. The New York fans and media understandably held him to a high standard.
They quickly turned into harsh critics when he "proceeded to stink up the joint." That included suffering three defeats in his first four appearances. By the end of April, the opposition was batting .232 against him, a dramatic leap from his .170 mark the previous summer.
By Memorial Day 1978, the numbers were back in line with lofty expectations. Gossage shined in big moments later that season—locking down the AL East tie-breaker vs. the Boston Red Sox, as well as the World Series-clinching Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers—and continued handling high-leverage situations for the Yankees through 1983 with few rough patches.
Including his two-month stint with New York in 1989, the famous flamethrower maintained a 2.14 earned run average while in pinstripes. That's better than anyone who has pitched at least 200 innings with the franchise, according to FanGraphs. Even the revered Mariano Rivera pales in comparison.
Gossage has great admiration for the current Yankees closer, saying he is "one of the best relief pitchers of all time." He awaits Sunday's festivities, when all the Old-Timers will have the opportunity to congratulate Rivera for his 19 seasons of success.
With that said, Goose insists that neither he nor the Sandman—nor any other elite reliever with a cool nickname—can definitively be considered the No. 1 reliever. The job description has changed so much through the generations, he explained:
"Now it takes three guys to do what I used to do. These guys are so dominant in that one-inning role, but they've forgotten what the role of the relief pitcher used to be. We used to come in in the sixth inning with the game on the line, sometimes with one run down with the game in the balance. We came into the games to hold it close so that we could give teams the opportunity to win the games. It’s a totally different mindset than from what it used to be.
"People ask me all the time about Mo, and I think they get the wrong impression that I’m not giving him credit, but I know how the role of the relief pitcher has changed. When the vote was coming out for the [Hall of Fame] elections every year, I would get calls from writers who voted for me who wondered why I wasn't getting in. I said, 'Please don’t compare me with these guys today.' They had forgotten what we used to do."
Gossage lasted 22 major league seasons plus another in Japan, longevity which he attributes to his "good mechanics" and "big muscles." He logged more than 100 innings in five of those years (primarily as a starting pitcher in 1976).
"The ways these guys are used as closers today is the way I think they should be used," he believes. "We were kind of abused."
However, don't take that to mean that Gossage would enjoy pitching in the 21st century. Major League Baseball has changed "quite drastically," in his opinion, to enable higher scoring.
The designated hitter was introduced early in his career and eventually became permanent in the American League. "The ballparks are smaller, the balls go further, the strike zone has shrunk down," he ranted. "Everything has been done to put more offense in the game."
Gossage is also disgusted with the ubiquity of performance-enhancing drugs across the sport:
"You put two players of the same talent out there, one on PEDs and the other guy not, and you got two different animals. I’ve been an advocate for getting rid of the steroids, of course. I played with [Mark] McGwire and [Jose] Canseco, and I saw bat speeds that were not human."
Presently, baseball is focused on Tony Bosch and the Biogenesis of America anti-aging clinic. Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun headlined his list of clientele, and they could be suspended in the coming weeks. Until the investigation wraps up, Gossage doesn't want to weigh in on any of the implicated individuals.
Old-Timers' Day is the only thing on his mind. He's just eager to slip on a New Era custom cap with the hashtag stitched on the back and enjoy its perspiration-fighting technology.
Gossage hasn't embraced every innovation, but at least this one will minimize his sweating in front of the all-seeing, high-definition cameras.
His famous facial hair—and dozens of other accomplished former Yankees—can be seen this Sunday on the YES Network. Coverage starts at 11:00 a.m. ET.
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