Destroying Chairs and Blasting Rap: MLB Families Suffer in 9th-Inning Pressure

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 23, 2017

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) is congratulated as he and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, center, leave the field after the Dodgers 8-0 shutout of the New York Mets in a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Two years ago, closer AJ Ramos thoughtfully purchased his father a new leather recliner. He felt it was the least he could do, being that the arms on the old one were shredded as if attacked by a herd of animals, the result of his father's gripping them for dear life while watching his son's nightly high-wire act.

Yes, the ninth-inning pressure is unbearable and the stakes immense. But forget, for a moment, the closers themselves.

How about what the poor loved ones of these hardball specialists endure?

Cleveland's Cody Allen says his father, Craig, gets "nervous as a cat" when manager Terry Francona hands Cody the ball with the game on the line, to the point where the closer's wife, Mallory, several times has had to talk him down from the high branches, telling him: "Craig, you've gotta relax. You've gotta relax. This is bad for your health."

"She's the mediator and therapist for all of us during the season," Allen says.

Eireann Dolan says she hasn't watched her fiance, Washington's Sean Doolittle, pitch live in nearly two years. Before he was dealt to the Nationals on July 16, Doolittle played his first five-and-a-half seasons in Oakland. When the team was home and she was at the Coliseum, by the time Sean reached the mound you usually could find her in her car in the parking lot, gangsta rap cranked up to windshield-rattling proportions. And when Doolittle is on television from the road, she'll snap the leashes on the couple's two dogs and burn nervous energy walking.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen talks to his parents and brothers almost every day, but after he blows a save they know to not even mention the game (they've mentioned a lot of games lately, though, as Jansen has converted 33 of 34 save opportunities this season). San Francisco's Mark Melancon says his wife has a routine in which she'll take the kids to the games during homestands, bring them home in the sixth inning and then, well, who really knows?

"She doesn't tell me a lot," Melancon admits. "She says sometimes she'll record it because she doesn't want to watch it live."

You would think that after living in these conditions for years, it eventually would get easier on the families.

"It's like watching your kids jumping on the trampoline and you're worried they're going to get hurt," says Alex Ramos, AJ's father, who oversees purchasing at a mechanical contracting company in Lubbock, Texas. "You figure it will get better and it will get easier, but it really doesn't. The pressure is still there. And his role, there's thousands of people trying to get his job.

AJ Ramos' parents, Alex and Cynthia, feel the anxiety of their son's job every time he takes the mound.
AJ Ramos' parents, Alex and Cynthia, feel the anxiety of their son's job every time he takes the mound.Photo courtesy of Alex Ramos

"You read the papers where they're trying to bring in another closer or bring in this guy. It's high stakes. Players can't worry about that, or if they do, they're not going to be good anyway. But parents, we hear that, and as much as you don't want to pay attention, it still bothers you. It's tough to take sometimes."

It was two years ago when AJ Ramos ordered the new recliner, and his father is incredibly appreciative and has done everything in his power to take good care of it. Then comes game time and the whitewater rapids of another ninth inning.

"It's distressed leather now," Alex Ramos quips. "It's not that fine, smooth leather anymore. It's a pretty tense situation. The cushion, too. My butt cheeks are kind of squeezing."

Alex and his wife, Cynthia, who works in immunization for the Lubbock Health Department, watch every game without fail.

"One thing about AJ, I don't know what it is, but he's always had a high amount of walks," Alex says. "But he's also been able to get out of it. His high school coach would say, 'You know, I think I'm just going to save myself a whole lot of grief by loading the bases and then have him pitch.' He can't have a real clean inning. He's got to put pressure on himself. I've seen that forever. A lot of pressure."

There's no escaping that pressure. There are only degrees of it when your child or significant other has an intimate working relationship with the ninth innings of close games.

"The extended family gets very nervous because they want you to succeed so bad," says Huston Street, who has served as the closer for Oakland, Colorado, San Diego and the Los Angeles Angels since 2005. "They're probably the only few who get to see the true aftermath of a blown save or back-to-back blown saves or a bad month.

"I would say that if your wife is not a part of your team, truly understanding the process … you have to have someone to share it with. For me, she has been there for every one. We've been together my entire career. At the end of the day, some blown saves are worse than others. Sometimes you make all of your pitches and just get beat. Sometimes you miss every spot and you don't get beat, you go three up and three down."

While most might assume it's smiles all around after a save and soul-crushing depression following a blown save, Street says his emotions of the moment are driven as much by the knowledge of how well he did or didn't throw as by the result.

Lacey Street has learned that her husband Huston's game appearances involve the entire Street family, in good times and bad.
Lacey Street has learned that her husband Huston's game appearances involve the entire Street family, in good times and bad.Photo courtesy of Lacey Street

Maybe you wouldn't expect this, but Street, who has been beset by injuries this summer and made only four appearances for the Angels, says that more times than not, he's angry after an outing. Closers, by nature, must strive for perfection because there's so little margin for error, and even when things are going as well as can be expected, perfection is impossible to obtain.

"Sometimes he'll come home so mad, and in my eyes, I'm like: 'You got out of that inning. You got the save tonight,'" says Lacey Street, who married Huston in 2007. "But he'll be like: 'No, no, I didn't have my best stuff. I got lucky tonight. I need to be better tomorrow because tomorrow I might not get lucky.' I try to stay positive and he'll be like, 'Give me tonight, tomorrow is a new day.'"

Lacey buys her own tickets because she likes to sit behind home plate, where she can watch closely and really see what's going on.

"I can see it in his eyes sometimes that it's going to be a 1-2-3 inning," she says. "Those are the days I'm not worried. But sometimes bad luck happens too, and luckily he gets to go redeem himself the next day. He's not a starter; he doesn't have to wait five days. Tomorrow is a new day, let's go get 'em. That's the motto in our household."

Friends sometimes will accompany Lacey and their three sons—Ripken, seven; Ryder, four; and Rafe, two—but if the friends are too chatty, especially at the wrong time, they won't be invited back.

"This is her life too," Huston says. "This is our life. This is our job. This is not your little kid's baseball game. This is my husband's job. So in that moment, respect that."

Lacey chuckles.

"If we have friends in town, listen, you can chat me up the entire game, but when my husband takes the mound, I'm in the zone," she says. "I like to be able to say, what was up with that slider? Or that 0-and-2 pitch to so-and-so? I like to be able to focus and see what pitches he's making and listen to his thought process after the game, to know why he threw that pitch or why he shook right there. It's not a nervous thing, but I like to be able to know, oh yeah, that pitch, was that a good pitch or was that a little off the plate?"

The Streets have been in this grind for so long that some things happen automatically now. Like breakfast.

"He has to have the exact same breakfast every single morning when he's home," Lacey says. "The same scrambled eggs, the same cheese, half an avocado with salt and pepper, strawberries and a piece of toast with peanut butter and honey. That is his breakfast I have to cook him every single morning when he's home, and you know what? If that's what I have to do to get his day going, that's what I do.

"Some people think I'm crazy, but I'm the wife of a closer. You don't understand."

There is plenty that cannot be understood from the outside. From the inside, it's both a matter of love and survival.

Cody Allen's save opportunities often test his father's ability to refresh his internet browser and, sometimes, to breathe.
Cody Allen's save opportunities often test his father's ability to refresh his internet browser and, sometimes, to breathe.Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press/Associated Press

"My wife, she does pretty good," Cleveland's Allen says. "If I frickin' blow one or something like that, she's fine. ... But my dad, I've had my mom and sister tell me that when he's at home, he'll literally stop breathing for a few seconds, especially if it's not on TV and he's watching it on the game-tracker on the computer and he's waiting for the result to come up. They say he'll stop breathing."

Adding to the anxiety are the emotions family members must navigate as they watch a loved one try to perform flawlessly without being able to help. When you're the one engaged in an activity, you feel like you have some control over it. ("When I'm on the mound, I feel great," the Dodgers' Jansen says.) But when you're watching helplessly from the sidelines…it's that feeling of quiet desperation that parents of young boys and girls know all too well from Little League games, spelling bees and school plays. Only, it's that times infinity.

"You could probably count on two hands the times she's watched me live," Washington's Doolittle says of Eireann. "And sometimes then, she'll stay in her seat and literally cover her eyes and, based on the crowd reaction, peek through her fingers like how I'd watch a horror movie."

It's true, Eireann says. Often she would rather walk the couple's two dogs, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Stella and a cattle dog shepherd mix named Sophia, than watch Sean pitch. No matter: They've been together for just over four years, and the wedding is in January.

"This is going to sound terrible because I am incredibly supportive, but I have not watched him pitch live out of superstition in about two years," Eireann confirms. "I can't do it. I've built up this armor of superstitions and rituals."

Before the A's traded him, some of those involved taking Bay Area Rapid Transit to games, or not, or taking a particular blanket to a game, or not. Problem is, she's got so many she's started to mix up which work and which don't.

When Sean Doolittle was pitching for the Athletics, his fiance, Eireann, found she handled the stress better by walking the couple's dogs rather than watching the game.
When Sean Doolittle was pitching for the Athletics, his fiance, Eireann, found she handled the stress better by walking the couple's dogs rather than watching the game.Photo courtesy of Eireann Dolan.

"I will leave the park and sit in the car and blast gangsta rap loud so I can't hear anything in the stadium crowd," says Eireann, who favors 2Pac, Biggie Smalls and NWA. "God forbid I hear anything in the stadium. Then it would be like, why is he facing 15 guys? Then I'll check the phone."

Only gangsta rap will do in these situations.

"It's my guilty pleasure, and it's the loudest music I can listen to that will drown out any possible stadium speaker noises," she says. "I'll have it blasting. The car is moving other cars. There are car alarms going off around me.

"Hey, it works."

Eireann is studying theology in graduate school at Fordham and writes speeches for a motivational speaker, and she likens her dilemma in these moments to the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment created in 1935: A cat is placed in a box with certain indicators, and the person observing does not know if the cat is alive or dead…so both are assumed.

Those moments when Sean is pitching, she says: "I call it Schrodinger's Outing. It's both simultaneously a blown save and striking out the side until it happens."

She leaves her phone at home during the dog walks because if a bunch of text messages start buzzing in from the road, it really sends her into orbit. Say a friend texts, "I'm at the game and the bases are loaded with one out," and then there is nothing more, only suspended animation. She does not want that.

The problem, she quips, is: "I think the dogs are inheriting my neuroses too. They've started pacing in the sixth and seventh innings. Like, oh no, a lefty is coming up."

When Oakland was in Chicago in June before the trade, her family—"all diehard White Sox fans, all Irish Catholics from the South Side"—bought a block of 30 tickets to go to a game, and that only caused more stress. First, Sean had just come off the disabled list. Second, they bought tickets next to the visiting bullpen.

"Which is a big no-no," she says. "I did not know this when they did it. My family is like, 'We can go talk to him during the game.' I'm like, 'No we can't! We are not doing that!'"

That didn't stop them from bringing individually lettered signs that were designed to be held up by each family member and spell "Sean Doolittle Chicago Fan Club."

Eireann Dolan's family tried to support their future son-in-law at a game in Chicago this summer, an effort that only made Eireann more nervous because of how close they sat next to the Oakland bullpen.
Eireann Dolan's family tried to support their future son-in-law at a game in Chicago this summer, an effort that only made Eireann more nervous because of how close they sat next to the Oakland bullpen.Photo courtesy of Eireann Dolan

"That's quintessential my family," Eireann says, laughing. "They could have gone with something simple like, 'We love you Sean.' It was very embarrassing. It was misspelled; there was not full participation. People were like, 'We saw you on the broadcast but couldn't tell what you were trying to spell.'

"I'm going to look back on this in 10 years, and I will still be mortified."

If it seems like sometimes each of us is just hanging on by a thread in this life, the threads gripped by family members who love their closers often seem in danger of fraying at any moment.

And don't tell the Mets' Ramos this, but while he helped his father with that spiffy new recliner, there's not much he can do for his mother.

"It doesn't bother me like it bothers my wife," Alex Ramos says. "As soon as he starts pitching, my wife makes the sign of the cross. That's the first thing. Then she starts rocking back and forth saying, 'Oh no, oh no, oh no.' She's very worried about what's going on. That Olympic gymnast's parents watching from the stands as she was doing her routine [Aly Raisman]? That's my wife. If we ever get to a stadium and they have a camera on her, people would have a great time watching.

"Sign of the cross, every time."

It's not always pretty even when it appears to be. The night of Street's 300th save in 2015, a drunk fan marred the postgame moment, demanding an autograph when Huston went over to the stands to kiss Lacey, who had their two oldest boys with her at the time and was pregnant with the youngest. When Huston politely explained that he only had time for a real quick moment with his wife and had to go, the fan started screaming about how the pitcher broke his 10-year-old son's heart. Later, the miscreant created a Twitter account he used to harass Huston online.

"It's been a wild ride, I have to say," Lacey says. "The highs are so high, and you are on top of the world. But the lows are so low. You blow a save or two or three in a row, or you have a 6.00 ERA, and I'm in the stands with my boys and fans are yelling: 'Street, you suck! You're horrible!' You have to have tough skin and not listen to it."

What gets them through is simple: When the stadium lights fade, loved ones who have agonized over each pitch are there, arms extended, with big hugs no matter the outcome.

Because when the milestones and successes arrive, as Street says, "It's no fun to toast champagne alone."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.