Rollie Fingers and the Top 6 Closers in Oakland Athletics History
This weekend, the Oakland Athletics will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the organization’s 1972 World Series championship, as part of their three-game series hosting the Cleveland Indians. The highlight of the weekend will be the fan giveaway for Saturday’s matinee—a Rollie Fingers bobblehead doll, featuring his awesome signature handlebar moustache.
Renowned for his famous facial hair, Fingers also happened to have a Hall-of-Fame career as one of the first premier relievers in baseball history and clearly the most successful in the redefined role of the modern closer. His excellence on the field not only revolutionized the role of the closer in modern baseball, but it also paved the way for a long line of great closers in Oakland Athletics team history.
In honor of Fingers’ illustrious career and all the wonderful closers over the past 40 years of A’s baseball, let’s take a look at eight of the greatest closers in Oakland team history.
Interestingly, this list starts with the most recent closer in Oakland A’s history, Andrew Bailey. His Athletics’ career is the freshest and, therefore, most easy to evaluate.
It’s hard to believe Bailey was the American League Rookie of the Year just three short years ago. Time flies.
In three very quick seasons in green and gold, Bailey collected 75 saves and tallied a 2.07 ERA and .95 WHIP in 157 total appearances, despite spending time on the disabled list in both 2010 and 2011. Although he missed ample time as the team’s full-time closer in each of his three years in Oakland, Bailey still was able to earn the 2009 Rookie of the Year Award and make two AL All-Star teams (2009, 2010).
However, Bailey actually struggled at the end of last season, after having spent a significant time on the DL. His health concerns and slight decline in performance prompted A’s management to deem him tradeable, and he was shipped to the Boston Red Sox last winter.
Bailey was not exactly the top reliever in the game during his time with Oakland, but he was certainly one of the brightest young stars at the closer position. When he was at his best, he was an efficient force shutting the door down. As far as Athletics closers go, he definitely belongs among the greatest.
Dennis Eckersley owes his Hall-of-Fame career to Jay Howell. In fact, Howell is basically the Wally Pipp of closers.
If Howell, hadn't injured himself during the Athletics' 1987 season, he'd likely have remained the team's full-time closer. However, Howell did injure himself, Eckersley subsequently took over and the rest is history.
During his short two and a half seasons in Oakland, Howell was chipping in a rather unheralded stint as the A's full-time closer. He racked up 61 saves during that time and finished 118 games, on his way to becoming one of the American League's more consistent closers. In fact, he made two All-Star Game appearances (1985, 1987) during his days as an Athletic.
His numbers with Oakland were not dominating (3.58 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), but he was a fixture as a closer during a time when the position was clearly being redefined, as evidenced by his assistance in ushering the Eckersley era. Alhough Howell was not one of the best relievers of all time, his role in paving the way for Eckersley cannot be denied. That's got to count for something.
The elongated wind-up with the Nolan Ryan leg kick was a staple of Huston Street in the Oakland Coliseum for four seasons. The right-hander was another in a long line of young closers, and he was surprisingly dominant throughout his time in Oakland.
Street entered the 2005 MLB campaign as a 21-year-old rookie, simply another member of the A's bullpen. His role ascended throughout the season, and by year's end, he was the full-time closer. He finished with a 5-1 record, 23 saves, a staggering 1.72 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, on his way to winning the American League Rookie of the Year award.
Unfortunately, Street also suffered from myriad injuries throughout his tenure in Oakland, which curtailed his role in both 2007 and 2008. Still, in his four seasons with the A's, Street racked up 21 wins and 94 saves, with a 2.88 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.
Still at the precipice of the prime of his career, Street was dealt to the Colorado Rockies at the beginning of the 2009 season in exchange for Matt Holliday.
The drummers from the leftfield bleachers signaled when it was closing time during the 1999-2001 era. When the Athletics had a lead heading into the ninth inning, the chants of "boom boom boom-boom-boom Is-ring-hau-sen" echoed throughout the Oakland Coliseum. Right-hander Jason Isringhausen would waltz to the mound and mow down the opposition. Night in. And night out.
He came over to Oakland during the 1999 season, and would become one of the American League's more dominant closers during the Athletics' pre-Moneyball era. Izzy collected 75 saves with the A's, finishing 129 games, to go with a 3.04 ERA. He also finished four playoff games for Oakland between 2000 and 2001, pitching a total of four scoreless innings.
Isringhausen was a fan favorite during his days in green and gold. It was always an exciting time to see—and hear—Isringhausen being called from the bullpen to close out games.
"Boom boom boom-boom-boom Is-ring-hau-sen"
For nine seasons, Dennis Eckersley was the green and gold standard for the modern day closer. And it all started with his new-found role as a reliever with the Oakland Athletics.
He came to Oakland during the 1987 season. That is when manager Tony LaRussa redefined the Eckersley's role as a pitcher and reinvented the role of the closer throughout all of baseball. Instead of tossing two or three innings per appearance, Eck's job was to simply retire three hitters in the ninth inning, protecting any one-, two- or three-run lead.
And boy did he excel.
Eckersley—with the help of LaRussa—helped revolutionize the specialization of the modern-day closer, on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career. He amassed 320 saves in nine seasons in Oakland. In five of those years, Eckersley was named to the AL All-Star team, culminating in 1992's epic campaign in which he recorded a then-single-season record 51 saves to go with a 7-1 record and 1.91 ERA. That year, he won both the AL MVP and the Cy Young awards for his near perfection. In fact, Eckersley finished in the top six in both the AL MVP voting and Cy Young voting on four occasions.
Eck's famous pistoleer punch-outs were as famous as his methodical, effortless work on the mound. He retired with a then-MLB-record 390 saves, helping him earn enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.
It's hard to top Dennis Eckersley's wonderful career in green and gold. But only one man could do that, and he is Rollie Fingers. In part, because he helped pave the way for the great closers that followed him. And, additionally, because Fingers excelled in a manner that will never be paralleled in baseball.
During an era that was less specialized, when closers often pitched more than one inning per appearance, Fingers performance as a full-time closer was the gold standard. He finished his career in 1985 as baseball’s all-time leader in saves with 341. In fact, his unprecedented accomplishments as a reliever were so impressive—341 saves, a league MVP and Cy Young Award in 1981 with the Milwaukee Brewers—that he became the second reliever ever to be enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Much of his Hall-of-Fame success came in Oakland. In nine seasons with the A's, Fingers tallied 136 saves and a remarkable 67 wins to boot. More amazing, however, is that the number of innings he pitched during that time (1,016)—a truly unbelievable stat in today's version of baseball.
In addition, Fingers was an important cog during Oakland's 1970s dynasty in which it won three consecutive World Series titles, including the 1972 squad that is being honored by Oakland this weekend. Fingers pitched in a remarkable 16 games in three World Series appearances, saving six games and earning two victories. He compiled a 1.35 ERA in 33.1 innings pitched.
For his durability, his endurance, his heavy body of work, in a time when relievers' roles were more demanding, Fingers was a closing legend—probably the first in baseball history. Because he set the bar for Eckersley and others who followed after him, Fingers will go down as the greatest closer in Oakland Athletics history.
Follow me on Twitter: @nathanieljue