When you see Rollie Fingers, the first thing you notice is that perfectly coifed handlebar mustache. But behind the iconic lip sweater is 341 career saves, seven All-Star appearances, an MVP, and a Cy Young Award.
With Mustache May 2009 coming to a close, there was no one better to talk baseball with than Fingers.
Jesus Melendez: It was about time you put your thoughts in writing. Can you tell me how your book, Rollie’s Baseball Follies, came about?
ROLLIE FINGERS: A guy by the name of Chris “Yellowstone” Ritter contacted me a couple of years ago and wanted to write a book. I told him I wasn’t really into writing a book, but he told me that it wasn’t going to be a book about my life, but more a book about baseball. We talked for a while and came up with different stories and (Ritter) wanted to put a bunch of facts and trivia in there…things about different ballplayers. It took a couple of years. We were in contact, it seems, about every other day through phone calls and emails and, finally, came up with a pretty good book. We hope it does well.
JM: Everyone knows about the mustache—The story of the $300 bonus is legendary. But what Charlie Finley did prior to that is what shaped your career. You were actually groomed in the minors to be a closer, right?
ROLLIE: Actually, I came up as a starter. That was how you got to the big leagues back then was going through the organization as a starter. There was no such thing as grooming yourself in the minors as a relief pitcher. In 1971, I made the starting staff, but I got to the point where I couldn’t get out of the second or third inning. Our manager Dick Williams said “that was it” and told me I was out of the rotation and into the bullpen. I was basically a mop up pitcher. I was pitching in ballgames when we were four or six runs behind just to get us through the game. After back to back games where I got the saves, (Williams) brought me in his office and said “you’re my closer”…and that was fine with me. I was in the right place at the right time.
JM: So, Dick Williams kind of defined the role of the modern day closer?
ROLLIE: (Laughs) He changed my career around, that’s for sure. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I was heading in the big leagues. He started using me in game situations and built up my confidence. And once you’re successful, you’ve already got one strike against the hitters.
JM: Closers now come in and pitch an out or two, an inning at the most. Do you think they could go the three, four, or five innings that you and Goose (Gossage) did on a nightly basis?
ROLLIE: I had close to a dozen saves where I went four innings. There was one game I went seven innings and didn’t get anything out of it. Now, each guy has his own little job out of the bullpen.
JM: You were the first closer to 300 saves. Matter of fact, you were the all-time saves leader from 1980 until 1992. Do you think the numbers that some of the closers are getting now are watered down?
ROLLIE: I think there are more opportunities for closers to get saves nowadays. Starting pitchers aren’t throwing as many complete games. When I was with Oakland, we were completing 45 to 55 ballgames a year. That means 45 to 55 save opportunities are gone and that’s the biggest difference. They’re taking starting pitchers out early now, whereas starting pitchers wanted those complete games back then. That’s how they got paid. Pitchers didn’t want to come out. You had to almost fight Catfish Hunter to get him out of the game. If it’s a 3-1 game, now, the closer comes in. Back then, Catfish would start that inning and if he got in trouble, he wouldn’t come out unless there were two guys on base and two runs already in.
JM: I talked with former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery about what the save benchmark should be. He suggests 400. Do you agree?
ROLLIE: With the number of saves that guys are getting, definitely. Guys are getting 40 to 45 saves a year now. When I was playing, it was 20 saves a year. The way they’re getting saves now, you almost have to raise the bar. But look at Lee Smith and his 478 saves and he’s not in the Hall of Fame. He was caught in between both stages where you could pitch one inning or you had to pitch more. He was a workhorse. And starting pitching, I don’t know what they’re going to be looking at for the Hall of Fame. Their numbers are going way down. You’ll never see 300 innings pitched and you’ll probably only see a couple more guys with 300 wins. You won’t see guys with 3,000 strikeouts because teams carry so many pitchers now. We used to break (spring training) with nine pitchers. Now, teams will have 12 or 13. If starters go five innings, that’s a quality start. In my day, if you went only five innings, you were on your way to the minors.
ROLLIE: The more these guys are on television the more they might see themselves and think “I might look good with a mustache…maybe I’ll start growing one.” I’m sure none of it hurts the mustache gang. (Laughs) It all comes back to if you like it or if your girlfriend or wife likes it.
JM: After you, who had the best big league mustache?
ROLLIE: Probably Goose Gossage. He had that intimidating fu Manchu. Sparky Lyle had a pretty good mustache as well. You had Jeff Reardon and Bruce Sutter with the beards. Even Dan Quisenberry had a good one.
JM: Have any players ever stopped you for mustache advice?
ROLLIE: Not really. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and tell me that I have a mustache just like Rollie Fingers. They recognize the mustache before they recognize me. They see the handle bar mustache and they associate that with me. I get that every day, actually.
JM: Let’s talk Cooperstown. When you went in (to the Hall of Fame) in 1992, there was no talk of steroids or PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs). What are your feelings going to be when a player who has admitted use or is suspected of using, and it’s bound to happen, gets elected to join you in Cooperstown?
ROLLIE: I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. The sportswriters are pretty sticky about that. It’s pretty obvious with the numbers that Mark McGwire has gotten. If you’re known to use or if they figure you’ve been using, I don’t see that person getting voted in.
JM: If someone that is suspected of steroids makes it in, like a Roger Clemens, are you on that stage when they're inducted?
ROLLIE: Yes, simply because the sportswriters voted him in. If they felt as though he warranted going into the Hall of Fame, I am not going to shun him. I would stay on the stage. But like I said before, I don’t think that it’s going to happen. Roger Clemens says he doesn’t care, but I guarantee you, Roger Clemens cares.
JM: We can all blame Jose Canseco.
ROLLIE: (Laughs) I tell you what, everyone gets on Jose Canseco, but you don’t see too many people suing him. If he hadn’t have written the book, who knows where we’d be at today with steroids and the number of guys using them. It would probably be out of hand. At least right now, they’re taking care of the problem. The worst thing you can do is to let kids see that it is okay to use this stuff and get by. You have to show kids that this is not the right way to go and clean it up.
JM: Do you ever regret not getting the chance to be a member of the Red Sox?
ROLLIE: I was so happy. I was happier than a pig in shit to get traded to the Red Sox. I wanted to get the hell away from Charlie Finley. He was a pain in the neck. He sold me to the Red Sox for $1 million. I was in uniform, the Red Sox had just come into Oakland for a three games series. I just picked up all my stuff from out of my locker and went over to the visiting locker and had a locker next to Carl Yastrzemski. I was there for three days and at the end of the three days, (former MLB commissioner) Bowie Kuhn nixed the deal. So I picked up all my stuff and went back to the Oakland A’s clubhouse. Had I got in a ballgame, I don’t think that Bowie Kuhn could have done anything, though.
JM: Lastly, if you were trotting in from centerfield tonight to close out a 3-2 ballgame, (A) whose win would you want to be securing, and (B) what would the music be that is blaring over the PA?
ROLLIE: If I was coming in to save a ballgame, I would want to save a Catfish Hunter ballgame. He carried more games into the eighth and ninth inning than I ever saw. The last thing I ever wanted to do was screw up a Catfish Hunter game. As far as music goes, I couldn’t care less about what music was playing when I walked in. When I played, they didn’t even care. You just walked in from the bullpen. I guess I would be the only player in the big leagues without a song playing.
Rollie Fingers is a native of Steubenville, Ohio, but currently calls Las Vegas his home. He was a seven-time All-Star and the winner of the 1981 American League Cy Young and MVP Awards.
He spent his career as the closer for the Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers.
You can purchase Rollie’s book, Rollie’s Baseball Follies, HERE.
Check out more of Jesus' work at The Hall of Very Good.