Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tigers Fans Must Learn To Accept The "Non-sexiness" Of Closer Jones

The oldtimers will remember Dick Radatz, a.k.a. The Monster. He would take the ball in the late innings, all 6-foot-6 of him, and plow thru the order, quelling the enemy rally -- back when closers didn't just wait until the ninth inning to jump into the fray. Radatz -- a Detroit kid -- mainly did his thing with the Red Sox. He played for the Tigers briefly in 1969. He averaged well over a strikeout per inning for his 635 career IP.

The 1970s brought us more crazy-looking, crazy-acting characters out of the bullpen. There was the Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky -- who would turn his back to the batter, go through some sort of ritual, then smack the ball angrily into his glove and turn, revealing that bushy Fu Manchu mustache and wild-eyed look.

Rich "Goose" Gossage, another Fu Manchu guy. A sprawling, intimidating windup that ended with the thwack of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt, the sphere of horsehide's flight undisturbed by the Louisville slugger designed to obstruct it.

Then came the 1980s. Rob Dibble. Bill Caudill, The Inspector. Charlie Kerfeld. Kent Tekulve, who was once described as being so skinny that he looked like a giant pair of scissors on the mound. Bushy-faced Bruce Sutter.

And so on.

The common denominator? Theatrics. Gimmicks. Odd body shapes. Odd body movements. Reputations that preceded them. And usually more than one strikeout per inning. The beauty of Charlie Sheen's "Wild Thing" character in the Major League movies -- the Indians closer who comes into the game to an almost rock star-like reception -- was that it really wasn't that far off the mark from reality.

The Tigers do not have the rock star closer on their roster.

Todd Jones is pushing 40, is a good old boy from Georgia, and averages no where near a strikeout per inning. In fact, most of Jones's saves -- and there've been 301 of them -- are predicated on the opponent striking the ball with his bat, hopefully at someone for an out. It's not the sexiest way to end games, and that's what makes people around here nervous.

Jones relies on his control and location to get batters out, and that may be a great approach for starters, but it's an unordinary way for a closer to make a living.

Truth be told, even if Jones WERE that sexy, overpowering closer in the mold of an Eric Gagne or Gossage, there'd still be hand-wringing. There always is, when you're talking about the one guy who frequently stands between victory and heartbreaking defeat. But the fact that Jones uses brains and not brawn when it comes to closing games makes, for some reason, his job security all the more flimsy in many people's minds.

Todd Jones makes people nervous in Detroit, and it's almost as if all those saves he registered happened by accident -- like the thug who protests that his victim "rammed his face into my fist ten times", in explaining away an assault. Couldn't have been something Jones did; must be something the batter didn't do.

It'll be another summer of drama around Comerica Park in the ninth inning this season, for Jones isn't going anywhere, the Tigers have no intentions of getting anyone else, and so you pretty much just better learn to deal with it.

I must admit to occasionally being wistful. I, too sometimes wish that Jones was someone else -- a power pitcher, specifically. I wish he could come in, blow people away, and put everything to bed without ratcheting up my blood pressure. But that's just not who he is. The nice thing, though, is that he KNOWS that's not who he is. So he doesn't try to be that pitcher. He stays within himself, and enjoys the ninth inning tension more than you know.

The funny thing is, for his lack of strikeout ability, Jones rarely gives up that baseball dagger -- the walk-off homerun. He manages to keep the ball in the park most of the time. Now, he may surrender a string of hits that may lead to some damage, but he doesn't usually give up the knockout punch. If you're going to beat Todd Jones, you're going to have to do it on points.

May as well accept it, folks. Jones is the Tigers closer, he is who he is, and that's about it.

But he must be doing something right.


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