Maybe someone with Ph.D. after their name can shed some light, but it sure seems like the pro sports specialist has an affinity for—and pardon my laymen’s term here—playing his game of life with something less than a full deck.
There’s the hockey goalie, whose career at said position surely must have started as either the loser of a bet or because all the regular sticks were taken.
For no one with all 52 cards would volunteer to be pelted with discs of vulcanized rubber being fired upon them at speeds that would make a Lamborghini blush.
Glenn Hall, the Hall of Fame netminder who broke into the NHL with the Red Wings in the early-1950s, holds the league record for consecutive games played, with 502.
Which makes it easy to calculate the number of consecutive upchucks from Hall’s tummy.
Hall famously—or infamously—included as part of his pre-game routine, a trip to the loo to empty the contents of his stomach. Through his esophagus.
Another Red Wings goalie, Roger Crozier, had to be hospitalized several times during his career because his job proved too much for his queasy tum-tum.
Bet losers, those goalies are. Or something.
The hockey goalie is looked at cross-eyed by his teammates, and by those covering the game. Crazy people might snap at any moment, you know.
Football kickers—that’s another group of folks that marches to the beat of a different drummer.
Think about it: these are dudes who spend several hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, on a life that revolves around thumping a football with the side of their foot.
The football kicker is harmless, pretty much, but he’s not all there, either.
Which brings us to the closer in baseball.
They’ve gone by different names throughout the years.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, they were “firemen,” so named for their charge to put out fires in late innings.
By the 1980s, they had developed into “stoppers.”
Now they’re called “closers.”
Call them whatever you like, they have one common denominator.
They’re all a little nuts.
The baseball closer—that late-inning relief specialist who either saves the game or blows it, with no in-between—has to possess the fearlessness of a man guessing his wife's weight and the eccentricity of Howard Hughes. Or so it seems.
The Red Sox had a guy named Dick Radatz back in the 1960s. They called him “The Monster,” which wasn’t a nickname; it was a fact. Radatz was born in Detroit and he was 6’6” and 230 pounds and as bad as Leroy Brown.
There was Al Hrabosky, the Mad Hungarian. Hrabosky wore a Fu Manchu and had eyes that bore through hitters like lasers. His ritual included standing behind the mound, his back to the hitter, as he psyched himself with silent mantras.
Then Hrabosky would slam the ball into his mitt and spin toward the mound. You could almost see the smoke pouring from his nostrils.
There was Roger McDowell, who pitched for the Phillies and the Mets, and who would have made a great thesis subject for someone studying human psychosis.
The roster of off-kilter closers through the years would dwarf any grocery list.
The Tigers have had some decent closers in their glorious history, but they’ve been weird in that they’ve been relatively sane individuals.
John Hiller was probably normal because he wasn’t just a closer. Hiller could start, middle relieve, and close—all in the same week.
Aurelio Lopez was Senor Smoke, but he wasn’t particularly strange. Just fat.
The most eccentric thing about Willie Hernandez was that he changed his name to Guillermo.
Mike Henneman resembled a California surfer with his ruggedly handsome, blond looks and was a pretty normal guy in his own right.
Todd Jones looked nervous but never really was. Jonesy paced around and on the mound like an expectant father in the maternity ward.
He chewed his gum at a rate of 600 per minute. He looked as comfortable out there as a man whose shorts were two sizes too small. Jones was the Don Knotts of closers.
But the Tigers have employed a couple of doozies, one of whom is working for them presently.
In 1981, a one-hit wonder named Kevin Saucier dazzled us in Detroit.
Saucier was called “Hot Sauce.” The moniker was a play on his last name, but it could also have been because Saucier bounced around the mound like someone who’d just consumed a gallon of the stuff. He was a cat on a hot tin roof out there.
Saucier was a lefty, which only added to his weirdness factor. When he closed a game, Hot Sauce leaped off the mound and looked like a Mexican jumping bean, slamming his hand into his glove and shaking hands with anyone he could get his mitts on.
I once even saw him exchange handshakes with one of the grounds crew. No joke.
Hot Sauce was diluted the next year, however. He lost his control—literally and figuratively. He began to walk people, then hit them. The more it happened, the more it played with his head.
Saucier quit the Tigers, and baseball, in the middle of the 1982 season.
“I’m afraid I’m going to hurt somebody,” Hot Sauce said of his sudden control woes.
A closer afraid of hurting someone? Now that’s different.
The other strange cat who has closed games for the Tigers is the free spirit who’s doing it for them currently.
Jose Valverde, “Papa Grande,” is a man overloaded with ritual and superstition. It’s in the way he drinks water in the bullpen, the manner in which he puts on his glasses, and that’s just the tip of his iceberg.
Valverde was signed by the Tigers in the off-season as a free agent, essentially replacing Fernando Rodney. It’s been like swapping out Tony Bennett for Lady Gaga.
Valverde is 6’4”, 220 pounds and with his glasses he looks like a nerd on steroids.
Some closers give you a real show after every closed game. Valverde entertains after everystrike .
He fist pumps. He looks skyward. He shakes. He points. Then he asks for the ball and gets his next sign.
Valverde cast his lot as a Tigers closer last week when he struck out, in order, the Yankees’ Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez to preserve the Tigers’ 5-4 win on Monday night. It was sort of impressive.
Afterward, Valverde’s antics were served up to the Yankees by the New York media trying to get them to bite. Was it showing them up?
Not one of the guys Valverde struck out took the bait.
Maybe they just resigned themselves to the fact that Valverde is a closer, and closers are a little nuts anyway.
Whatever gets them through the night.