The Final Season: Close It Out

Atlanta 4 – Pittsburgh 0; CJ: 1-1, R

Final Season Stats: .287/.377/.455, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 111 H, 58 R

Final Career Stats: .303/.401/.529, 468 HR, 1623 RBI, 2725 H, 1618 R

It happened. The regular season ended. It always seems to do that, though, no matter how much I protest. At least this year Atlanta will see the postseason, even if only for a brief few hours.

But this last game also means the last day of blogging for me in this epic marathon gauntlet I voluntarily ran into. Today’s post will mark the 162nd time I have posted in the last 6+ months. That’s… a lot. Even I can acknowledge that. I can also acknowledge that it is not a pace I can maintain. In fact, I imagine this being the last post for at least a few days, if not a week or more. I need a little break.

But instead of waxing philosophical about what the last six months have meant to me or shown me, what I got out of all this, if anything, I’m going to finish like I started – writing about baseball. And not writing about what I feel when the season ends or how I long for baseball during the winter (and I do), but writing about a completely random thought I’ve had about this game I love.

Cue the closers (which is fitting as it is my last post).

I had this great conversation with my dad, as I often due, while watching a baseball game recently. Actually, it was a highlight MLB or ESPN or whoever chose to show during the game we were watching, and it was of Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney finishing off a game for the team. And if you know anything about Rodney, you know he seems like kind of an intense, yet animated dude. He cocks his hat to one side, has a long-ish, unkempt beard, and makes large gestures with his arms when he completes a save.

This display of, what I assume to be, machoness prompted a comment to my dad about how all closers are crazy. His response: “Well, they need to be.” This led to me saying the expected, ‘Go on.’

It’s my father’s theory that, to be an effective closer, you have to be a little left of center. His reasoning is that it takes a special kind of person to get amped up for coming in with the game on the line. Typically, when closers get the ball, their team is up by only a run or two, and they are tasked with making sure it stays that way. Their team has battled for eight innings to force themselves out in front with only one half inning standing between them and victory. “So, here’s the ball, closer, and don’t screw it up for the rest of us.’

Being a closer is a high pressure job, for sure. Your sole purpose is to ensure wins. No matter how good the batters are that you’re facing and no matter what the situation as far as men on base threatening to score, you are to come in and close the door. The stress, the adrenaline, the nerves, the sense of control. I could see how some players would enjoy all that. I, personally, not so much. I’m non-confrontational. Put me in for some long relief early in the game with the team down seven because the starter blew up. That I can do. But close? I’d have a stress-induced asthma, panic, and heart attack all at once. But those guys that do it and are good at it seem to love it. Obsess over it. ‘Give me the ball, coach! I’m ready.’

That sort of reckless disregard for anxiety is probably where the tattoos, beards and antics come from. They let loose both literally, with their pitches, and figuratively, with their emotions and, possibly, self-control.

Don’t get me wrong. I love closers. The Braves have one of the best in the game in Craig Kimbrel, and he is certainly a big part of their success. So definitely love closers. I just think it’s funny how so many of them fit into that characterization. Crazy guy with long hair, wild gestures and Technicolor tattoos. The kind of guy that looks prone to getting into bar fights with bikers. And I realize while Kimbrel may not look that way, he does look as intense as any of them when he’s out there.

The best exception I can think of, to offer a counterpoint, is Mariano Rivera. He was, for what seems like decades, the Yankees’ closer. (He’s hurt now but looking to make a comeback.) He is a guy that calmly goes out to the mound, void of all tattoos and piercing holes and flashy gestures, and mows opponents down like they’re blades of grass, just sitting and waiting to be chopped up. But he seems like the exception much more so than the rule.

But, hey, if it’s late in a game and the team needs to shut the door, I don’t mind a guy with a questionable appearance or behavior. As long as he’s effective, we’re good. Again – as long as he’s effective. If he is, I’ll wear as many fake beards in as many fake colors as I can find.

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The Final Season: The Old ACL

Braves 13 – Rockies 9; CJ: 3-6, 5 RBI (21), R

It was a sad day for baseball on Thursday. Mariano Rivera, the Yankee’s closer for, oh, the last 16 or so years, tore his ACL and is out for the season. He’s 42, and generally regarded as the best closer in the history of the game. And after the announcement that it was his ACL, the speculation started immediately as to whether or not he would retire. Fast forward a day, and he says no. He will rehab and attempt a comeback. At 42.

With all that, I couldn’t help but see the parallel’s to Chipper’s torn ACL in 2009. I’ve written about the injury before, mostly from my vantage point, since, in a freak coincidence, I was at the game when it happened. But I didn’t write much about my reaction the days following.

After it was official that his ACL was torn and he was done for the season, I went back and forth with myself (something I do a lot, but definitely doesn’t make me crazy) about whether or not Chipper should declare it the end of his career. Like most people, I saw it two ways. One, that he couldn’t let his career end that way and that, as a lifelong fan, I didn’t want to stop watching him play baseball, even if it wasn’t at the same level. Bad Chipper was still, to me, better than no Chipper. Or, two, the writing on the wall was clear that his career had been in decline for a while, his numbers were down, so why not take this as a chance to let some fresh legs play at third? I went back and forth on that because I didn’t know the answer.

However, he knew fairly quickly. He decided right away that he would attempt rehab and try to be ready for Spring Training in 2010. Then, when February came around, if he could play, he would. If he couldn’t, he would retire. In the meantime, he echoed a sentiment Rivera made a couple days ago and said he would stay with the team to lend his experience and knowledge to whoever wanted to hear it.

And I imagine my reaction to his decision is in line with what some Yankees fans must be feeling. I remember I didn’t feel joy or disappointment at his announcement. I part expected it. No professional athlete, I think, wants their career to end with an injury. They all seem to want to go out on their own terms. Instead I felt cautious optimism. I wanted to see Chipper return, but I wasn’t convinced he could do it. He was 38, after all, and ACL rehab sounds intense. Add that to the fact that we, the fans, wouldn’t know if he had been successful for six months, and my anxiety was reaching Woody Allen levels. How big a bind would he put the Braves in if, come February, he retired and left them little time to fill his position? If he was unsure he could come back, shouldn’t he just retire right away? See my dilemma? That offseason, I remember checking the column of David O’Brien, one of the teams beat writers, very closely for any news on Chipper.

But, Yankee fans, if history is destined to repeat itself, perhaps you can rest easy. All in all, Chip turned out okay. He’s been able to play a couple more seasons since the injury, and, based just on the first month of this season (dare I say it?) he’s still productive.

And I genuinely hope the same for Rivera. Heck, I don’t like the Yankees (like all baseball fans that aren’t Yankee fans), but they aren’t in the NL East, so I really don’t mind cheering for one of their greats to get another chance.

At this point the question will become, as it did for the Braves in 2009, will the Yankees survive? Can they still make the playoffs and compete for the World Series? The team will put on a brave face, of course, saying obvious things like, ‘Can’t replace a Rivera, but this is a resilient team and we’re fighters and we’ll find a way.’ I know this because that’s what the Braves said. They focused on Martin Prado and Omar Infante (remember him?), both All-Stars that year, as possible fill-ins. But, of course, while reiterating that Chipper couldn’t be replaced. And they did manage to make the playoffs. They didn’t go deep, but they still made it.

As, I imagine, the Yankees will. I mean, they’re the friggin’ New York Yankees. They have depth at the bench coach position. Seriously, they’re stacked. Yeah they’re down a starting pitcher in Michael Pineda and starting pitching has been questionable for them, but they score runs. Trust me. They’ll be in it in September with a chance at October. They always are.

Also, I’m happy to see Rivera attempt the comeback, much like I was for Chipper the more I thought about it. The chance for a few more record setting moments has to be appreciated. I wish Rivera all the best and hope he comes back soon.