Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eric Gagne: An Appreciation

I try to live my life without regrets, and for the most part I've been pretty fortunate both in the choices I've made and the breaks I've received. But there are little things about which, upon reflection, I am a little embarrassed.

Like taking candy from my little brother's Halloween stash (technically, it was an "exchange", although Snickers-for-Mounds just ain't right, I know). And parking in a one-hour spot at the mall to go see a movie. And mis-using my mutant superpowers, to credibly emote on command, for evil purposes.

And screaming and hollering with absolute euphoria during the Eric Gagne consecutive-save streak of 2002-2004. Looking back, I have to admit, it feels...a little more empty than it probably should.

Not that I felt any pangs of guilt at the time, however, as to see these games in person was nothing less than awesome. The top of the ninth innings brought "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring over the loudspeakers, the opening of the Dodger bullpen gates, and a portly bespectacled man jogging in to take his rightful place finishing off the opponent with seemingly effortless precision. The crowd would roar with electricity. The opposing batters would shake with intimidation. The fans would go home happy, having watched our gladiator slay the lion, time after time after time.

The 2003 Dodgers won only 85 games that year, finishing second in the NL West, 15 GB the Giants in a year in which they never led the division. 55 of those 85 wins were saved by Gagne. There wasn't a lot for which to cheer in 2003, when the punchless Dodgers ended up last in the league for HR and batting average. But Gagne was just a beast, mowing down opponents through the entirety of 2003, and all the way into July 2004, without a blown save. Game Over.

Gagne, the greatest closer in Dodgers history, was a phenomenon, and it was impossible not to be swept up in it. Even east-coast pundits, accustomed to stereotyping Los Angeles fans as "those who leave by the seventh inning," finally shut their traps. SportsCenter had a cool graphic clicking off the saves each evening. And t-shirts sporting little tufts of goatees were strangely in fashion.

Gagne went on to save 45 games in 2004, the year after his Cy Young Award winning year, helping the Dodgers make the playoffs and running his consecutive games streak to 84 games. I probably saw about 20 of those 84 streaked saves in person. And they were really fun, uproarious times at the Stadium.

After 2004, the Gagne curtain dropped with such suddenness that one couldn't help but notice how strangely it all went down. Two seasons of injuries and minimal appearances. A quick release from the Dodgers, dispatching Gagne to the American League. A classy advertisement placed by Gagne in the LA Times, which served as a stark contrasting juxtaposition against the Dodgers' lack of announcement about severing ties with the man who was one of the centerpieces of the team's identity just years prior.

I remember figuring out Gagne's fate when I saw the last remaining goateed t-shirts on the clearance rack at the Top of the Park Store. This is how we thank someone for years of quality service? Cy Young Award winners don't belong on the clearance rack, right? Don't team legends deserve a more appreciative farewell?

Even Gagne himself acted a little sheepish from then on, moving on from the Dodgers to save only 26 more games spanning three teams. Instead of beaming with pride, Gagne was only a shadow of his former self. His naming in the Mitchell Report brought a series of vague apologies, skirting the issue but revealing complicity for steroid sins that undeniably enhanced his performance--if not accelerating the speed his fastball (which he had even as a shoddy starter in his early Dodgers career), at the very least helping him recover faster than normal and giving him a mental edge. The tarnish on Gagne's shine had started to appear, and his responses in dodged bobs and weaves with the were telling.

His latest, most recent attempt at a comeback with the Dodgers this spring would have been a great story; however a 20.25 ERA in three appearances with only one strikeout wrote a different ending, the ending that we knew in our hearts would come. And when Gagne himself, released from the Dodgers and teamless in April, opted to announce his retirement this week using a French-language Canadian news outlet, it was almost as if he was saying he would rather fade away quietly, sneaking away in the thick of the night without even leaving a (English-language) note.

As a Dodger fan, it's hard to look back at the Gagne era with anything but conflicted feelings. It was incredible to be part of the maelstrom. And I honestly don't think I knew, or even considered at the time of the streak, that steroids and cheating might have been part of it. But both the Dodgers' and Gagne's reactions after 2004 made clear that something was amiss, and that this joy wasn't going to feel as full as it should, as time passed.

Six years later, as Gagne retires, the joy doesn't feel as full at all.

Is this the way that Giants fans feel about Barry Bonds? I suppose that one of the key differences is that Gagne at least addressed the issue and admitted fault, while Bonds has combatively denied any accusation of cheating or steroid use. Perhaps that admission doesn't make the achievement itself any more upstanding--the 84-game streak might be as deserving of an asterisk as the 73 HR in a season, as well as the 762 HR in total. But with Gagne, we're all in on the deception now, Gagne included. With Bonds, Giants fans are still in denial. And while saves are still one of the more spurious baseball statistics, Bonds' tarnishing of the HR records casts a much larger shadow upon baseball (as does Bonds' swelled cranium).

Gagne may not go down in baseball history as "the greatest closer of the Closer era," as Rob Neyer asked when the Gagne streak came to an end in July 2004. Gagne goes down as the greatest closer of the Steroid era, for whatever that's worth.

If nothing else, Gagne merits appreciation for bringing a lot of fun and excitement and revelry to a time when the whole game was a steroid-filled, performance-enhanced circus. I find it sort of funny that few outlets (such as the LA Times Steve Dilbeck blog) have even bothered to wax philosophic on the Gagne era, as if we'd rather sweep the memories under the rug altogether.

I'd rather appreciate Gagne for what he was, warts and all. I'll remember the fun of the good times I had back then, even if they feel empty now. There are certainly plenty of other things--achievements, experiences, crises--that seemed like a big deal earlier in my life, and haven't turned out to be as big of a deal now that I'm older. I can just file Gagne away with those, I suppose; a good idea at the time, but not such a good feeling later. Like the swiped Snickers bars.

I don't think it makes sense to be all that embarrassed for screaming my head off at the time. But I am going to put it in the proper perspective as I reflect upon it today.

Thank you, Eric Gagne, for the good times. Here's hoping you spend the second-half of your life bringing as much joy to others as you did in your first half, and achieve much acoomplishment along the way. And maybe a little more cleanliness, too.

last photo: Jon Soohoo/LA Dodgers


Nostradamus said...

Well written, Sax. That sentiment could easily sum up my feelings about the whole precipitous PED crash.

My life as an adult baseball fan is largely built on the unstable foundation which those years provide. I think I will always have some cognitive dissonance about it.

Steve K said...

Yes, definitely well written. I feel the exact same way. Looking back, I ask myself, "were we really that naive?" Ignorance is definitely bliss.

Nostradamus said...

@J Steve

Even at the time, I recall conversations I had with friends at the game about "secret sauce"

Hell, even if none of that stuff had passed the threshold at Dodger Stadium, I don't feel comfortable on the moral high ground. It was baseball's problem, and I was/am a baseball fan.

Greg Finley said...

I wonder if Red Sox fans feel that same way about Manny Ramirez. Though there was some initial chagrin, I think most Bostoners still think their recent championships are pretty swell.

Nostradamus said...

As a sometimes Sox fan, too, I can say that at least some of them feel the same way. Most of them probably should.

Paul said...

I can't feel bad about cheering for Gagne. I had no control over his actions or the MLB for letting the problem get so out of control. Gagne was juiced up and so were a lot of the guys he faced in key situations in the 9th.

I think parcing competition to see what was influenced by PEDs and what wasn't is an exercise in futility. The Sox had to beat the Yankees in 2004 and that wasn't exactly a clean team.

I feel bad for the players who didn't use and are grouped in this mess.

Gagne used PED's strike one, he had them shipped directly to Dodger stadium strike two and his apology was filtered and not intellectually honest strike three. Game Over for me as a fan.

Steve K said...

@Mr. C: I'm sure if I think back, I knew at the time, too. I think I wanted to believe that it wasn't juice. But I had fun watching it.

Kyle Baker said...

Well said, Sax! Thanks for breaking it down scientifically like that.

I have no regrets. Especially over things I can't control (e.g., PED use among players, player's union refusla to allow testing, a league that looked the other way). If Gagne was the exception, it would be different. However, he was but one of many. I thank him for some great games of striking out freakishly large batters who were also juiced.

I resemble what Mr. C said: "My life as an adult baseball fan is largely built on the unstable foundation which those years provide."