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Closer but No Cigar

Minnesota baseball fans have never been the sort who will throw batteries at opposing outfielders or lunge over dugout roofs or outfield railings to get into a player's face. Which on the whole is a good thing, I guess, although I've always felt kind of embarrassed about the fact that when Twins fans finally did get their big moment in the national spotlight, they responded by jumping up and down and waving handkerchiefs. The sad truth is that the fat guys in this town who are willing to paint their faces and take off their shirts and make total asses of themselves are for the most part Vikings fans. Even so, you'd think that the sorry fortunes of the local baseball club in recent years would bring out the ranting, mad-dog Boston bleacher bum in at least a few of the long-suffering season ticket holders. Yet the remaining fans of the team seem determined to take their lumps in silence.

A few weeks ago, after Twins closer Rick Aguilera gave up a 10th-inning home run to Seattle's Alex Rodriguez that cost Minnesota the game, I felt the old battery-throwing rage rising in me as I sat there quietly with the rest of the crowd. I was heartened, however, to hear a fan eventually bellow into the silence, "Aguilera, that is not the beard of a closer!" And I have to be totally honest and admit that I myself have always held Aguilera's immaculate beard against him. He is almost certainly one of the last men in America still in possession of one of those old Miami Vice electric razors, and he has that "I'm-not-really-a-baseball-player-but-I-play-one-in-the-movies" look that makes me uncomfortable every time he heads out to the mound. Many is the time as Aguilera trots in from the bullpen that I recall the observation of a friend back in the early days of Aggie's tenure in Minnesota: "This does not look like a guy who would shit on a cake." My friend was referring, of course, to the unkempt former Yankees closer, Sparky Lyle, who did in fact shit on a cake once upon a time and who would be driven to the mound in a pinstriped Datsun with "Pomp and Circumstance" blaring from the Yankee stadium speakers, and with runners on first and third with nobody out. That was the sort of mess that used to constitute a save situation. Nowadays guys like Aguilera are seldom expected to come in and put out a fire--their job is to come in and do their damnedest not to start one.

My real problem with Aguilera, though, is that he has the most unenviable role in the entire game of baseball. I've always hated closers. The way late relievers are used these days, it's a no-win situation for them. More often than not a manager will bring his closer into the game to start the ninth inning, with the bases empty and his team holding a one- to three-run lead. The closer either does his job--exactly what's expected of him--or he fails and breaks everybody's heart. Success is anticlimactic and any failure is an easy and solitary target for a fan's frustration. The good closers--and Aggie has actually been a good one for eight years--will still blow somewhere around 15 percent of their save opportunities, and every one of those blown saves is like a stake through a fan's heart. You carry them away from the ballpark and take them home with you. Some of them you never forget.

Every Twins fan will have his or her own list of the most unforgettable blown saves, and certainly no such list could be complete without Ron Davis's nightmare against Cleveland in the last week of the 1984 season. On September 27, the Twins and Indians were playing to 3,752 people in Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium--this was back in the days before Cleveland became a large market team--with Minnesota entering the evening one game back of Kansas City in the Western Division race with four games to play. Everybody remembers that Davis surrendered a two-out game-winning home run to the pinch-hitting stiff Jamie Quirk in the bottom of the ninth, but it was second baseman Tim Teufel's throwing error in the eighth that had allowed Cleveland to tie the game. That's the kind of injustice a closer just has to live with. A blown save is the kind of punctuation fans remember, and this particular loss was the final blow to the young Twins' pennant hopes. Davis's failure was a perfect capper on what was a miserable season for the most beleaguered reliever in Minnesota history. That season R.D. blew 14 saves and suffered 11 losses in relief.

While that was certainly the most painful blown save in my experience as a fan, Davis was also responsible for the most entertaining conflagration I've ever witnessed. On April 26, 1986, with more than 30,000 people in the Metrodome for Hat Day, Mickey Hatcher was at the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning with Minnesota holding a 6-1 lead over California when a freak storm rolled through downtown Minneapolis, rocking speakers and lights in the Dome and tearing a hole in the stadium roof just above section 209. The release of pressure caused the roof to begin to sag and resulted in a delay of the game, after which Frank Viola, who had been cruising with a five-hitter until the storm hit, gave up a double and a two-run homer, prompting manager Ray Miller to summon Davis from the bullpen. Davis promptly gave up a single, a pinch-hit home run, a walk, and another two-run homer, and the Angels walked off with a 7-6 victory. Whenever I'm feeling particularly cruddy, I break out my old "I Believe in R.D." T-shirt, and it never fails to cheer me up.

Aguilera's most notorious blown save might have been the most epochal in Twins history, signaling as it did the end of Minnesota's run as a quality baseball team. The Oakland Athletics had come to the Dome on July 27, 1992 for a three-game series, trailing the Twins (who at 60-41 had baseball's best record at the time) by three games. Oakland took the first two games of the series, and the Twins went into the Wednesday-night finale needing a win to hang on to the division lead. Aguilera hadn't lost a game for Minnesota in almost three months, and he was called on in the ninth to protect a 4-2 lead. Jerry Browne and Harold Baines singled before Aguilera got Ricky Henderson to fly out for the first out of the inning. Eric Fox, a journeyman who had only recently been laboring in the minor leagues, proceeded to hit a three-run homer that broke the Twins' back. They went 30-31 the rest of the way and finished six games back of Oakland. Since that season, Minnesota has gone 326-417.

Of course, the more rational fan in me realizes that it's unfair to pin the Twins' failures solely on a home run Aguilera gave up to some bush-league scrub six years ago. It's easy and even tempting to overlook the fact that after almost nine seasons in a Minnesota uniform, Aggie is now the club's all-time saves leader, is second in team history in games pitched, and has converted 82 percent of his save opportunities. He also saved five games in the 1991 postseason, including all three victories in the American League Championship Series against Toronto. It's funny, though, now that trade rumors are once again swirling around Aguilera and it is looking increasingly unlikely that he will make it to the All-Star break with the team: The only actual successful save of his that I can remember with any detail is one he picked up for Boston after being traded by the Twins on July 6, 1995--against the Twins in the Dome the very next day. And the only thing that kept me from rushing right down to the railing and calling him a fucking dandy at the top of my lungs was the polite applause from the people all around me.


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