Late great Mesa closes out doubts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Indians designated Orioles all-time saves leader Gregg Olson for assignment last week. Sent him packing because they already had the dominant closer in the American League. Let him go because Jose Mesa wouldn't let him pitch.

How's that for a telling episode of "How the Baseball World Turns"?

Mesa suddenly is on top of it. He watched for years while Olson built a reputation as one of the game's top closers, never suspecting that he someday might be the guy looking down from the mountain in the bottom of the ninth. Watched and waited for a career to develop in Baltimore, only to leave town with a suitcase full of unfulfilled expectations. Landed in Cleveland. Look at him now.

On a team crowded with established stars, the 29-year-old right-hander may be the primary reason the Indians have been able to take control of the American League Central race. Mesa is 26-for-26 in save opportunities, which must be irksome to an Orioles front office that also let Lee Smith get away recently, but is pure bliss for the Indians, who took a major gamble when they chose not to sign an accomplished closer last winter.

"When we did his contract, he asked me, 'Am I going to get that shot?' " said Indians general manager John Hart. "We said, 'We're not going to get anybody else.' "

There were rumors of a spring deal for veteran closer Rick Aguilera, and the club signed Olson (picked up by Kansas City yesterday) to a minor-league contract, but manager Mike Hargrove handed the ball to Mesa in the ninth and has yet to experience a single moment of regret. Even Smith, who has helped put the California Angels on top of the AL West, has blown three save opportunities this year. Mesa has been nearly perfect. The Indians are 29-1 in the games in which he has appeared.

"This is the direction we hoped he'd go," Hargrove said. "You never can say, 'We're going to make Jose our closer, and he'll be successful.' You can only say, 'He'll be the closer, and hopefully he'll adjust to it and do the job.' He has done that."

Not bad for a guy who had to be pushed into the bullpen last year.

His sudden transformation wasn't so sudden, really. The Indians moved him into the bullpen last season and used him as a setup man to see how he would respond to a full-time relief role.

It seemed like a strange move at the time, considering that Mesa was the Indians' winningest starter the year before. Generally, it isn't considered good front-office policy to trade your top starter for a middle reliever -- which essentially is what the club did by moving Mesa into the bullpen -- but the long-range strategy now appears brilliant.

"We made him a setup man with the idea in mind that he might become a closer," Hart said. "He's a two-pitch guy. A power guy. For five innings, forget about it, but the hitters end up catching up to you. We weren't writing him off, but we felt that he might be limited as a starter."

Mesa originally hated the idea. He complained that club officials didn't tell him what they were planning to do. He wanted to remain in the rotation and felt that his performance in 1993 (10-12, 4.92 ERA) was solid enough to warrant another chance. It was, after all, only his first full year as a major-league starter.

"I was really upset," he said. "I was coming off my best year. The next thing you know, you're a reliever. I was mad."

Now, he's glad. Glad that Hargrove and former Indians pitching coach Phil Regan persuaded him to make the best of a frustrating situation. Glad that the Indians gave him a multi-year contract (two years plus two option years) and a chance to be the closer after a 1994 season in which no Indians reliever registered more than five saves. Glad and -- admittedly -- a little surprised at the way things have turned out.

"I never thought I'd be leading the league in saves and be in the same company with guys like Dennis Eckersley and Lee Smith," Mesa said.

Apparently, no one did. His new contract didn't even have an All-Star clause, so Hart called him upstairs after he was named to the American League squad and handed him a check for $10,000. Just because he deserved it.

Why didn't O's think of that?

Before anyone takes the Orioles to task for failing to recognize that Mesa had a chance to be their closer of the future . . . they did.

The organization tried to convert Mesa into a reliever a couple of times after he came to Baltimore in the 1987 deal that sent Mike Flanagan to the Toronto Blue Jays. The timing just wasn't right.

Mesa underwent reconstructive elbow surgery the year after the trade, so the Orioles' player development department had to tread lightly with his potentially fragile arm.

"Back in 1988, they talked about making Olson a starter and me a reliever," Mesa said. "I was relieving at Triple-A when I had my surgery. Afterward, they sent me to Double-A to be a reliever, but I didn't think I could do it."

There were still doubts last year, but they disappeared after Mesa pitched several days in a row without any arm soreness.

"Now, I just say thank God the Orioles traded me," Mesa said. "They weren't going to use me as a reliever, so I might be in Triple-A now or out of baseball."

The Orioles kept Mesa until they ran out of contract options, then traded him for a player who didn't pan out, minor-league outfielder Kyle Washington. It's a situation they soon may face with left-hander Arthur Rhodes.

"It's a situation you run into with a lot of young pitchers with live arms," said Doug Melvin, the former Orioles player development director and now general manager of the Texas Rangers. "You either run out of options or you run out of patience. In Jose's case, it was a combination of both."

No hard feelings?

Mesa is a mild-mannered guy. Quick to smile. Slow to anger. In NTC the 14 years he has shuttled between the United States and his native Dominican Republic, he has learned a form of English that includes a positive platitude for every occasion, and he affects a surprisingly upbeat attitude toward the up-and-down nature of a professional baseball career.

So it is not surprising that he has nothing but praise for Orioles general manager Roland Hemond and assistant GM Frank Robinson. It also is not surprising that he was less enamored of former Orioles manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman, but it seems out of character for him to admit it.

"When they traded me, I went back to say goodbye to Frank and Roland, because I felt they treated me the way you're supposed to," Mesa said. "The only guys I was mad at were Johnny Oates and Dick Bosman. That's why, when they come to town, I never even talk to them. They never gave me a chance."

No doubt, Oates and Bosman would remember things differently. Mesa did get a chance to pitch in the Orioles rotation. He made 23 starts in 1991 and posted a 6-11 record and a 5.97 ERA. In '92, he was 3-8 with a 5.19 ERA in 12 starts when he was traded to the Indians for Washington at midseason.

If the Orioles made a mistake, it may have been failing to convince Mesa that his pitch repertoire was too limited to allow him to become an outstanding starter. That is not the kind of conclusion that a player comes to by himself.

The Indians didn't pick up on it right away, either. They tried to enhance his pitching repertoire before deciding that he would be better off making the most of what he had in short relief situations.

"It didn't seem like it [expanding his pitch selection] was going to happen," Hart said. "He has very long fingers, so the split-finger doesn't really work, and he has a power mentality.

"When I first saw Jose, I was in the Orioles' organization, and I was managing against his club in winter ball. I told [current Indians pitching coach] Mark Wiley, who was also with the Orioles then, that for me, this guy is a closer. That was back in 1985 and '86, before his arm surgery."

Medical miracle

Of course, no one could have known how well he would rebound from that career-threatening injury, which required "Tommy John" surgery to replace a ruptured ligament. Mesa came back throwing harder than ever, and Indians officials say his velocity has increased since he moved into the bullpen.

His fastball, by some accounts, has touched 98 mph this year.

"I think it [the surgery] gave me two or three extra miles per hour," Mesa said. "Why not? I have a new ligament in there. It's stronger."

The first couple of years after the surgery, Mesa used to talk to his arm. He would stand on the mound and give it orders. "Stay with me." "Be patient." "Throw strikes." Whatever.

"When you have a major arm surgery like I had, you try everything you can," Mesa said. "I talked to my arm all the time."

That was news to Hargrove, who smiled at the image of a grown man having an animated conversation with an appendage.

"He did? He talked to his arm?" Hargrove marveled. "Well, then I'm just glad his arm didn't start listening until he got to Cleveland."

MESA'S STATS

/%Yr. Team .. .. W-L .. .. ERA .. Svs

1987 O's .. .. 1-3 .. . 6.03 .. 0

1990 O's .. .. 3-2 .. . 3.86 .. 0

1991 O's .. . 6-11 .. . 5.97 .. 0

1992 O's .. .. 3-8 .. . 5.19 .. 0

.. ..Clev. .. 4-4 .. . 4.16 .. 0

1993 Clev. . 10-12 .. . 4.92 .. 0

1994 Clev. ... 7-5 .. . 3.82 .. 2

1995 Clev. ... 1-0 .. . 1.53 . 26

Totals . ... 35-45 .. . 4.72 . 28

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