Baltimore is tough gig for closers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is said that Baltimore is one of the best baseball towns in America. Unless you're a closer.

Around here, closers aren't much different than potholes. They're there to be cursed. And replaced every few years.

Gregg Olson was one of the best in the business until his elbow injury in 1993, recording 160 saves before his 26th birthday, but the fans at Camden Yards treated him like he was Bob Irsay's lawyer or something. They all but booed him out of town.

Lee Smith? The fans didn't get on him, but only because he happened not to be the dreaded Olson. He also did most of his save-blowing on the road, well out of harm's way. Smart guy.

Now there is poor Doug Jones, a perfectly amiable, nonthreatening guy with a fine record this year -- 19 saves in 22 chances -- who was boo-bombed off the field with such fervor after blowing a four-run lead in the ninth inning Tuesday night that he got into a pointing match with a fan as he stepped into the dugout.

Welcome to Closer Hell, Doug.

They eat your kind for lunch here.

It isn't fair, of course. Not even close to fair. Except for Dennis Eckersley in his prime, who was perfect, all closers good enough to hold a job in the bigs are pretty much the same. They save 80 percent of their opportunities, give or take a few. They get the job done most of the time. Occasionally, they don't.

It's true of Rick Aguilera and John Wetteland and Jeff Montgomery and Mike Henneman and Gregg Olson and Lee Smith and Doug Jones and all of the folks plying baseball's most specialized trade. Some have been at it longer than others, but all have pretty much the same percentage of success. Theirs is )) the most interchangeable part in baseball.

A fact of modern baseball life: If your closer breaks down, you just go out and get another one. Like batteries, they all work the same.

Maybe it's true that Wetteland or Smith wouldn't have blown Tuesday night's game, as Jones did. But it's also true that Wetteland and Smith would have blown some that Jones didn't. This much is certain: Their numbers will all look similar by the end of the season.

A competent closer's performance is one of the few predictable things in baseball. Four out of five. Expect no less and don't ask for more.

Jose Mesa's 29-for-29 performance in Cleveland this year amounts to the baseball version of a sighting at Lourdes.

Still, such easy predictability doesn't prevent a violent strain of purple-veined hysteria from rising and circulating among the Camden Yards faithful every time the local guy doesn't get the job done. It's as if the fans are cavemen seeing fire for the first time. They go looking for big sticks.

jTC It's surprising because the Camden Yards crowd is normally benign and forgiving, almost a warm, fuzzy crowd. Most boos are warranted and brief.

For a closer, though, "The Land of Pleasant Living" is like existing inside a New York tabloid.

Olson was honest enough to admit that he could barely take it. Smith didn't care. Jones seemed fine until he started waving his hand in defiance of the stunning cascade of boos he heard as he left the field Tuesday night, seemingly coming close to a Jack McDowell-like "We're No. 1" salute in response.

It was rough treatment: Jones is tied for fourth in the league in saves, and he was all but knocked over by a wall of boos. People who think about these things said the boo-o-meter approached the level Cito Gaston heard in the ninth inning of the All-Star Game two years ago.

We can blame it on the Washington lawyers in the club seats, if you want. They don't understand the game, right? There's just one problem with such a theory: The Washington lawyers are back in their Beemers and long gone by the ninth inning. Oh, well.

Actually, the reaction was almost understandable. For starters, Jones has pitched horribly at home this year (8.71 ERA as opposed to 1.53 on the road), hardly endearing himself to the locals. He was brutal Tuesday night. And remember, the closer is always as naked and vulnerable as it gets from a public-relations standpoint. All players have bad games, but a closer's are the only ones that turn wins into losses right in front of everyone's eyes. Such an obvious turnaround is bound to get people steamed.

There is extra steam around here, though. Orioles manager Phil Regan mentioned it yesterday, saying that it was "a little bit unfair" for people to boo Jones so viciously after he saved 19 of 22 chances. Jones himself was contrite yesterday about having reacted to the fan behind the dugout ("I regret that, but I was very frustrated"), yet still seemingly somewhat surprised by the fierce anger his performance elicited.

"The fans don't have to understand," he said, "but they can at least make an attempt. It's hard when your home fans are that way."

But it's hard "that way" all the time around here. A local closer just has to live with it. As Joe Friday once said, "It's my job. Sorry you don't like it."

REST OF THE STORY

Orioles closer Doug Jones got pounded by the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night after three days' of rest, which has been his tendency this season:

Days rest ... ... App. ... ... ERA ... ... Saves/chances

0 or 1 ... .. ... 21 ... .. .. 1.35 .. ... 14/15

2 or more ... ... 19 ... .. .. 9.92 .. ... 5/7

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