There should be a hotline for former star athletes to call. They would use it just for emergencies, just for those moments when they have this interesting thought but are not sure if they should make that thought public. For instance, before doing an interview like this with Newsday, Goose Gossage might call the hotline.
Goose: So, I’m thinking about talking again about how you can’t compare Mariano Rivera to relievers of our time.
Goose: No, this time I’m going to talk about how great Mariano Rivera is, you know, how he’s a great guy. I mean, I’ll say it over and over again.
Hotline: Don’t do it.
Goose: “No, it’s OK, I’ll keep saying that Mariano Rivera is great, really great, but you can’t say he’s the greatest because he’s used in a different role than guys from our time, you know, like me. But he’s really, really great and all, it’s just that just guys from our time, you know, like me, would have been just as great if we were used the Mariano way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while he’s super great, he might not be any better than guys from our time, you know, like me, if Rivera had been used the way we pitch. But he’s great.”
Hotline: “Don’t do it.”
There is no such hotline, sadly, and so Goose Gossage once again made a headline by sort of downplaying Mariano Rivera while insisting he wasn’t sort of downplaying Mariano Rivera. It isn’t the first time. It probably won’t be the last. Hey, it’s his right. I’m all for people speaking their minds, and Goose Gossage certainly does that on any number of topics. The reason I think it was unfortunate is, well, there are actually two reasons, one obvious, the other perhaps less so.
The obvious reason is that it diminishes Goose Gossage to talk this way. Goose Gossage was a great pitcher. A truly great pitcher. Gossage is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely remembered, he does not need to go around telling people how great he was or how he wasn’t used the way pitchers today are used. I think it cheapens him to do so, especially when he uses the beloved Mariano Rivera for effect. Rivera has been gracious and classy and respectful. Gossage shouldn’t use him as a prop.
Yes, Gossage was used differently than modern closers, especially in the early part of his career. Yes, he’d have more saves if the game had been managed differently back then. Anybody who cares about such things knows them. And anybody who doesn’t know such things doesn’t care. Anyway, it’s too transparent. If Gossage was using the platform to fight for the Hall of Fame causes of other great relievers of his day — Dan Quisenberry, John Hiller, Sparky Lyle, Lee Smith, etc. — that would be one thing. But you don’t get the sense from Goose’s proclamations that he’s all that interested in new people joining him in the Hall. This kind of talk about Rivera is self-serving and should be beneath him.
But the second reason, the less obvious one, is why I wish Gossage would quiet down: When Gossage talks about Rivera like this, it’s only human nature to start making some comparisons. And Gossage won’t look good in the comparisons. Hey, it’s only human nature to go back and take a look at Gossage’s career and poke around a little bit. And what happens is that you find Gossage’s career wasn’t exactly how he remembered it. Also, there’s no way he was as good as Mariano Rivera.
Gossage, you probably know, was a failed starter. At 19, he went 18-2 with a 1.83 ERA as a starter in Class A Appleton — a performance so dominant that at 20 he was in the big leagues. He struggled horribly. He couldn’t throw strikes. At 21, for the White Sox, he was 0-4 with a 7.43 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.The next year, he was some kind of swing man, starting some, relieving some, and he wasn’t too good. But he was a bit better in the pen than in the starting rotation, so in 1975, Chuck Tanner made him a full-time reliever.
Good move. Gossage was awesome in the bullpen in 1975. Tanner used the Goose in every relief pitching situation imaginable. Gossage faced 34 batters in a 7 2/3 inning relief performance against Boston, and he faced one batter in closing the door against the Yankees and the Angels in August of that season. He was the long man, the short man, the setup man — Gossage has said that relievers of his time did three jobs, and there’s no question that in 1975 Gossage did. There were no relief pitcher rules then — Tanner was making them up as he went along. Gossage pitched 141 2/3 innings, most of them dominant, and posted an almost unbelievable 8.1 WAR — by far the most valuable season of his career. Gossage seems to remember that his whole career was like that. It wasn’t.
The next year, Tanner was gone, Paul Richards was in his place, and Gossage was a starter again. Not many people know this, but Gossage pitched well for the first two months as a starter. He threw a complete game three-hitter in his first start, threw 11 2/3 innings against the Royals, and he was chosen to pitch in the All-Star Game. But then it went bad. In his last 12 games, he went 3-7 with a 5.84 ERA. The league hit .304 against him. In one start, he lasted just one-third of an inning and gave up three hits, four walks and five runs. The White Sox had enough. They traded him to PIttsburgh to reunite him with Chuck Tanner. From that point on, Goose Gossage was a reliever.
He was, for two years, exactly the kind of relief pitcher he had been in 1975. That is to say, he pitched 135 or so innings, finished 55 games, pitched as many as seven innings, and at other times was brought in to face one batter. When Gossage talks about doing three different jobs, he’s really referring to those three seasons. After that, he wasn’t used quite so liberally. After 1978, he only once pitched more than 100 innings — 102 innings for the 1984 San Diego Padres. After 1978, he only twice pitched five innings in a game, and only pitched four innings seven times.
I say “only,” though, of course, by today’s standards the concept of a closer going four or five innings is beyond imagination. But my point is that after 1978, Gossage was beginning to slowly morph into something that looked more and more like a modern closer. There were still some significant differences. He still threw multiple innings, something today’s closers almost never do. But he was no longer that wildebeest reliever who filled every imaginable role. After 1984 — so the last nine or so years of his career — he was used even more conventionally. He become more of a middle-reliever after he turned 35 and never again threw even 60 innings in a season.
Could Rivera have done what Gossage did? Well, look at the reliever numbers:
Gossage as a reliever (including postseason):
117-86, 2.77 ERA, 1,588 innings, 1,255 hits, 547 runs, 489 ER, 101 homers, 635 walks, 1,369 Ks.
Rivera as a reliever from 1995-2012 (including postseason):
81-56, 1.91 ERA, 1,310 2/3 innings, 962 hits, 302 runs, 278 ER, 59 homers, 278 walks, 1,191 Ks.
OK, do you see? Rivera was better. A lot better. He was better in cold numbers, and he was a lot better when you take into consideration the eras when they pitched. For Rivera to match Gossage in the basic numbers, he would have had to pitch 278 more innings — all those multiple innings that Gossage pitched — and he would have to allow 201 more (a tidy 6.51 ERA). He would have had to walk 350 or so batters in those innings, while allowing 42 home runs. And he would have had to do all that in a much lower scoring run environment. I’m guessing here, of course, but I think he could have managed it.
And as far as the ease of pitching one inning — Gossage has called it easy in the past — the Goose pitched exactly one inning 249 times in his career. His ERA in those outings: 3.75. You can argue about the value of the closer (and I have a piece coming up on it) but let’s not diminish the skill it takes to throw a scoreless inning, especially in the high scoring era Mariano Rivera found himself in.
None of this should be necessary to say. Gossage’s greatness stands the test of time. He was part of the bridge that took us from the 1950s and 1960s, when relievers were used sporadically and like pawns on a chess board, to now, when closers are celebrated and paid like kings. He was of his time, and that’s a good thing. If he had been used like a modern closer, sure, he probably would have more saves, but he might not be in the Hall of Fame. He might have been like Jeff Reardon or Billy Wagner or John Wetteland — great pitchers who lit up the sky and then burned out in their mid-to-late 30s.
You know, if you just want to talk saves, Gossage does suffer. He blew 112 of the 432 save opportunities he had. Rivera has blown only 73 of the 681 chances he’s had. It’s not an entirely fair comparison, Gossage’s save opportunities were different from Rivera’s. But it’s a comparison we make because Gossage can’t just say “Mariano Rivera is a great and timeless relief pitcher” and leave it at that.