Gossage closing in on Cooperstown

Gossage closing in on Cooperstown

If it's not this year then it may never happen, but Rich Gossage is hoping that his seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot will be sprinkled with some magic. Each year since the Baseball Writers Association of America has had the opportunity to vote for him, Gossage, one of the top relief pitchers in history, has been less and less optimistic about his chances.

"I've felt the best this year, though, about the possibility of going in," Gossage said from his home in Colorado Springs. "I don't know if that's because of the feedback I'm getting from the writers who are calling me or what. The funny thing is, I always hear the good things. Nobody ever calls to tell me why they didn't vote for me. I guess they never would, but I never even hear it through the grapevine."

With no slam-dunk first-year candidates on the ballot -- Orel Hershiser, Will Clark and Albert Belle are among the most heralded of the 14 newcomers -- this could be the year of the reliever.

The man they called "The Goose," who strode to the mound to close games with his spitfire fastball, Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter all have a good chance in the Class of 2006. If not now, then who knows? Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire head the stocked Class of 2007.

Gossage would like the honor for himself as much as his mom, Sue, who is 90 years old "and getting pretty frail," he said. "If I'm going to go in I'd like it to happen soon because of that reason."

He'd like it for his own family and three adult sons, the youngest of which, Todd, 21, is a third baseman going into his senior year at the University of Arkansas. Gossage said he turned down a chance to join former teammate Ron Guidry in Yankees camp this spring because he wants to watch his youngest son play. Guidry, who won the 1978 World Series with Gossage in New York, is the new Yankees pitching coach.

Goose's father, Jake, died when he was a junior in high school and predicted that his son would pitch in the Major Leagues. Not having his dad see that happen is one of Gossage's greatest regrets. But not only did he pitch at baseball's highest level, he excelled there.

"I don't think anybody did it the way I did it," Gossage said. "Power against power. There was no messing around. All those strikeouts I had, none of that is padding. Just about every one of them meant something because the game was on the line."

The Goose's baseball career line over 22 seasons is a road map of baseball stops around the country: Chicago (White Sox), Pittsburgh, New York (Yankees), San Diego, Chicago (Cubs), San Francisco, Yankees again, Texas, Oakland and Seattle. There's also the year he spent pitching in Japan.

The right-hander finished 124-107 with 1,502 strikeouts -- nearly one per inning -- and a 3.01 ERA. His 310 saves are 16th on the all-time list, though he never had more than 33 saves in a single season -- 1980 with the Yankees.

A power pitcher who snarled beneath his mustache and intimidated hitters with his 98 mph fastball, Gossage went from rookie closer to starter back to veteran closer and finally finished as a setup man. Near the end of his career, Goose set up for A's closer Dennis Eckersley, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004 and may have broken some ground for relievers. Eckersley had the added advantage of spending the first 12 years of his career as a competent starter.

But when it comes to relievers, Gossage doesn't want to be compared to Eckersley or any other closer in the recent era, like the Yankees' Mariano Rivera or the Padres' Trevor Hoffman.

"We're not even in the same league," said Gossage, now 54 years old. "Whether I belong in the Hall or not, I don't even know. I really don't. I guess what I based my hopes on, the reason that I thought I had a good shot, was that Rollie Fingers is in. I don't know what I did that Fingers didn't do. Is there something that I'm missing? I'm even more baffled because he's in the Hall."

Fingers, who was inducted in 1992, had 341 saves and threw 1,701 innings in 17 seasons. Gossage had 31 fewer saves in 1,809 innings.

But the Goose also lost out on a couple of opportunites to add to his lifetime total. He was converted into a starter for the White Sox in 1976, a season after he was named the American League's Fireman of the Year. "I lost a season of saves because of that," Gossage said. A thumb injury suffered in a scuffle with the Yankees' Cliff Johnson kept him out for a good part of the 1979 season. "That hurt me, too," he added. "I was at my peak then."

Fingers was used by the A's as a starter, too, and appeared in both roles early in his career, many times in the same season. Even so, he had seven seasons in which he logged at least 100 innings as a reliever. Gossage did it four times and came close in several other seasons.

In comparison, Eckersley pitched 100 innings as a reliever only once. Rivera has done it only once. Hoffman has yet to do it.

And that's the real dilemma.

The role of the closer has so dynamically changed since Gossage played that there's no criteria for how writers vote.

Last year, though, when Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs were elected, both Sutter and Gossage were on the rise. Sutter's name appeared on 66.7 percent of the 516 ballots cast and Gossage was penned on 55.2 percent, up from a scant 40.7 percent only two years ago. A former player needs to be named on 75 percent of the ballots cast to be elected.

Gossage would routinely pitch multiple innings in big games. Managers like the Yankees' Billy Martin and the Padres' Dick Williams would think nothing of bringing Gossage into a game in the seventh inning. If Gossage didn't have it on a given day, there was no one in the bullpen to bail him out. He had to finish, for better or worse.

Eckersley, who accumulated 390 saves in 12 seasons as a reliever, Hoffman (436 saves), and Rivera (379 saves), usually were and have been restricted to one or two innings. Most of the time, the trio would be handed the ball with a lead to open the ninth.

"I think I had a lot to do with setting the bar for relievers and doing the job the way it should be done," Gossage said. "I went and set up for Dennis (in 1992 and 1993), so I know the way he was handled, how pampered he was over there. Not to take anything away from these guys, to compare what I did with what they did. ... It was even a joke with the coaches. We joked with Eckersley all the time. He's a good buddy of mine.

  Rich Gossage's resume
Teams: White Sox, Pirates, Yankees, Padres, Cubs, Giants, Rangers, A's, Mariners
Key stats: 310 saves, 1,002 appearances, 3.01 ERA
Awards: AL Fireman of the Year, 1975, '78, AL Rolaids Relief, '78
Best HOF vote Pct.: 55% in 2004
Peers in Hall: Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley
More stats and bio >

"Don't even compare me with Dennis Eckersley or Mariano Rivera. I'd love to have been used like them. I remember, under Williams with the Padres in 1984, I pitched five or six innings one day. He brought me on in the fifth inning. They wouldn't even think about that now."

The hard-throwing Gossage came up with the White Sox in 1972 and didn't blossom into a closer until he saved 26 games for them in 1975. Two years later, he was traded to the Pirates and saved 26 games again before filing for free agency.

Gossage was one of George Steinbrenner's big offseason signings before the 1978 season, even though the Yankees already had a star closer in Sparky Lyle, who had won the American League's Cy Young Award and helped the Yankees defeat the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series.

Gossage spent six seasons and saved 150 games in New York. He is perhaps most remembered for saving the classic Yankees-Red Sox playoff game on Oct. 2, 1978. Gossage, who was brought into the game with one out in the seventh inning, got Carl Yastrzemski to pop out foul to third with the tying and winning runners on second and third base in the final frame to preserve a 5-4 victory. The Yankees wound up beating the Dodgers again in the World Series.

It was the zenith of his career.

Gossage called the Yankees and Yankee Stadium his favorite place to play. He returned for a second run in New York when the Yankees claimed him off waivers from the Giants on Aug. 10, 1989, and made 11 more appearances. It was a short stay. The next season, Gossage played for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in Japan.

"I loved New York," he said. "I grew up in Colorado Springs as a Yankee fan."

Still, his love for the Yankees didn't keep him in New York the first time. In 1984, he signed as a free agent with the Padres.

Again, it was the Goose with the juice. He saved the biggest game in what was then a short Padres history -- Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs. Gossage pitched the final two innings of that last game, a 6-3 victory on Oct. 7, 1984, to secure San Diego's first pennant.

Four years and 83 Padres saves later, Gossage was traded to the Cubs. He saved 13 games during his second Chicago tour, but was released before the 1989 season. At 37 years old, his days as a premier closer were behind him.

Gossage was criticized for hanging around too long.

"Maybe that's what the voters are holding against me -- that my last five or six years weren't great years," he said. "I can't imagine anyone would hold it against you that I wanted to keep pitching and I was holding on. But I wasn't holding on. I always thought that I could contribute, maybe not the way I used to do it. I just came back to the pack."

He would save only eight more games in his final 149 appearances before the strike cut short the 1994 season and ended his career.

Gossage's final four seasons were a blur after his one year in Japan. He jumped from the Texas Rangers to the A's to the Seattle Mariners, hoping to find some kind of rhythm.

His final line in his final game -- a 14-4 victory for Seattle over the Rangers on Aug. 4, 1994 -- was vintage Goose. He pitched three innings, allowed no runs, no hits, no walks and a rung up a strikeout. It was his only save of the season, the last save and strikeout of his career.

Whether he's elected to the Hall of Fame or not, he'd like to be remembered for the poise with which he played the game. The thing is, this year he knows he at least has a chance.

"The thing I take the most pride in is the consistency," Gossage said. "I had a lot of great years back-to-back. I'd like to be remembered for the way I went about doing my job."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.