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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …Rollie Fingers

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Before Mariano Rivera, before Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage , and Dennis Eckersley, there was Rollie Fingers. What is it all of them had in common? They were all starters converted into relievers.

Fingers was a starter throughout his minor league career. He had started 19 games in 1970. But a May 15, 1971 start against the Royals in Kansas City would be his last in regular rotation (he gave up one run on four hits in five full innings; final score Royals 5 – A’s 4).He came in on May 21, 1971 in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins in Oakland after Blue Moon Odom gave up three runs and three walks facing eight batters. He pitched 5-1/3 allowing three hits and two runs (Twins 10 – Oakland 1). After that his earliest entrance to a game was in the sixth inning, and only three times. Mainly he came in the seventh, eighth, or ninth (he came in once in the eleventh and once in the twelfth).[13]

By the end of May 1971 his manager with the Athletics, Dick Williams, had made up his mind that Fingers would be the late inning closer.The following season, 1972, Fingers entered the game in the fifth four times, otherwise it was the sixth or later. He did start two games in 1973 (April 21 versus the California Angels at Oakland and May 7 against the Orioles at Baltimore; His May 7, 1973 start was the last of his career), other than that he came into the game no earlier than the sixth on three more occasions. After that he rarely entered a game before the seventh inning for the rest of his career.

When Fingers reached the major leagues, the role of relief pitchers was limited, as starting pitchers rarely left games while holding a lead; but as team offense increased following the 1968 season, and especially with the American League‘s introduction of the designated hitter in 1973, managers became more willing to replace starters in the late innings with a lead in order to forestall any late rallies by opponents. Through the 1960s, both leagues’ annual saves leaders tended toward totals of 20–25 saves; few pitchers remained in the role more than two or three years, with significant exceptions such as Roy Face and knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. But in the 1970s, in an era allowing for greater opportunities for closers than had previously been available, Fingers’ excellence in relief allowed him to gradually increase his annual saves totals past 30. In 1980 he broke Wilhelm’s record of 227 saves, and eventually finished with 341, a record that stood until Jeff Reardon passed it in 1992.

Fingers is regarded as a pioneer of modern relief pitching, essentially defining the role of the closer for years to come. As had generally been true in baseball through the 1960s, Fingers was originally moved to the bullpen—and eventually to his role as a closer—due to struggles with starting. Before Fingers’ time, a former starter’s renewed success in the bullpen would have led back to a spot in the starting rotation; but since the successes of not only Fingers but also contemporaries such as Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage, it has been widely accepted that an excellent pitcher might actually provide a greater benefit to his team as a closer than as a third or fourth starter. (Gossage, for example, was moved to the starting rotation after a first few seasons in relief—and he got clobbered despite pitching 17 complete games and was then moved back to the bullpen to stay.) As a result, later teams have been more willing to move successful starters—notably Dennis Eckersley, Dave Righetti, and John Smoltz—to the permanent role of closer, with no plans to bring them back to the rotation (although Smoltz bucked that trend by successfully returning to the rotation in 2005). In 2006, Bruce Sutter became the first pitcher in baseball history elected to the Hall of Fame who never started a game in his major league career.

In addition to his pitching ability, he was noted for his waxed handlebar moustache which he originally grew to get a $300 bonus from Athletics owner Charles O. Finley.

On the first day of spring training for the 1972 season, Reggie Jackson showed up with a beard. In protest, Fingers and a few other players started going without shaving to force Jackson to shave off his beard, in the belief that management would also want Jackson to shave. Instead, Finley, ever the showman who would do anything to sell tickets, then offered prize-money to the player who could best grow and maintain their facial hair until Opening Day (April 15 versus Minnesota). Fingers went all out for the monetary incentive offered by Finley and patterned his moustache after the images of the players of the late 19th century.[17] Taking it even further, Finley came up with “Moustache Day” at the ballpark, where any fan with a moustache could get in free.

Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman also went for the bonus, but Fingers with his Snidely Whiplash took the prize. He would say later: “Most of us would have grown one anywhere on our bodies for $300”. The players would become known as the “Moustache Gang”

Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday salutes …Rollie Fingers

MLB debut
September 15, 1968 for the Oakland Athletics
Last MLB appearance
September 17, 1985 for the Milwaukee Brewers
Career statistics
Win–loss record 114–118
Earned run average 2.90
Strikeouts 1,299
Saves 341
Teams
Career highlights and awards
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