Today marks the end of an era. Although brief, it was filled with joy, excitement, and enough thrills to last a lifetime. I was lucky enough to attend a game in which Eric Gagne entered through the bullpen gates at Dodger Stadium, "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring and 50,000 mellow Southern-Californians turned into 50,000 rabid fans.
In Los Angeles, and around the country, the joke is that Dodger fans arrive late, and leave early. Much of this can be attributed to the laid-back lifestyle that most of us are used to, and well, the traffic. It's a phenomenon that I myself don't abide by, but understand and have come to expect just like gridlock on 101 during rush hour. When Eric Gagne took over as the closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002, and Guns 'n' Roses started blaring of the Dodger Stadium PA, the ninth inning changed forever.
No longer did the casual Dodger fans head for the exits before the top of the ninth. People stayed because each time Gagne entered the game, it was an event. The crowd would rise and cheer and the noise level would reach decibels normally reserved for playoff game atmospheres. Cameras would flash hoping to to catch a glimpse of their local folk-hero, and In would come our stocky, goggle wearing, goateed closer, and out would go the other team, often times with a scream and a trademark fist pump to emphatically shut the door.
When he first broke in as a starter with the Dodgers, I will admit, that I was not a fan. He could never quite handle the game and mistakes were always just around the corner. He would look great for a few innings and then implode with a few home runs. 2002 started with the Dodgers with much uncertainty in the bullpen. Then the transformation took place from an underachieving starter to maybe the most dominant closer in Major League history. I'm not sure how it happened, many will attribute it to steroid use, but he became a new pitcher, a new person. He no longer looked like a overmatched pitcher that didn't belong on a Major League mound. He was now the face of intimidation. Armed with his high-90's fastball, a "Bugs-Bunny" volcan change-up, and a slow rolling curveball, he became unhittable.
In 2003, it all came together in a Cy Young Award winning season. With video game like numbers (56 for 56 in saves, 1.20 ERA, and 137 K's in 82.1 innings) he took the National League by storm. When the Dodgers had a lead going to the ninth, it was "GAME OVER." But his place in Los Angeles was not about the numbers. It was about the surge of energy that Eric Gagne brought everytime he toed the rubber. It was about the air of invibility that surrounded him everytime he made his slow jog in from the pen. It was how he made us stay.
I remember watching the Dodgers play the Yankees on television. The final pitch he threw was about a 69 mph curveball that absolutely froze Bernie Williams and sent me flying off the coach and screaming into a pillow. The amazing part wasn't that I lost it (I frequently do when watching sports), but that the uncomparable Vin Scully did too. "OH MY GOSH! WHAT A PITCH!!" Now those of you that have listened to Vin know that very rarely if ever does ever get excited to the point where he will gasp in amazement. But as this pitch fell into the glove, he and I screamed simultaneously. That was the effect Eric Gagne had on those who watched him.
Today, Eric Gagne has reportedly signed a one year contract with the Texas Rangers. I do not feel any bitterness. I do not feel sadness either. Something happened in his elbow two years ago. The invulnerability that was once there left. It wasn't the other team you were worried about, it was his own body. We still wanted to believe that someday he would come back. That he would be that same guy that converted 84 consecutive saves, that blew away batters with a 97 mph heat, that would come through the bullpen gates music blaring, and Scully's familiar voice announcing his entrance, "Bienvenue Monsieur Gagne." Deep down, we knew that would never happen. Still we hung on to the memory of his greatness. We scoured the paper looking for updates on his health, and signs that he was coming back. We loved watching him cheer on his teammates in the dugout, and watching old video clips of him leaping off the mound to high five his catcher as the opposing batter walked away with his head down. As he rides off down to Texas, I have one thing left to say. Au revoir Monsieur Gagne. Thanks for the memories.