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Save It, Roberto

Roberto Hernandez was practically in tears after saving Saturday night's win over the Brewers [1]. That's not a snide read on his emotions. He told Ed Coleman that he thought he was going to cry since it was his first save in three years. His reputation, you see, was built on collecting saves. He's had as many as 43 in one year and entered 2005 with 320.

I wanted to be happy for him. But I wound up thinking, save it, Roberto. That goes for all of you closers, used-to-be closers and would-be closers.

The world has sure come a long way from the days of Ball Four when reliever Jim Bouton worried that there wasn't a stat that adequately reflected how well bullpen guys were doing their jobs. Of course that was back then a player needed all the ammunition he could get to negotiate a bump from $10,500 to $12,500. It was also the year the save became an officially recognized statistic.

Look what the save has wrought. Relief pitchers trip over each other for the opportunity to close out games. It's great to see competitors show the fire to be firemen. Of course you should want the ball with the game on the line. But it's not as simple as “I wanna help the team.”

No, it's about money. At a time when $12,500 is earned for a few pitches (or a few warmup tosses), every reliever wants in on the saves because the saves are where the big payday is. Closers make more than set-up men. Set-up men make more than middle relievers. Middle relievers make more than long men. If you're going to be a long man, you may as well be a starter — where the real money is.

And if it's not money, it's pride. Marsellus Wallace told Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction, “Pride only hurts. It never helps.” That may be an exaggeration (Marsellus wanted Butch to throw his next fight, after all), but pride of saves has rattled many a capable reliever's mind and skewed the corps' priorities well out of whack.

Roberto Hernandez Saturday night is only the latest example. There was Roberto Hernandez Friday night, when he stomped off the mound angry to be taken out for Koo in a lefty-lefty situation in the ninth. I might have left Roberto in, but his ire didn't really stem from “dang, I left the team down,” but rather “there goes my save opportunity.”

So what? Who cares? Saves are — and this isn't an original thought — one of the least definitive stats in the game. Look at Braden Looper's save against Philly this past Wednesday. He entered the ninth with a 3-0 lead and departed with a 3-2 win. That's saving something? That's a demerit in any other inning.

It's easy to blame Tony LaRussa and his patented Eckersleyism for skewing the equation. That was the manifestation of role-definition for relievers. He set it up in Oakland so Dennis Eckersley would enter at the start of the ninth, not before. You weren't going to see Gene Nelson or Rick Honeycutt. You were going to see Eck, period. As long as it worked for the A's, you couldn't argue with it. But it didn't work for everybody and it doesn't work now.

John Franco, a forerunner of Hernandez in the arithmetic of accumulation, was even more stricken with saves fever. One of the reasons it took me almost ten years to warm to John Franco was the way he expressed annoyance in his first September as a Met when Buddy Harrelson called on him to help the Mets out of a jam before the ninth. He acted startled and offended that as one of the premier closers in the game he would be asked to pitch in anything that wasn't the ninth inning. “You'll have to ask Buddy what he's thinking,” is the huffy quote I remember.

We weren't but four years removed from Orosco and McDowell trading save opportunities to the betterment of the 1986 Mets. And it didn't seem light years since Yogi Berra would bring Tug McGraw into a game in the seventh to start finishing it. But I guess it had been a long time. It was all about the saves by 1990. (Roberto Hernandez came up to the Majors in 1991, his whole career playing out in The Saves Above All Era.)

Franco made a huge deal about it anytime it appeared somebody else might get to close. His “pride” had been hurt when Armando Benitez was given the closer's role in 1999. And Armando went from being a wonderful eighth-inning pitcher to a complicated ninth-inning one. It was just an inning's difference but, like pride, it only hurt.

When Benitez was traded in the middle of 2003, it was wondered who's gonna save games now? Aside from the obvious answer of nobody (your team has to win games for there to be a save), it turned out not to matter. Franco, Stanton and Weathers each got a few and the republic continued otherwise undisturbed. The following winter, the Mets signed Looper and he became the designated statman. He did well in 2004, a little shakier of late.

It's too late to turn back now. Closers get ninth innings. It's news when they see the eighth. It's a story when somebody else sees the ninth. It's a horror show when the whole thing doesn't work. Feelings are wounded and glances are exchanged and words get heavy. It's all a bit much. The ninth inning is crucial. But so are the eighth and the seventh.