Gagne grew up in Mascouche, a Quebec town whose population would fill barely half of Dodger Stadium. The folks here collected coins so he could pay his way to college, lined the main street to catch a glimpse of his wedding, and recently unveiled a colorful sign with his picture and the inscription un athlete de chez nous—a hometown athlete.
Gagne spots the kid on the field. The father calls timeout and the kid sprints over to shake hands. He's 9. His name is Jean-Philippe. Gagne, a millionaire five times over and perhaps the most difficult pitcher to hit in all of major league baseball, tells him to grab a bat. Fantasy camp is in session. Gagne, dressed in a black shirt, blue jeans, sandals and sunglasses, lobs a few pitches to Jean-Philippe. No kid could miss these.
Gagne was two years younger than Jean-Philippe when a local television crew stopped by this field, looking for kids playing baseball. The reporter asked Gagne what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"A major league pitcher," he said. At the time, he had never pitched. He did not pitch until he turned 14.
Today, at 28, he is the face of the Dodgers. It's a grubby one, obscured by goggles and a goatee, which stares back at him from best-selling T-shirts and stadium video screens.
"He's like the Nike swoosh," says Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' chief marketing officer.
His first step onto the field triggers an exhilarating two minutes of entertainment, a sound and light show packed with audience participation. Then the sound recedes, the lights dim, Gagne steps on the pitcher's mound and, usually, the Dodgers win.
For the first time in eight years, the Dodgers are shooting for the playoffs, and Dodger Stadium is again an L.A. hot spot—in the $250 seats with the fancy buffet, and in the $6 seats with hot dogs on the fans' laps. The Dodgers didn't sell this many tickets in 1988, the last time they won the World Series. They haven't sold as many tickets since 1983, when Fernando Valenzuela was the resident icon and Steve Sax the local hearthrob.
But the star has never been the closer, and never have so many Dodger fans stayed till the last innings in hopes of seeing one. With his 2003 Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher and his record 84 consecutive saves, his sweat-soaked cap and his fierce yet shy manner, Gagne has become the biggest sports hero in L.A., helping the Dodgers reclaim the town from the Lakers..
Shaq is gone. Kobe is tainted. Gagne could own this town, if he sticks around.
By the numbers, there is nothing remarkable about Mascouche, 12 miles from Montreal. The census figures are typical for suburban Quebec—95% French-speaking and 93% Catholic, with median personal income of $24,000. The average house is valued at $96,000—in Canadian dollars.
But numbers cannot measure Gagne's affection for his hometown. People here ask him—some kiddingly, others bluntly—why a star like him would spend time in a place like this. He shrugs. It's home, no matter how much money he makes. On an August afternoon, with the Dodgers in town to play the Montreal Expos, Gagne happily climbs into his SUV to lead a tour of his old stomping grounds.
"I need to come back here every year," he says. "Every time I come home, I have to drive around. I can drive around for three hours."
Gagne steers the vehicle onto a tree-lined side street, then stops in front of a modest house, hops onto the front porch and peeks inside. Towels are hanging out to dry in the backyard, but no one is home.
As a teenager, Gagne would charge out the front door—for baseball and all-night horseback rides in the summer, for hockey and road trips by snowmobile in the winter. His father built this home in 1978 for $22,000.
"You feel like you deserve to walk in there and say, 'That's my room,' " Gagne says.
The family home is no longer in the family, the result of a divorce that so devastated Gagne that he developed an eating disorder and nearly abandoned his career. At 17 his parents divorced; at 18, he left home for Seminole State College, a junior college in Oklahoma. Not a word of French was spoken in Seminole, a hamlet six miles from Bowlegs and an hour from Oklahoma City. The college needed a pitcher, Gagne needed a scholarship, and the friend who played matchmaker translated his acceptance into English.