Tears trickled down faces. Curses were mumbled. It was another night of disappointment in the household of Rollie Fingers.
Fingers, who recorded more saves, 341, in his 17-year career than any pitcher in baseball, was bypassed for induction into the Hall of Fame. He was on 291 of the 443 ballots cast, but he needed 75%--333 votes--to gain election.
He told everyone at his house Tuesday night that he wasn’t surprised, or even upset. But then again, you’ve got to remember that fate hasn’t dealt Fingers a decent hand in five years.
The years took away his first love, playing baseball.
Friends and acquaintances took away his money.
Life is taking away his father.
And now, five years since Fingers last pitched in the major leagues, sportswriters have shelved his Hall of Fame induction.
The man who helped the Oakland Athletics win three World Series, captured three Rolaids relief titles during his stay with the Padres, and won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1981 with the Milwaukee Brewers, will have to wait at least another year for his chance.
“We can wait, but I don’t know if his father can,” said Suzie Fingers, the former pitcher’s wife, “that’s why we wanted it so bad. He’s had cancer for about seven years, but now the radiation has completely ruined his bone marrow, and he has to have so many blood transfusions . . . I don’t think he’s going to be with us much longer.
“We were going to make sure he was at Cooperstown. We were going to bring him to Cooperstown on a stretcher if we had to. And if they didn’t have ramps for his wheelchair, we were going to build some.”
Her voice broke, and she apologized for crying.
Rollie was aggravated at himself, more than anything. He told himself for months not to look forward to this night, bracing himself for a possible letdown. He didn’t even know what night the results were announced until last week.
“But when that’s what everyone and their mother want to talk about when they see you,” Fingers said. “You really don’t have any choice.”
Fingers, after hearing everyone tell him that he was a lock for election, after returning endless reporters’ telephone calls for the past week, finally relented to the anticipation. He left his sales office at 11 a.m. Tuesday for a haircut, joking that if he still were pitching for the A’s, he’d let it grow a foot longer. He allowed TV camera crews from ESPN, CNN, ABC and just about every other local station in town into his home to record his reaction.
The family sat by, waiting and waiting for the phone to ring, only to learn that he’ll have to wait another year.
It’s Rollie again.
“I’ve gone through a lot of crap, that’s for sure,” Fingers said. “But I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for myself.”
Certainly, he’s had bigger worries than relying on the whim of sportswriters.
The man who is considered the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history has struggled in the real world, unable to afford to buy a house, or even be entrusted with credit cards.
Fingers, who listed his assets at more than $5 million in court records less than five years ago, still is trying to recover from bankruptcy.
“Once your file for bankruptcy, your credit is shot,” he said. “No one’s going to loan me money for a house. No one’s going to give me a loan for a car. I can’t even get a credit card.
“You try not to think about it, but when you do, you look back and just think how stupid you were.”
It was in 1987 when life turned its back on Fingers. He was out of work. The most frequent visitors to the house were creditors. Suzie, Fingers’ wife of five years, was involved in a serious car accident, crushing the right side of her face. And he learned that his father was dying.
“Everything just happened at once,” Suzie Fingers said. “They took away our house, our cars, really everything we had. I think the low point was when I still was in the hospital, and Rollie had to pack up the kids and move.
“Rollie doesn’t show his emotions much, but he was devastated.
“We all were.”
Fingers’ pride prevented him from believing this was only a nightmare that would soon end, and he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, simply asking for time to reorganize his finances. When all of the paperwork was completed, and the numbers were totaled, Fingers learned that he was $4.2 million in debt. He owed money to 108 different creditors, everybody from banks to travel agencies, to the IRS, to florists, to cable-TV companies, to automobile dealerships.
He had no choice but to surrender his 5,000 square-foot house in El Cajon, his cars, his condominium in Palm Springs, his 120 acres of land in Arizona, his 10-acre pistachio orchard in Madera and investments in Hawaiian timeshares, wind turbines and Arabian horses.
“We lost everything but each other,” Suzie Fingers said. “I don’t want to sound negative, but Rollie was very naive once he entered the real world. People were just waiting for him.
“But I think what hurt us the worst is the loss of friendships. We had so many friends when Rollie was on top of the world, but by the time everything happened and the bankruptcy was finalized, we could count all of them on one hand.”
Said Rollie Fingers: “The big mistake I made was trusting people. I never thought they’d screw me, but that’s what happened.”
Fingers, after failing tryouts with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, became a salesman for NTN Entertainment Network in Carlsbad. When he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1989, he said he was making only $5,000 a year in commissions.
He caught a break, he figured, when the Senior League opened play in 1989 and gave him a call, willing to pay him $10,000 a month. But just Fingers’ luck, after he played for West Palm Beach in 1989 and Sun City in 1990, the league ceased operations last month.
Now, he’s back behind the desk at NTN, sharing an office with three others, and trying to make ends meet on a salary and commission that pays him less than $50,000 a year.
“When you got four kids at home, and rent each month, that doesn’t go real far,” Fingers said. “But I’m not bitter about it. I made a mistake, and now I’m paying for it.”
Said Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn, who filed for bankruptcy three years ago: “You know it’s funny, we’ve seen each other a number of times over the years, but neither of us bring it up. It’s a difficult thing to go through. I know. I was fortunate that I’m still playing, but his career was over.
“I think it’s more embarrassing than anything else because you fall in that stereotype where people look at you and say, ‘Oh, here’s another athlete who made so much money he didn’t know what to do with it. He wasted it all on cars, furs and jewelry.’ No matter what you say, that’s the perception.”
Fingers, who will begin earning $22,400 a year in August from the major league players’ pension program, says he isn’t about to let this detour stall his road to recovery. The Senior League might open up again. Baseball card shows have become lucrative. And business has been good.
He finally has given up the dream of pitching in the major leagues again, but he still believes that baseball is missing out on a great opportunity of hiring him as a coach. He says he might have a shot to work as a roving pitching instructor for Milwaukee, but still no job offers have arrived.
Perhaps, it was suggested to him, he should have taken the Cincinnati Reds’ invitation to training camp in 1986, after he was released the previous season by the Brewers. Maybe something good would have happened, and his career would have been prolonged.
“You know the funny thing about that,” Fingers said, “I don’t look back and second-guess myself for that at all. I would have come there, but (owner) Marge Schott refused to let me come in unless I shaved my mustache.
“Well, I wasn’t about to do that. I wasn’t going to give her that satisfaction. I finally told her, ‘Here’s the deal, if you shave your St. Bernard, then I’ll shave off my mustache.’
“It’s the last I heard from her.
“I don’t know, I started growing this thing since ’72, and then when we won the World Series, I kept it. And we won two more championships.
“You know how superstitious ballplayers are, I always thought it brought me good luck.
“I guess I’m waiting for it to work again.”