No Matter How You Cut It, He's the Best Thing They Have

And for his final act of 2003, Cy Young decorated Dodger Stadium Thursday with one last wicked curve.

Eric Gagne showed up with ... a buzz cut? A neatly trimmed goatee? Tiny wire-rimmed glasses?

He looked not like Game Over, but Party Over.

He sounded not like Guns N' Roses, but Peaches & Herb.

"I couldn't stand my hair anymore, so I just shaved it," he said, smiling and shrugging. "I do what I feel, you know? I'm like that on the mound."

Um, yeah, we know. The entire baseball world was reminded Thursday when Gagne became only the ninth reliever to win the sport's most prestigious pitching award, and the first to begin his acceptance speech in French.

"I never asked the Dodgers for a translator," the Montreal native said, his eyes twinkling. "I was never making enough money to do that."

He is now worth his sizable weight in those Eric Gagne sugar cookies the Dodgers passed out Thursday, for the most ironic of reasons:

During an already difficult off-season for the organization, the nutty hockey player is seemingly the only one who still has all his teeth.

The general manager is sparring with ghosts.

The manager nearly had to evacuate his home because of the recent wildfires and now may be forced to leave the dugout because of new boss heat.

Not that there is a new boss. Or an old boss. Stuck between a Fox and a McCourt Place, the proud franchise is looking squeezed and pale.

It seems nobody owns the Dodgers, nobody runs the Dodgers, nobody has the power to improve the Dodgers, and nobody has any idea what is going to happen to the Dodgers.

But, by goggles, Eric Gagne still pitches for the Dodgers.

At least three more years, considering he won't be a free agent until then.

And perhaps without salary rancor, or so Gagne claimed Thursday when asked about statements by agent Scott Boras that portended an ugly arbitration this winter.

"It's business, it's nothing personal," Gagne said. "Scott does his job. I just go pitch."

On those hopeful words, Thursday's affair at Dodger Stadium's Dugout Club was not only a celebration, but a reminder.

The incredibly shrinking team is still here. At least a piece of it. And lucky for everyone, he's good enough to record the most dominant season by a reliever in history, and charming enough to be awed by it.

"It's something I never dreamed of," Gagne said. "I'm speechless."

So, probably, will be most of Los Angeles if they see his new look.

He attended the Laker game Wednesday, during which his face was shown on the giant scoreboard while his trademark song was played.

Virtually nobody cheered. Because virtually nobody recognized him.

"That was good," Gagne said.

Yeah, but when he gets on the mound, he wants people to recognize him, right?

He wants them to feel the intimidation of the wild hair and scruffy goatee and giant goggles, no?

The next thing you know, he'll be saying he's going to show up next year wearing contact lenses.

"You never know," he said with a grin.

We'll just have to hold our breath, hope he changes his mind, but realize that this is just Gagne being Gagne.

"Different looks, same pitcher," he said. "What does it matter?"

Indeed, nothing with him has been routine, beginning with his entry to the United States eight years ago.

When his coach at Seminole State College in Oklahoma called to recruit him, the French-speaking Gagne didn't understand a word, so he handed the phone to a friend.

"He wants to know if you are coming," said the friend.

"Tell him yeah," Gagne said in French.

And a star was ... well, not quite.

"The person I would like to thank most for this award is my wife," Gagne said Thursday, referring to Valerie. "This is for the one minor league year we moved nine times."

The Dodgers knew he could pitch, but could never figure out for how long. One night he would throw six innings before becoming distracted.

Another night he would throw five innings before walking the park.

It took former Dodger pitching guru Dave Wallace, after spending countless nights watching Gagne pitch in countless bandboxes, to come up with another solution.

"How about trying him for just one inning?" Wallace said.

Gagne was presented with the idea two springs ago and carefully mulled it over.

"I said yes in about five seconds," he said. "At the time, I didn't even know if I was going to make the team."

Even then, the Dodgers left camp in 2002 with a bullpen by committee, until that early April night in San Francisco when he was struggling on the mound with Barry Bonds coming to the plate.

Manager Jim Tracy walked out to relieve him, but the moment his foot hit the mound dirt, he changed his mind.

"I saw this look in his eye, I'll never forget that look," Tracy said. "It was like, 'If you take me out, there's going to be a conversation in the clubhouse about this.' "

So Tracy gave Gagne the first, and only, pep talk of his bullpen career.

"We have a lot of unanswered questions on this team," Tracy told him.

"We have an opportunity to find out one of those answers right now."

Gagne survived the inning, recorded the save, and the answer now is clear.

Who lumbers like a goalie and talks like a waiter and looks like a slacker and pitches like the devil?

Who'd have thought?

Cy Young.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at

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