He was the closer, bringing down the curtain in the entertainment capital like no other, the No. 1 Dodger in blue, but now Eric Gagne will have to prove himself to make the 40-man roster, or it really will be Game Over.
It was so much fun around here, Dodgers fans breaking tradition, staying until the end of the game, down beyond left field the bullpen door opening and “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Strike one, and maybe a 98-mph fastball. The trademark sweat-soaked baseball cap, wild hair, the goggles.
Strike two, and maybe a 99-mph fastball. T-shirts for sale complete with yarn for his goatee.
Strike three, and maybe a 67-mph changeup. Domination.
“I hear that song come on the radio and I still get goose bumps,” Gagne says. “It was like that every time I came out of the bullpen. Goose bumps.”
There were 55 opportunities one season to save a Dodgers game, Gagne credited with saving them all. Eventually it would be 84 in a row over three seasons.
But today when pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Gagne’s only goal will be to save his career, one pitching opportunity at a time as a minor league Dodgers invitee.
Short hair, Lasik surgery, and needing a miracle.
“Full circle,” Gagne says, stops in Texas, Boston, Milwaukee and the bottom of the baseball pits in Canada, his greatest notoriety in recent years one of shame with the mention of his name in the Mitchell Report.
“Why did you use HGH?” I ask, and he says, “I didn’t.”
But he knows better. He and I have had a long relationship; he’s the guy who introduced me to a children’s hospital. Heart and guts, the great intimidator, eight innings of splendid work by his teammates riding on his work and almost never disappointing. How could he?
“You were using HGH, weren’t you?”
“I did,” he says. “I hate to talk about it. It just doesn’t do anyone any good. But I thought it would help me get better when I hurt my knee. I just don’t want that to sound as an excuse.
“I’m so ashamed. It wasn’t smart. If I knew what I know now. . . . I didn’t need it. I regret it so much, just now maybe getting over the guilt. It was stupid.”
He has four children now, returning to Los Angeles last year to show them Dodger Stadium and the bullpen where he used to reside, later scoring tickets from catcher and friend Russell Martin to watch the Dodgers and Cardinals in the playoffs.
“I had never been to Dodger Stadium for a game unless I was playing,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was done or not as a player, so I wanted to be there. I’m a baseball fan. I love the game and love L.A. so much. There’s nothing like the atmosphere of a playoff game in Dodger Stadium.
“So many good things had happened there for me, but I was worried at first -- you know, way before the game. I didn’t know how
the fans might react. L.A. has the best fans in the world, but I was a little anxious.”
In the third inning, Gagne was shown sitting in the stands, the ovation growing louder by the second. It hit him hard. He took both hands and blew a kiss to the crowd.
Closers don’t cry. “Emotion,” he says. “It really got to me.”
Here he is again in L.A. by way of Arizona, still needing to be perfect, the numbers game working against him.
“My wife has asked me, ‘Are you ready for this? You know people are going to be judging you, asking you questions.’
“That’s all part of my past, part of my resume,” he says, and when he’s asked if he was doing HGH during the entire time he dominated or just part of the time, he says, “part.”
But you cheated -- weren’t you cheating Dodgers fans?
“In my head it was different,” he says, but what will he tell his own kids about his tarnished career?
“I’ve been asking myself the same question, but I’ll tell them straight up like I do everything else. I’ll make them understand action and reactions to those actions, and making a decision and living with the consequences.
“I will have to live with the mistake that I made for the rest of my life.”
The last five years his body has betrayed him, one injury after another, and so does he think it’s because he was on HGH?
“I don’t know how it reacts on your body like that,” he says, “but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t help.”
He says he’s healthy now, throwing 90 mph and in time maybe 93. He believes his work ethic, and his experience, which will allow him to pitch rather than just throw, as well as his confounding changeup, give him a great chance to make it.
“The only thing I know is baseball and I just love it,” he says, his last appearance in the major leagues coming in 2008 and then dismissed with a frayed rotator cuff.
Instead of surgery, he has been working to build up his arm, including a stint in Independent baseball in Canada. There are no more bottom rungs to the ladder.
“Let me tell you, it’s really easy to be good. It’s when it’s going bad that it’s so tough. Those sleepless nights . . .
“But I can’t tell you how excited I am right now. I’m home again. I just have to make the team.”