Showtime at Chavez Ravine

Times staff writer Bill Shaikin last wrote for the magazine about Angels owner Arte Moreno.

There is one baseball field in Eric Gagne’s hometown. On this brilliant afternoon, in a place where summer is all too short, the diamond is nearly deserted. There is one kid here, playing ball with his dad. He is about to see his favorite baseball card come to life.

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 pulls up at the field, then emerges from his black Ford Expedition. He played here, with the winter-beaten wooden bleachers, the picnic table next to one dugout and the scoreboard on which the home team is local and the opponent is visiteur.

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.

But he couldn’t think, couldn’t eat and couldn’t understand a word. He longed to return home, help his mother through the divorce and then maybe play hockey or study psychology. But the Mascouche fund drive had raised $450 for his airfare to college—one way.

“I would have quit,” he said, “but I had no way to get back.”

So he played ball and learned English from MTV and Sports Illustrated, from “Friends” and “Mad About You,” from tapes of his classes that he listened to—six, seven, eight times a day—until he understood the material.

He ate an oatmeal cookie one day, an orange the next, almost nothing just about every day. He lost nearly 40 pounds the year he spent in Oklahoma in 1995 and the next two, after the Dodgers signed him to a minor league contract. “I didn’t choose that,” he says. “I just wasn’t hungry.”

Says his wife Valerie, a friend since childhood: “I don’t think it was just anorexia. It was a lot of things together that made him not eat, but it was still an eating disorder.”

The Dodgers eased him back to health, mentally and physically. A team psychologist helped persuade him not to sabotage his career by starving himself, and not to blame himself for the divorce.

“I thought they were going to be together forever,” Gagne says of his parents. “That was a shock. That’s the way I dealt with it at first. Then I came out of it and said, ‘Hey, they love me, and that’s all that matters.’ Your mom and dad are the people you trust most. That whole idol thing was alive. But, as you get older, you know what? They loved each other for a long time. They don’t anymore. It’s pretty simple.”

His father, a bus driver, is remarried. His mother has a boyfriend, and a two-story house Gagne bought her in Mascouche to show his appreciation for her refinancing the family home as long as she could while earning $12,000 a year in her old job as a waitress at the local golf club.

He is not always at ease talking about these subjects, but he is not ashamed. He revealed his story in a book called “Break Barriers,” published this year and targeted for fourth- through eighth-graders. “I want to tell other people I’m not just in la-la land,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff, and I came out on top.”

In a control room at Dodger Stadium, Kevin Kowta peers nervously through a pair of binoculars. The best show in town starts on his cue, and he’d better not be late. In a two-minute production, every second counts.

You buy a ticket, you take your chances. Kobe starts every game, barring injury. Gagne (usually) finishes games if the Dodgers need him. Maybe you see him. Maybe you don’t.

On this night, you do. The Dodgers cling to a one-run lead, with one inning to go. The stadium buzzes as showtime nears, with 100,000 eyes focused on a bullpen gate in the outfield fence. The gate swings open. Kowta, the director of the club’s huge video screens, spots Gagne and gives the signal that unleashes a frantic choreography throughout the stadium.

“There’s nothing better in baseball today,” Dodger owner Frank McCourt says. “It’s theater.”

The crowd roars to its feet, screaming over the piercing chords of the Guns N’ Roses anthem “Welcome to the Jungle.” On video boards, pixilated amber images of Gagne’s face float through clouds, surrealism for the masses. The big screen captures his first steps onto the field, then dissolves into an MTV-paced mix of footage of some of his famous strikeouts and live shots of the crowd—one fan wears a Gagne mask, another a Gagne T-shirt, five fans spell his last name on their chests. The announcer lowers his voice to a menacing octave.

“If you don’t get goose bumps, you’re not human,” pitcher Jose Lima says.

The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Gagne slows his trot to a walk, puts his glove atop the same filthy, rancid cap he’s worn since spring training, shoves a corner of his jersey into his pants, swings his arm to and fro. Upon the final out, he punctuates victory with a fist pump and a primal yell.

“He’s the manimal—half-man, half-animal,” infielder Robin Ventura says.

His teammates cherish him and good-naturedly call him “Goon,” a nod to his slovenly appearance and his inner hockey player, but they barely hear from him in the clubhouse and rarely see him before he emerges from behind that bullpen gate. Game time is 7 p.m., but his time is 9 p.m., or later.

The Dodgers store the video commands on two computer programs, one titled “Gagne No Game Over,” for the rare occasion when he pitches but the team is not ahead. The other program triggers a scoreboard taunt—"Game Over.”

That declaration flagrantly violates baseball etiquette: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Gagne even got a few letters from fans, chiding him for his supposed arrogance. But the video guys slammed the words on-screen—he didn’t—and the place went nuts.

“I don’t care,” he says. “Whatever the fans like.”

And when the Dodgers call “Game Over,” they’re seldom wrong.

Today’s elite reliever typically vanquishes batters with a signature pitch—the cut fastball for Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, the slider for Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels, the changeup for Trevor Hoffman of the Padres. Gagne can make batters look silly with a fastball, curve ball or changeup. For every man who got a hit off him last year, he struck out four more.

“He makes baseball look too easy,” Lima says.

Gagne enjoyed a virtually perfect season last year. He never failed to save a game in the 55 games in which he had a chance to do so. He is the only pitcher in major league history to earn 50 saves in consecutive seasons, the only one with a career failure rate of less than 5%. He makes fellow relievers look ineffectual with his streak of 84 consecutive saves, obliterating the previous record of 54. Dennis Eckersley, inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, never saved more than 40 in a row.

“I thought that was a lot, but his is ridiculous,” Eckersley says. “How he throws, you can’t even make contact. This guy is in a league of his own.”

Says Gagne’s former catcher, Paul Lo Duca: “He dominates hitters like no one I’ve ever seen. The ballparks are smaller, offense is up a lot, and he dominates like no one else.”

Gagne is so popular and his look so distinctive that the Dodgers staged a look-alike contest this summer, drawing 300 entries and 13,500 votes. As the five finalists, all resembling smaller versions of Gagne, awaited judging, they traded tips on curing caps in sweat, debated the propriety of signing autographs and stammered through television interviews.

“You speak French?” a woman with a TV camera asks.

Oui,” one of the contestants answers.

“Everybody says oui,” she says.

Dodger outfielder Jayson Werth, one of the judges, quickly discovers there is nothing intrinsically intimidating about goggles, a goatee and a dirty cap.

“What Gagne personifies on the mound, you can’t [duplicate] that,” Werth says. “It’s a certain energy. When the song comes on and he walks out of the bullpen and goes into his slow trot, that’s something the other teams are probably a little frightened by, from what I can see.”

From the concourse on the loge level of Dodger Stadium, there is an unmarked staircase between a restroom and an industrial-size refrigerator. Walk down it, turn right and proceed through the unmarked blue door.

An accidental sensation, the Gagne T-shirt was born here in the merchandise headquarters at Dodger Stadium, a cramped and windowless space better suited as a bomb shelter than an office. The stands are directly overhead, so it’s an Excedrin day whenever a work shift overlaps a game. There are samples everywhere of bobble-head dolls and stuffed monkeys, of stickers and foam fingers and T-shirts, of life-size cutouts of Tommy Lasorda.

No apparel company pitched the Dodgers on the Gagne shirt. No customers demanded it. Ross Yoshida, the department’s graphic artist, designed the likeness in one night two years ago, a cold stare in two tones, showing Gagne’s head and accenting the goggles and goatee.

“He’s almost like a caricature already,” Yoshida says.

After two undistinguished seasons as a starting pitcher, he had begun to pitch brilliantly as a finisher, so Yoshida slapped the words “Game Over” beneath Gagne’s likeness, a year before the video guys slapped them on the scoreboard.

“It was the first thing that came to mind,” Yoshida says. “Just a moment of inspiration, I guess.”

He printed up a batch of the T-shirts for the players and went on with his life. Who knew that Odalis Perez would wear the shirt at the 2002 All-Star Game, that television cameras would catch it, that phone lines would light up with orders? At the cash registers, game on.

Last year, the Dodgers sewed blue string to the bottom of Gagne’s likeness on the T-shirt to resemble a faux goatee. “Wash it,” product manager Todd Erickson says. “It gets all messed up and looks like a real beard.”

Gagne’s wife distributes them to family and friends. “My kids have them,” Ventura says. “They don’t want dad’s shirts.”

The gray “Game Over” shirts sell for $27. So do the black caps. The white women’s tank tops sell for $20, the baseballs for $5, the pennants for $3. The Dodgers can barely keep the stuff in stock.

Next year’s “Game Over” product line includes a black-and-blue hockey jersey and a gray long-sleeve shirt with four faces of Gagne down each sleeve.

Gagne is the Dodgers’ most popular player, based on merchandise sales. The stuff with his name, or his face, generates an estimated $1 million in gross annual revenue, according to a source familiar with the organization. No Dodger has spurred such a rush to the souvenir stands since Hideo Nomo, newly arrived from Japan, inspired a wave of Nomomania in 1995.

Yoshida receives no royalties or bonuses for his design, just the satisfaction of hitting it so big that bootleggers copy his work on cheap T-shirts smuggled into the stadium parking lot. The merchandise staff gets a laugh from a just-for-fun mock-up Yoshida taped to the office wall. In place of Gagne, the two-tone image features the face of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, above the words “Game Ovah.”

There are no gates, no security guards, no signs that a star athlete lives in this two-story house on a street corner across from a soccer field. The front yard is modest, and so is the pool in back.

This is Gagne’s new home in Repentigny, a 10-minute drive from Mascouche. His best friend built this home, then lived in it for two months while he built his own. Gagne’s wife grew up nearby, and her parents baby-sit the couple’s two children—Faye, who turns 4 next month, and Maddox, born in January.

Ask him what accomplishment he’s proudest of, and pitching is not part of his reply. “Being a pretty good dad,” he says.

If the neighborhood kids pound on the door for an autograph, or scream as they slide down a snow-covered hill behind that soccer field, he’s cool with that.

Valerie and Eric Gagne fell in love seven years ago, but their friendship extends to their teenage years, when he played against her brothers in baseball and hockey. To her, the face on the “Game Over” shirt represents a character.

“Some people think he is really aggressive,” she says, laughing. “They’re like, is he really aggressive with you? No way! I wouldn’t be with him if he was like that.”

He does not crave attention among family or teammates or the media. Even when his passion is high, his volume is low.

“Eric is a quiet person,” his wife says. “He’s really laid-back. It’s really hard in his personal life to see emotion. When I see him on the field—so intense and showing all his expressions—it’s just different. I think it works for him, to be like that and pump himself up.

“Every time somebody meets him out of baseball, they’re always like, ‘Oh my God, he is smiling!’ ”

Valerie, with her ever-present smile and dyed magenta streaks in her dyed black hair, says she despised the grooming rules that kept her husband from growing a goatee while in the minor leagues.

“No goatee? I don’t like that,” she says. “For sure, his cap is disgusting.”

As Gagne rang up save after save last year, his cap became an attraction itself, an object of national interest. Players get a new cap for the asking, and without asking. Gagne prefers to select a new cap in spring training and wear it all season as the color fades and the odor spreads. To the five-cent psychologists in the stands and on television, Linus has his blanket and Gagne has his cap.

Gagne insists he is not trapped by his image, not scared to mess with success. If he wants to dump Guns N’ Roses as his theme music, he will. If he wants to shave his goatee, he will. The prescription goggles protect his eyes, once injured playing hockey, so they stay. But if the Dodgers are stuck with a warehouse full of “Game Over” shirts with a face that no longer resembles his own, too bad.

“Nobody tells me what to do,” he says.

At a Dodger Stadium charity auction in August, Gagne watched as fans bid on autographed, game-worn player jerseys. His jersey fetched $3,000. In the midst of a rough week on the job, he spontaneously took off his treasured cap and threw it into the auction.

The cap fetched $3,600.

That’s the kind of love that could make this Gagne’s town. As the marquee face on a beloved team, he could circulate at parties and charity events, at hot new restaurants and clubs. He could star in commercials and endorsements, television and movies. He is, after all, an action hero.

“I don’t think he wants that,” Lo Duca says. “He’s worshipped in this town. He feeds off the fans when he pitches, but off the field he’s low-key.”

In baseball, unlike basketball, there is a game every night. Gagne sleeps late into the next morning, plays with his kids, eats sushi, takes a nap and at 2 p.m. leaves the home he rents in Pasadena during the season for Dodger Stadium.

There is little time for casting directors and power lunches and grand openings. There is little interest, at least for now, from a man whose on-field bravura masks his shyness around adults. “I’m not really sociable,” he says. “I’m not really good in public. I have a hard time meeting new people.”

That makes Gagne the polar opposite of Magic Johnson, the Laker icon with the million-watt smile. Magic hugged Los Angeles. He jumped from basketball into business and entertainment with determination and grace.

Rosen, then the agent for Johnson and now the Dodger marketing guy, believes Gagne could transcend baseball, if he chooses.

“Some people like to be bigger than life,” Rosen says. “Other people like to be an unbelievable athlete and stay in the background. When Eric figures out what he wants to be, the world is at his hand.”

But by the time Gagne figures out what he wants to be, he might be somewhere else.

Gagne, cruising through Mascouche, points out a roadside stand selling sweet corn and strawberries. To the local boys of summer, heaven is an ear of barbecued sweet corn in one hand and a beer in the other.

There is nothing sweet about winter here—long and cold and unpleasant. With the good fortune afforded him by his job, Gagne plans to split the winter between his two new family homes—the one in Repentigny, so the kids can frolic in the snow and celebrate Christmas with their grandparents, and the one in Arizona in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley.

As he drives, Gagne explains he has no interest in buying a home in Los Angeles and no idea how much longer he might play there. In two years, he earns the right to choose his employer, and he wonders aloud whether the Dodgers might trade him before then.

In the back seat, Dodger publicist Josh Rawitch squirms. “That’s off the record,” Rawitch says.

“No, it’s not,” Gagne says.

In an interview at his Dodger Stadium locker several days earlier—three steps away from the locker formerly occupied by his friend and catcher, Lo Duca—Gagne explains why he bought in Arizona.

“There are a lot of spring training sites there,” he says, “and it’s close to L.A. if I stay here.”

Ten teams hold spring training in Arizona. The Dodgers are not one of them.

The fans loved Lo Duca too, but the Dodgers traded him 17 days after he and Gagne represented the team in the All-Star Game.

“People get traded out of here, but if they traded him, it would be a travesty,” Lo Duca says. “He’s going to go down, to me—God willing, if he stays healthy—as the best closer ever. It would be an absolute shame if he ever left.”

When told that the Dodgers would be nuts to trade him, Gagne answers quickly with a perfectly Canadian response: “Wayne Gretzky got traded.”

I know I want to stay here for the rest of my career,” he says. “I’ll be really disappointed if they don’t want me here for a long time. It’s a business. I will not take it personally,” and here he pauses and chuckles, “even though I might.”

Although the Dodgers control his rights through 2006, they cannot unilaterally determine his salary each year. In February, after the team and Gagne’s representatives failed to negotiate a contract, an arbitrator selected the Dodgers’ proposal of a $5-million salary instead of Gagne’s request for $8 million. In the future, his annual salary could hit $10 million, money that might be more prudently invested in a slugger who plays nine innings every day rather than a closer who plays one inning two or three times a week.

Paul DePodesta, the Dodgers’ new general manager, previously worked for the Oakland Athletics, the team at the forefront of applying cost-benefit analyses to baseball. Although the ability to get the last three outs of the game is often overvalued, DePodesta says, Gagne’s dominance makes him a keeper.

“I certainly expect him to be around,” DePodesta says. “I don’t consider him one of those people that’s easily replaceable.”

Salaries have escalated so wildly that no one player can sell enough T-shirts or tickets to pay for his contract. If the Dodgers do not field a crowd-pleasing championship contender—and perhaps even if they do—they could sign Gagne to a long-term contract and lose millions for the privilege. Dodger fans hold their collective breath, all too aware their new general manager traded Lo Duca and their new owner bought the team on credit.

“I want to see Eric in a Dodger uniform for years to come,” McCourt says. “He’s a fierce competitor, a great guy, and he’s really good in the community.”

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? On the field, he’s a French Canadian wild man who puts on a show so compelling that even traffic-fearing fans stick around until the last out. Off the field, he’s soft-spoken and soft-hearted, connecting with youngsters by sharing painful secrets about his eating disorder and parents’ divorce.

He should own this town, and maybe he will someday, but the reality of today’s major league baseball is that he could be gone in two years. That’s the game, and for the Dodgers and Eric Gagne, it could be game over.