There's a lot to be said for being a closer. Have a good first half (or just play for the Devil Rays or Pirates, a la Lance Carter and Mike Williams) and you could make an All-Star Team; have a good three or four years and you could get a multi-year contract. Heath Bell was once packaged, two relief ex-prospects for a dollar, with Royce Ringin exchange for Ben Johnson, whom the Cardinals once traded for a backup catcher; now he's the prize of the trading deadline.
But there's something Faustian about the moment you begin accumulating saves. You're trading, for that number and that position and that recognition, the chance to leave your team on a high note. You're guaranteeing that at some point the hometown fans wil hate you.
Tom Henke, the goggled Terminator, retired in 1995 after a nearly perfect season as the pre-La Russa closer. Nobody's held the role since without leaving the fans salivating for his exit.
There was Dennis Eckersley first, joining the Cardinals as one of the first and least-irritating members of the East-Oakland Athletics. He picked up 30 saves each season and was still Dennis Eckersley inasmuch as he never walked a batter, but by 1996 and 1997 he was allowing more home runs than walks and probably would have been just as well-advised to miss outside on occasion.
In 1998 there was Jeff Brantley, for a few minutes, and then Juan Acevedo, who didn't close long enough to drive me crazy and was, in one of the only ways a closer can exit his team on a high note, flipped for the impossibly popular Fernando Vina.
Then Dave Veres, who was Failed Closer Dave Veres almost from the moment he arrived, and Jason Isringhausen, who seemed--and this might be the best way to close, long-term--totally oblivious as to whether his cutter was effective or ineffective on a given night, or whether he had it anywhere near the strike zone.
And all the closers-that-weren't--Chris Perez, Jim Journell and all the minor leaguers who had saved games in Memphis and forfeited their rights to be pleasant surprises. And now Ryan Frnaklin, who was never especially welcome as one of Tony's ancient Guys, who was all the same just good enough to close one year too many. That's the problem: When you're the closer, they won't pull the plug until you've yanked it out yourself.
[I'm in Narita Airport with a fried logic board on my lemon of a Macbook and a broken-down airport netbook, so please excuse the brevity and any Japanese-keyboard-related typos. Regular programming resumes as soon as I get over a month's worth of jetlag.]a