It was the only time I ever liked hearing Guns & Roses. It was the ninth inning in the spring of 2003 and Dodger Stadium was alive. The Dodgers were winning by one run with the two men on and one out over our hated rivals, The San Francisco Giants. Two of the Giants' best hitters were coming up; one was Jeff Kent, the good ol’boy from Texas, sporting his trademark porn stash under his nose. He looked, as it was said in the movie, Serpico, like “an asshole with dentures.” After him, the most feared hitter in baseball, Barry Bonds, was up. Bonds was all “juiced up” and ready to break fifty thousand screaming Dodgers fans' hearts with one swing of the bat.
“Welcome To The Jungle” blasted through the Dodger P.A. The bullpen doors swung open and out came our hero. Last year, Eric Gagne was an average pitcher at best. He would be lights out for about three innings and then it looked liked he either became tired, bored or both. At that point, Gagne's concentration would collapse and it became batting practice for the opposing team until they pulled Gagne out of the game. Anytime I checked the newspaper to see who would be the probable pitchers that night and Gagne was listed, I knew the Dodgers were in for a long night. Not anymore. Over the off-season Gagne morphed into a hulk-like relief pitcher with absolutely no fear. As Axel Rose started to scream, the video screen flashed a cartoon of Gagne’s face with the words flashing underneath: “GAME OVER.” Then the crowd went bananas! Gagne jogged slowly to the mound, almost intentionally, to start his warm-up tosses. He was the cleaner; he was the assassin that would be sent to clean up the mess when everything went awry. I sat in the cheap seats on the top of the stadium with my fellow Mexicanos, mixed in with the Koreans and Ronnie Barnett, laughing to myself. This couldn’t have been more Hollywood.
After the warm-up tosses, catcher Paul LoDuca walked up to the mound to go over how they would pitch to Kent and Bonds. LoDuca wasn’t a superhero like Gagne, but he was “the little engine that could.” At 5’9”, he was supposed to be too small to play the game, but there he was in the big leagues, a future all-star who made Los Angeles forget that they traded away the best catcher they had since Roy Campenella. Mike Piazza was traded mid-season to the Florida Marlins and all the Dodgers got in return was garbage. LoDuca might not have been as devastating a hitter as Mike, but he was a better catcher, a clutch hitter and a better overall teammate. On top of that, LoDuca called a mean game and he and Gagne were all the Dodgers needed to finish the game.
Jeff Kent would have been every other team’s number one guy, but he lived under the shadow of Bonds and you knew he was bitter about it. This made him even more dangerous because he always wanted to one-up Bonds. Gagne couldn’t have cared less. Before you knew it, the count was 0-2, with Gagne shooting two 100-miles an hour fastballs right past the swinging Kent. Then it was the set up. Gagne threw a 60-mile an hour breaking ball that broke so hard that Kent swung way ahead of it.
Have a seat, Jeff.
There are still two men on base and Barry Bonds comes to the plate. The boos and groans from the Dodgers fans were so loud that they drowned out the announcement of his name. The thing in vogue for opposing teams to do to Bonds during that time was to intentionally walk him and face the erratic-hitting Benito Santiago. Gagne didn’t want to have any of that. The first pitch was a balloon-like curve ball. You could see the white in Barry’s eyes, even from the cheap seats. He was expecting that 100 mile-an-hour fast ball, only to get a slow breaking ball. Barry swung at the pitch too early and he hit the ball 400 feet away, twenty feet foul. A collective hush comes over the crowd, followed by 50 thousand, ‘whews!” Foul ball, strike one.
Barry dug in the batter’s box. With his massive frame and body armor, he looked like something out of WWF. Gagne shook off a few of LoDuca signs to go inside on Bonds. No one was better at hitting inside than Bonds. Gagne instead threw the heat straight down the plate and Bonds couldn’t catch up with it. Strike two.
Barry gave Gagne a cold stare, like he was saying, “Why don’t you try that again?” Everyone was on their feet, cheering loudly for Gagne to give them what they wanted: a strike out and a victory. Gagne reared back and threw everything into the pitch. Bonds knew what was coming. He swung with everything he had. If he had hit it, it would have gone to the moon. But he didn’t. The ball ended up in LoDuca’s glove. Strike three, game over.
At this point I can’t control my laughter and pride steps in. Ha! Later, Barry, go shoot up some steroids and make that cranium even bigger! Later, Jeff Kent, go do some films in North Hollywood! Later, Internet yuppies from San Francisco that came to L.A. to see your precious Giants, I hope your dot.com goes under!
(Yeah, I’m not a good winner.)
That was a 2004 moment. I’m remembering that day because the Mitchell Report has just come out. I just spent the better part of the day reading it and the implications against Eric Gagne and Paul LoDuca for taking performance-enhancing drugs during that time. It was easy to see that Bonds did it, and even Roger Clemens makes sense. As I read the report it mentioned many others whole took steroids and HGH to benefit their careers. Most of the players who took them no longer are playing and some never even made it to the pros. Looking back, maybe I wanted to believe it was hard work that made LoDuca and Gagne as great as they were. Those Gagne years revitalized Los Angeles' interest in Dodgers baseball, taking some of the spotlight away from the Lakers, even without winning a championship in over twenty years. Much like San Francisco fans got caught in the hype of Barry Bonds record setting home run chase, Los Angeles got caught up in Gagne. He was invincible. It was amazing to see. He had 84 consecutive saves, almost two seasons of perfection.
When I watched Gagne struggle this year in Boston, I felt sorry for him. I knew he had to be off whatever he was taking. He looked human again. The batting practice pitcher had returned. Game over, indeed.