By Greg Klein STAFF WRITER
---- — Rich “Goose” Gossage said he likes Mariano Rivera, but he said he is bothered by the perception that Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever in the baseball.
“I take some offense to people saying Mariano is the greatest relief pitcher ever,” he said. “He’s a great pitcher, but he’s not better than any of the guys in the Hall of Fame now. Trevor Hoffman had almost as many saves as him, but where did he play? He played in San Diego.
“I wonder if they could have had the kind of careers we had,” he continued. “We were work horses. I used to come into games in the sixth inning or come into games in the seventh inning when we were one or two runs down, just to keep the game in check. We were used in so many ways.”
Gossage said not long ago someone asked him if he knew an obscure baseball statistic about relievers. “Someone asked me if I knew how many games I saved where I had seven plus outs. I didn’t know. It was 53 saves. Then he asked me how many I thought Mariano and Trevor had. It was one and two saves.
“I always tell people, don’t compare us to them. Compare them to what we did,” he said.
Although he has expressed those feeling before, those quotes were the most eye opening from Gossage, the 2008 HOF inductee, on Saturday as he visiting Cooperstown to speak at the Hall’s Voices of the Game series and greet members who had belonged for 30 years.
Far from controversial, however, Gossage’s comments were spoken more matter-of-fact. He spoke kindly of Rivera and Hoffman, but passionately defended his career and the careers of his fellow relievers in the HOF like Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley.
“I saw first hand the total evolution from what (relief pitching) was to what it has become,” he said. “When I started the bullpen was not a place you wanted to be … It was kind of a junk pile for old pitchers.”
Drafted in the ninth round of the 1970 draft by the Chicago White Sox, Gossage said he was surprised to find himself in the major leagues. His father Jake – who passed away while Goose was in high school – had always told him he would play in the majors, but he said growing up in Colorado Springs, it was hard for him to tell how good he was.
“I knew I was good for Colorado, but I never knew on a world level,” he said.
Gossage spent two seasons in the minors as a starter, but was put in the bullpen when he made the Sox in 1972. At the time, he was the seventh youngest player in pro baseball. When he retired in 1994, 22 years and eight more teams later, Gossage was the oldest player in the game.
Although he also played with the Pirates, Padres, Cubs, Giants, Rangers, A’s, Mariners and a season in Japan, to many people – especially in New York – Gossage will always be a New York Yankee. The lasting image of him, which is now 35 years old, will be of him on the mound on Oct. 2 getting Carl Yastzemski to pop up to Graig Nettles to end the one-game playoff with Boston and cap the “greatest comeback in baseball history.”
The Yankees, who had won the 1977 World Series, were 14 games behind the Red Sox on July 18 and tied them on the last day of the regular season. Gossage, who also got the final outs that year to win the American League Championship Series against Kansas City and the World Series against Los Angeles, credits himself for the comeback in a backhanded way.
“We were 14 games back and that was definitely my doing,” he said. “The Yankees were the World Series champions in 1977 and they had all those greats, Reggie (Jackson) and Thurman (Munson). Sparky Lyle was one of the great pitchers for them, and I came in and was basically given his job before the season started. I put a lot of pressure on myself.
“George Steinbrenner put on the inside of our World Series rings ‘greatest comeback in history.’ I said, without me it never would have happened because I dug us that deep hole.”
Gossage played in two more World Series, but lost them both: in 1981 when the Dodgers got revenge on the Yankees and in 1984 when the Padres lost to the Detroit Tigers. He said Padres manager Dick Williams told him to walk Kirk Gibson in the eighth inning of game five. Instead Gossage gave up a three-run home run to Gibson that clinched the series for the Tigers.
There were other memorable moments in his career: In 1986, Gossage struck out Pete Rose, in Rose’s final at bat. He gave up a three-run home run to George Brett on Oct. 10, 1980 which helped the Royals sweep the Yankees in the ALCS. But it was a July 24, 1983 home run by Brett against Gossage that would make for even greater baseball lore, as that game would come to be known as the Pine Tar game.
“Everybody thinks it was Billy Martin who spotted the pine tar, but it was Graig Nettles,” Gossage said. “He said, ‘if he gets a hit here, we’re gunna get his bat.’” Nettles had seen the same rule violation – too much pine tar across the handle of the bat – cost Munson a hit, Gossage said. (Nettles now tells the story that he was the one who was originally robbed of a hit.) So for weeks, the Yankees were on the look out for a good time to protest Brett’s illegal bat.
Finally, Brett hit a two-run home run off Gossage to give the Royals a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. The Royals knew of the plot and tried to whisk the bat into their locker room where it would be lost among hundreds of bats, but Yankee security got it just in time and brought it back to the field. Umpire Tim McClelland measured it against home plate as the plate is 17 inches wide and the rule said the tar could only be applied 18 inches from the tip of the handle.
When McClelland saw the bat had too much pine tar, he declared Brett out, the home run void and the game over. (The decision would later be overturned.) Brett charged the field and the umpire, a visual that has been replayed thousands of times over the years. “That’s the maddest I have even seen a human being in my life,” Gossage laughed.
“I hated George Brett,” he continued, adding that he had thrown the ball inside on Brett. “If he hadn’t hit a home run, it would have hit him in the neck. I don’t know how he did it. He was the greatest hitter I ever faced. I got to face Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, but those guys were older by the time I faced them. George was the greatest hitter I ever faced in my prime when he was in his prime.”
Known for being a fastball only pitcher and for using the inside pitch as well as any pitcher, Gossage – who made nine All-Star teams and finished his career with 310 saves, 124 wins and 1,502 strikeouts – also said he takes exception to the idea that he hit people on purpose. “I only drilled three guys intentionally, and I got them all. I hit every guy I aimed at,” he said. “I didn’t throw at guys. I threw at the inner half of the plate.”
Gossage said he thinks million dollar contracts have made hitters unwilling to stand in against inside pitches and caused baseball officials to take greater steps to protect hitters. “It is just so different today,” he said. “I couldn’t have even played.”
Now back home in Colorado, Gossage said he loves coming to Cooperstown and loves to watch the postseason. Like many Yankees fans, he is experiencing a weird sensation as he finds himself rooting a once hated rival.
“First of all I am glad for Donny, but he still doesn’t look right in that uniform,” he said, as the Yankees fans in the audience also cheered the idea of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly finally winning a World Series. “I’m pulling for the Dodgers, and I thought that would never come out of my mouth.
“Donny was a rookie in my last year with the Yankees, and we got to be good friends. So I am rooting for the Dodgers. I never thought I would say that because 1981 still sticks in my craw,” he said.