In modern baseball there’s no other position on the team that draws more scrutiny and attracts more venom from the fans than that of the closer. A closer is constantly alternating between being loved and being loathed. One week the fans want to cheer you, the next week they want to hang you from the Tiger statue in front of Comerica Park.
The Tigers have had their share of love/hate relationships with their closers. Going back as far as the mid-1980s when fans turned on Willie Hernandez, the star reliever who achieved cult-like status in 1984 when he was nearly perfect out of the pen for the Tigers. Within a couple seasons, the boo birds came out at Tiger Stadium when Willie trotted to the hill. It got so bad that the left-hander asked the press corps to call him by his given name, Guillermo. Maybe he thought the fans wouldn’t notice it was him.
As time has passed, Hernandez is revered by Tiger fans who remember his brilliant season in ’84, when the Tigers rolled to a World Series championship. But other closers haven’t gotten a reprieve.
Mike Henneman, the man who replaced Guillermo as Sparky Anderson’s closer in 1988, was never really accepted by Tiger faithful. After saving 22 games in his first season in the role, Henneman blew four saves early in 1989 and was yanked by Sparky (Hernandez was inserted back into the role but the team lost 103 games and no one really noticed who was pitching at the end of games). But Henneman was back in 1990 to start a six-year run as Detroit’s shutdown man out of the bullpen. He was never that great at it, but to be fair he was also pitching for a mediocre team that didn’t give him a lot of chances. He and his cleft chin were shipped to Houston in the middle of the 1995 campaign.
The Tiger closer who elicits the strongest response from fans is Todd Jones, whom Ernie Harwell dubbed “The Roller Coaster.” Poor Jones, he didn’t look like an athlete, he didn’t throw like an elite closer, and he seemed too nice to be an ace out of the bullpen. Closers are supposed to be menacing, inspiring fear and a foreboding. Jones looked like he was just happy to be in a big league uniform (which usually fit snug around his mid-section). But he was pretty effective when he wasn’t causing Detroit fans to have a coronary. He saved 235 games in two stints with the Bengals, a franchise record. He was on the mound for the team as their closer in ’06 when they won the pennant, but ask most Tiger fans about Todd Jones and they will roll their eyes as they remember all of the Alka Seltzer they chewed while watching him close out games with his 84 MPH fastball.
In the 1970s, the Tigers had a wonderful reliever named John Hiller, a Canadian with a strong jaw and a equally impressive left arm. In 1971 he had a heart attack at the age of 28 and missed an entire season. He came back in 1973 and saved 38 games – a major league record. It’s an amazing feat which doesn’t get a fair amount of attention in Detroit sports history. Hiller had good enough stuff that he could have been a fine starting pitcher, but he relished the bullpen role and he was used an awful lot. One season he pitched 170 innings out of the bullpen and won 17 games as a reliever.
After three seasons of brilliance teetering on insanity,Tiger fans won’t have Jose Valverde to kick around anymore in 2013. Two seasons ago he was 49-for-49 in save opportunities and finished 5th in Cy Young Award voting. Tiger fans watched last fall as “Papa Grande” had a grande size meltdown in the playoffs against the A’s and then the Yankees. We saw it coming, but the brutality of it still shocked us.
This season, a new reliever will assume the job of closer, to receive the fleeting adulation and seething vitriol of the Tiger faithful. We don’t know who that will be yet, but whoever it is, good luck. Because even when they love you, it’s only a matter of time before they want to run you out of town.