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Feb. '87: With the addition of Reardon, Twins' bullpen is armed to the teeth

  • Article by: Howard Sinker
  • January 25, 2006 - 12:10 AM

This story was first published on February 22, 1987.

Picture Wrigley Field on a spring afternoon. The Cubs and Expos are tied at 2 in the bottom of the eighth with two runners on and nobody out. Montreal manager Buck Rodgers goes to the mound and calls for his bullpen ace, who strides to the mound without betraying emotion.

Pressure? Sure, but this is why some guys get big money and others have big problems. Shawon Dunston comes to the plate and flies out to shallow center. The runners hold and watch helplessly as Gary Matthews and Ryne Sandberg strike out to end the inning.

The reliever walks to the dugout as if nothing special has happened, and his teammates score two runs in the ninth to win 4-2.

That was last April 25, and the reliever was Jeff Reardon, who has brought his arm and attitude to the Minnesota Twins. Both are special.

No reliever in the last two seasons has more saves than Reardon and, by his own admission, few approach work as he does. He speaks softly and carries a big pitch, a fastball that does most of the talking.

"I'm a quiet guy, not a real talkative person," Reardon said. "People have always said I'm just the opposite of what you'd call your typical crazy reliever, the Tug McGraws. When I do the job, I don't make a big deal out of it because that's what they're paying me to do. When I don't, I get real upset with myself, but I'm not going to be ripping up the clubhouse or anything.

"I get pretty down on myself. Maybe it bothers me too much sometimes, but I think that makes me go out the next day and try to perform that much better. . . . I act the same way on the field whether I strike somebody out or give up a home run. When I was with the Mets, they always used to tell me to try to show more excitement. They had Neil Allen, who was just the opposite of me. We were good friends and people would say, `Be like Neil.' I want to be my own person."

Said catcher Tom Nieto, the other player Minnesota got in last month's trade with the Expos: "He doesn't say much, and he has no expression on his face. If he did, you couldn't see it anyway because of his beard. I've caught him, and I faced him when I was with the Cardinals. He's intimidating, and his (statistics) make him even more intimidating."

Statistics: In the last three years, Reardon has been in 125 save situations and succeeded in 99 of them, a 79.2 percent rate. Since 1984, there have been 121 runners on base in games he has entered; 103 (85.1 percent) were stranded. Last May, he figured in 16 of 17 Expos victories, with a 3-0 record and 13 saves. Once, from August 1980 to July 1982, he pitched in 94 games without a loss. He has averaged 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his career.

"When he comes in," said Nieto, "chances are that the game is over. He goes in there with that attitude, and everyone can feel it. It rubs off on you. I caught Bruce Sutter in 1984, and it's the same attitude."

Said Rodgers: "Reardon is unmistakably the best reliever in baseball. I love the guy. He made my job in Montreal a lot easier."

Bill James, author of the Baseball Abstract, took a more moderate view on a recent radio program: "Reardon is up and down. He worked very hard in Montreal. They gave him a lot of appearances, and he was always the last reliever used. He racked up a fearsome number of saves. He isn't as good as his save total, but that shouldn't mislead you into thinking that he isn't good, because he is."

One thing the Twins didn't get from their bullpen last season - one of many, truth be told - were the key strikeouts that can diffuse a potential rally. That's supposed to among Reardon's strengths.

"He's really what you'd consider the perfect short man," said Randy Niemann, a Twins hopeful who was with the Mets last year. "He's a strikeout pitcher who has an excellent breaking pitch to go with his fastball. He's the kind of guy, coming in with the bases loaded and one out, has a very good chance of striking out the second out to get to the third one.

"Face it, he's produced in an area where a lot of guys in this game have trouble. It's an intangible, but he seems to have whatever it takes."

Relievers are made more often than born, and Reardon, 31, is no exception. The change took place nine years ago when he was invited to the Instructional League after compiling a 17-4 record as a starter for Jackson, Miss., the Mets' Class AA team. Mets manager Joe Torre was the instigator, and Reardon, coming off such a solid season, was skeptical.

"He saw me pitch the two innings that they usually have you pitch in those games, and I struck out the side, maybe in both innings or pretty close to it," Reardon recalled. "Torre asked me what I thought of the idea of becoming a reliever. At first I was angry because I'd just won 17 games and lost four. Why didn't they want me to start? But they had a lot of good starters, and he told me that would be my quickest way to the majors. `If you do the job, you'll be up next year.' He told the truth."

Reardon believed there was reason to be wary. The Expos drafted him in the 23rd round in 1973, but he passed up their offer to attend the University of Massachusetts. Nobody drafted him thereafter, and in 1977 he signed a free-agent contract with the Mets. He was traded to Montreal in 1981 for outfielder Ellis Valentine.

"I always was the type who thought they (the Mets) were throwing me to the back burner because I wasn't drafted out of college," Reardon said. "There was always the feeling inside that they'd rather take someone else who they had more invested in. I just thought this was another example. But it wasn't. They really did want me to be the stopper. I went to (Class AAA) Tidewater as the stopper."

Reardon has some theories about why he wasn't drafted: "Probably because we didn't play a lot of games, and I've heard since that a lot of scouts didn't think I wanted to play because of my attitude. I had a temper. I got upset with umpires because I wanted to win I had long hair. I wasn't the All-American image, and that could have turned them off. Who knows?

"In college I'd show up umpires, and they would get upset. At the end of the game they'd be squeezing me and it was my fault. Going into the minor leagues, my pitching coach, Bill Monboquette, told me to watch how I acted on the mound. He told me you get one umpire against you, you'll get them all against you. Now I get mad once in a while, maybe once a week, but I'll just ask where a pitch was or something."

The sole gripe one can have over the last two years has been Reardon's tendency to weaken in July and August. He had a 5.73 ERA in those months last season and similarly high numbers in 1985, a flaw that puzzles him. One theory is that his arm tires a bit, and, as a result, the fastball flattens out enough to be hittable. Maybe it's the manager's challenge to use him in such a way to avoid that lull.

"We have other people here who are capable of pitching in relief," said manager Tom Kelly. "There are others who can take the pressure off Reardon. I think I know how to operate the bullpen. If he needs a day off, he'll get a day off."

At this stage of his career, secure in both ability and status, Reardon knows he's accepting a challenge in coming to the Twins. He's heard all the tales of past problems and has a hint of what's being expected.

"I think every reliever's dream is to have a year like Willie Hernandez did (1984) when he only blew one game," he said. "That's pretty hard to do. If you're successful 70 to 80 percent of the time, I think you've done the job. If you start blowing two, three, four in a row, that's when you should get worried. A good reliever usually bounces back.

"Coming here, I know Ron Davis took a lot of criticism. I know he had a few good years, but all I hear is about how bad he was. They must have liked him at one point. At last I hope they did when he was getting 29 saves."

Like Davis, who was traded to the Cubs last August, Reardon has been booed by fans. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me," he continued. "Then when you do the job, they say that's what you're supposed to do. When a home-run hitter doesn't hit a home run, they don't say, `He's supposed to hit a home run.' They say, `He'll hit one tomorrow.'

"Usually a home run doesn't mean whether you win or lose a game. A stopper is going to mean the win or loss. That's why I think they pick on the stopper the most. But I wouldn't want to change. I've always enjoyed the role."

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