Top closers like Henke a rare breed: Valcke
Former Blue Jay says mental makeup separates elite closers from the rest
"It's as simple as this," insisted Blue Jays' legendary pitching coach Galen Cisco in the aftermath of Tom Henke's enshrinement to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on June 18. "The toughest job in baseball is to close out a game in the ninth inning with a one-run lead."
Cisco, who joined fellow pitching guru John Sullivan, along with Pat Gillick, Paul Beeston and numerous other Blue Jays of the past and present in St. Marys, Ont., to witness Henke's ceremony, went on to emphasize how tough it is to save a ball game on a regular basis, and how truly lucky the Blue Jays were to land Henke, whose 217 saves rank him first all-time with the Blue Jays, while his 311 career saves place him 17th in major league history.
Henke also averaged an incredible 9.81 strikeouts per nine innings over his career. Only seven pitchers in major league history have faced more batters than Henke's 3,194 and had a higher strikeout ratio.
Sullivan and Cisco were absolute in their conviction that Henke is one of baseball's all-time top-10 closers. Seven of the others mentioned in the conversation have already been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the other two besides Henke not yet recognized in Cooperstown are Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. In other words, a good case can be made for one more ceremony down the road for the big ol' country boy from Taos, Mo.
So, other than Rivera, who is in a league of his own, where have all the closers gone? Has the role of the closer changed, or are there just slim pickins'?
Sullivan feels the biggest change since Henke's era is the implementation of the set-up man, as well as the growing role of the middle-relievers. "The closer has become a one-inning horse, maybe once-in-a-while a four-out guy if they need a jam cleared up in the eighth," said Henke's presenter at the ceremony in St. Marys.
Elite closers a rare find
Cisco added the evolution of the roles Sullivan identified as new to the industry is nothing but a by-product of the fact that great closers are simply few and far between.
"These new late-inning guys do take a bit of the burden off the closer's arm. Teams that have players in these roles do so with the hope that their designated closer can perhaps go from fair to good, or maybe even from good to great," said Cisco, who lives in St. Mary's, Ohio.
"But other than shorter outings, the role of the closer really hasn't changed. People might refer to Henke, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon and Rich (Goose) Gossage as examples of great closers in the 1980s, but believe me, everybody did not have them. There have never been more than a handful of greats at any given time.
Second to Henke on the Blue Jays all-time save list is, ironically, his set-up man, Duane Ward, who evolved into a closer after Henke and chalked up 121 saves. Billy Koch is the only other Blue Jay to hit the three-digit mark, saving exactly 100 games. Jays manager John Farrell has spent 72 games so far this season trying to figure out who exactly his closer is, and the answer seems to be more of a committee than any one individual.
Henke says mental preparation is what separates the good closers from the elite.
"These guys don't just grow on trees, and what sets them apart is their ability to bounce back when things don't go well," said the 53-year-old who still looks as though he could wear the same uniform 15 years after his retirement.
"Both Mariano [Rivera] and Trevor [Hoffman] were around 92 per cent efficiency in converting save opportunities, and they are as good as it gets," added Henke in deeply emotional state following his enshrinement.
"So, the sooner you realize that even the very best succeed only eight or nine times out of 10, the better. You see some guys go on a run out of the gate, but when they hit a tough stretch, many of them can't spin out of it.
"Baseball was my life, and I took my job seriously. When you get handed the ball after a guy like Dave Stieb or a Jimmy Key has worked his butt off putting the team in a position to win, believe me, it is a lot of pressure. One of the lucky things for me was that when I did blow a lead, our starting pitcher was usually the first guy to pat me on the back — we really were a family."
And speaking of family, Henke was blessed as one of 10 children to grow up with a solid, wholesome foundation implanted on him by his parents Fred and Mary Jane, both of whom made it to St. Marys for their son's ceremony.
As well, his perspective found solid ground when Henke and his wife Kathy, who have four children together, were blessed with a daughter Amanda born with Down's Syndrome, who ripped a pair of run-scoring singles in the Celebrity Slo-Pitch game that preceeded Henke's ceremony, the second one given up by Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins of Chatham, Ont.
"There can be a lot worse things in life than just having a bad game." By the way, when Tom Hanks exclaimed his famous line "There's no crying in baseball," in the movie A League of Their Own, the gifted actor obviously never considered having Gillick, Sullivan, Cisco and Henke all under the tent on the Canadian Ball Hall's Ceremonial Grounds, as the taps were turned on countless times as they rekindled fond memories throughout the day.
A bus load of family and friends made the 1,271-kilometre trek from Taos to St. Marys to witness their native son being recognized. The ride to Cooperstown is only about five hours further.
Tom Valcke is the president and CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.