In Defense of Jose Mesa

Rasputin lives. Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the venerable Jose Mesa to a minor league contract and put him in competition for their closer's job. Here's hoping Joe Table gets the gig and saves 40 games. While we all witnessed Mesa's meltdown, let's not forget that there were plenty of good times for Mesa in a Phillies uniform.

No player, with the possible exceptions of J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen, has been more vilified by Phillies fans in recent years than Jose Mesa. Not since Mitch Williams served up that gopher ball to Joe Carter in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series has one Phillie been the object of such ridicule and scorn. (And, for the record, Williams is not the one to blame for that; he was burned out by October and should never have been pitching.) Mesa, who struggled in the first half of last season, completely fell apart after the All-Star break. He lost his closer's job twice, and by September was at the bottom of the bullpen depth chart. Had the Phillies made the playoffs, he would not likely have made the postseason roster. He wound up with 24 saves, a statistically deceptive four blown saves, and an astronomical 6.52 ERA.

But Mesa has been down this road before. Cleveland Indians fans have never forgiven him for blowing the save that cost them the 1997 World Series. He had lost his closer's job that season, too, and by the Series was part of a closer-by-committee approach. The next season, he was a setup man for the Indians before being traded to San Francisco mid-year. Mesa was back in the closer's role for the Seattle Mariners in 1999, saving 33 games, before being replaced by Kaz Sasaki in 2000.

Phillies fans scoffed when Larry Bowa, who was a coach with Seattle during Mesa's tenure there, brought the Dominican reliever over to the Phils in 2001 and made him their closer. Critics thought that, at 35 but possibly older, his time had passed. He was too old, they cried as they pointed to his 5.36 ERA in 2000. He would implode, they said. Mesa responded with a brilliant season, posting a sparkling 2.34 ERA and saving 42 games.

The next year, the same pundits again predicted Mesa would fall apart. While he started developing a few chinks in his armor, blowing nine saves, he was still one of the better closers in the game, saving a team-record 45 games with an ERA again under 3.

Finally, last year, Mesa fell apart. He seemed to lose his cool when he got hit around. He worked with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan to try to iron out mechanical flaws, but couldn't seem to translate those lessons on the mound. Nearly every time he was brought in to save a game, he would give up bushels of baserunners before wriggling out of his self-created jam. If he was called upon in a tie game, he almost always gave up runs. Fans were booing him to such an extent that they got in his head, and he became useless at home, posting a 7.71 ERA at the Vet. With runners on base, he was immolated, with an unholy 18.69 ERA, and batters hitting .324 off him with runners in scoring position and a ridiculous .571 with the sacks juiced.

Bowa, to his credit, is fiercely loyal, and stuck with Mesa as his closer much longer than he should have. The first time Bowa took Mesa out of the role, he gave him the opportunity to win it back. Mesa was hardly electric once removed, but was moderately effective, enough so that Bowa gave him back his old job. It didn't take, however, and Mesa completely came unglued, with a 10.50 ERA after the break. He only pitched four innings in September and gave up nine earned runs.

It looked like Mesa's career was over, and it may yet be. But that does not mean he is not worth rooting for. Yes, he has had some brushes with the law. Yes, he has behaved immaturely. Yes, he has a prickly relationship with the media.

However, Mesa is an emotional player, which is a quality that has endeared him to Bowa. He has been known to throw a tantrum when he has been beaten, but in this age of petulance and clubhouse haircuts during games, someone who takes his job seriously and obviously hates to lose is refreshing. Give me a fiery competitor who will occasionally smash a water cooler any day over a guy who strikes out with a runner on third and then goes right back to his Wall Street Journal. As Lou Brown, the crusty manager from Major League said, "I like that kind of spirit in a player!"

Mesa does not speak to reporters, which certainly has not helped his image in the media, and probably contributed to the premature predictions of his demise. But many know that Mesa was among the most accessible of players and always had time for fans, especially kids. Autograph seekers were seldom turned away. His charitable contributions and community involvement are laudable. And, don't forget, his 111 career saves in a Phillies uniform are a franchise record.

Even during his best years, Mesa had a penchant for getting into trouble of his own making, then pitching his way out. This has led to many bitten fingernails and that groove Bowa wore down with his pacing in the dugout. But then, Tug McGraw had the same problem. Don't forget, McGraw loaded the bases with one out before striking out the slumping Willie Wilson to clinch the 1980 World Series. He always seemed to be pitching out of jams. If he was a 1-2-3 guy, he never would have developed his trademark heart-patting. Eventually, however, McGraw, like Mesa, couldn't get out of those jams. But McGraw had an effervescent, self-deprecating personality, a mischievous, boyish grin, and an easy relationship with the media, eventually even joining them.

Should Mesa be placed on a similar pedestal to the one on which Philadelphia put McGraw? No. But if he strolls in from the visitor's bullpen to close a game for the Pirates, he should, at the very least, get a warm round of applause. Thank you, Jose, and good luck.

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