Let’s not praise Goose Gossage for his 100-mph fastball, his awesome (and still flourishing) horseshoe mustache, or the fact that last week, in his ninth year of eligibility, he was finally elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, the only player to be inducted this year. To a non–baseball fan, his enshrinement might be puzzling: The primary statistical measurement of a relief pitcher’s effectiveness is the save, and currently Gossage, with 310, sits seventeenth on the all-time list, behind such non–future Hall of Famers as Robb Nen and Jose Mesa.
No, let us praise Gossage, instead, because he represents something that was once singular and beautiful in baseball, something that has been lost in our steroids, weightlifting, A-Rod–the–Golden Adonis era. As a kid in the seventies, what I loved about baseball was its circus-comes-to-town diversity. Unlike football or basketball, which essentially required an unrelatable physical freakishness (in terms of height, width, or both), baseball teams boasted all shapes and sorts, from fat slobs like Terry Forster to slap-hitting whippets like shortstop Tony Fernandez. The Milwaukee Brewers’ spooky Cy Young winner in 1982, Pete Vuckovich, looked like he should be living in a cabin in the woods, plotting serial murder. And the Goose—well, not only did he pioneer the now-popular figure of the relief pitcher as bolt-hurling badass (you can thank and/or blame him for every time some slender sapling trots out from the bullpen to “Hell’s Bells”) but he did it while looking more or less like someone’s beer-drinking uncle, if your uncle happened to hunt moose and ride with the Bandidos motorcycle gang.
Now, of course, most pitchers’ waistlines have been Nautilused into oblivion (save the rotund and sainted David Wells), most facial hair has been tidied up (where have you gone, Johnny Damon’s beard?), and even the shortstop is a strapping six-foot-six lad who can easily launch 45 home runs. In other words, baseball’s become just another arena for look-alike freaks of nature—or as we’ve recently been reminded, freaks of chemistry. Gossage, by contrast, was a regular guy who made good on a single, God-given gift: throwing tiny spheres very hard. Everything else—the nickname, the intimidating aura, the immortal ’stache—he concocted merely as fan-pleasing enhancements, back when baseball still seemed like it was played by regular guys, and enhancements wasn’t yet a dirty word.