The Closer

He's fallen off a third-story balcony, survived tuberculosis, and come back from four arm surgeries to lead the Oakland A's to the brink of post-season play. His name is Jason Isringhausen, and he IS the closer

Isringhausen eventually found an outlet for some of this daring and energy at Southwestern High School, located in nearby Piasa and affectionately derided as "Cornfield High" by those who've attended. There, he is remembered as an average student, an exceptional athlete, and -- more generally -- "a Huckleberry Finn kind of guy," according to his old Spanish teacher, Tom Slusser. In sports, the positions Isringhausen played tended toward the hazardous: He was a gritty baseball catcher, a backboard-pounding basketball power forward, and a football middle linebacker. But his appetite for adrenaline was hardly confined to organized sports.

"I was always doing stuff other people wouldn't do, getting hurt all the time," the closer recalls. "Jumping over creeks on our bikes, making the ramp as big as we could and seeing how high we could jump. Stuff like that."

"He was crazy then, and he's crazy now," says Shawn Watson, the closer's oldest friend. "He'll do anything."

Watson, incidentally, was the reason New York Mets scout Terry Tripp found his way to Piasa, and, therefore, a major reason Jason Isringhausen found his way into professional baseball. Watson, a dominating, hard-throwing 6-foot, 6-inch pitcher was the marquis player on a high school ballclub that finished fourth in the state. The Mets drafted Watson out of high school; they liked his catcher enough to take a 44th-round flier on him a year later.

"Izzy" didn't immediately turn pro, instead playing center field and pitching in relief for two years at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill., while silently suffering from the pain of bone chips stuck in his elbow ligaments. He joined the Mets in 1992, a season after being drafted. They cleaned out his elbow, and made him a pitcher.

It did not take the Mets long to discover they had struck gold with the 1,156th pick in the 1991 amateur draft. Isringhausen's fastball topped 90 miles per hour, and he picked up the knuckle curve they taught him faster than anyone expected. But during spring training in 1993, the Mets discovered firsthand what the closer's friends and relatives could have told them to expect.

It is either just past twilight or well past curfew at the New York Mets' Port St. Lucie, Fla., spring training complex -- depending on whom you ask -- and Jason Isringhausen, 20 years old and more than "a little inebriated," as he puts it with a chuckle, is dangling from a third-floor balcony of a local hotel. He may or may not be, depending on whom you ask, calling on a young lady. But that is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that the kid with an arm that most everyone suspects could soon be worth millions of dollars is hanging from a third-story balcony railing, sloshed out of his mind. It's also fairly relevant that the railing soon breaks, sending the kid with the million-dollar arm plunging three stories, head first. When the paramedics arrive, they find him lying on the ground with his head bloodied, his sternum cracked, and a few of his toes broken. They tell him that if he hadn't been so, heh, inebriated -- and therefore, so relaxed -- he'd be dead.

Jason Isringhausen, saveless since the narrow escape against Cleveland 10 days ago, has been "up in the zone" lately, and high is nowhere for a closer's fastball to be.

This is a crisis.

In two non-save situations on his team's two-win, five-loss road trip, he looked both wild and hittable. He walked two batters in Detroit and, given an eight-run lead to work with, was putrid in Cleveland, giving up four hits, a walk, and three runs in two-thirds of an inning.

Aside from a pair of poor outings in early May, which were followed by a streak of consecutive save conversions that lasted well into July, this is the first sustained period of adversity Isringhausen has faced during his first year in this high-stakes role. And it's gnawing at his insides.

"He's not himself right now," says Terrence Long, the hip-hop-loving, cornrowed close friend of the cornfed closer. "I was talking to him on the plane last night, and he was like, "Man, I don't know, I don't know what I'm doing out there.' ... He's beating himself up pretty good."

Now, back in the home clubhouse, Izzy quickly deals with a reporter. ("Jason, before you left for the road, you said you were in a bit of a funk. How do you feel about the way you're throwing the ball now?" "Shitty.") And then he wanders off to a quieter corner, where the somewhat square-faced, broad-shouldered former farm-town kid with the close-cropped, faintly blond-tipped brown hair begins ranting away -- red-faced, arms flailing -- at his Zen-placid, wavy-haired, puny-by-comparison pitching coach. He's telling Rick Peterson that he feels like he's letting the team down, that he's desperate to be ready the next time he's asked to guard a lead on the line (which might very well be later today).

"The thing to remember here," Peterson says a few moments later, "is that he's in uncharted waters. He's never done this for a whole year. And, really, I think this is one of the best things that could happen to him. ... From a closing standpoint, the question isn't are you ever gonna blow a save. Of course you are. The question is: When? And how are you going to react when that happens? That's where we are right now. Is he ever gonna blow another save? Of course he is. [Dennis] Eckersley went through this, Doug Jones went through this, Rollie Fingers went through this.

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