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

"Jason will too."

So Peterson, in that drawn-out, almost-whispered way of his, essentially tells Jason Isringhausen to shut the hell up and take a look around, because today he's an all-star closer for a team in a pennant race.

A year ago, he was a cautionary tale.

Just 22 years old, Jason Isringhausen makes his major-league debut at Chicago's Wrigley Field on July 17, 1995. A beanpole kid with a hat pulled tight over his forehead, he is pitching, as a starter, in front of about half the population of his hometown and showing no nerves whatsoever. He retires the first 10 and the last 10 batters he faces, giving up only a pair of hits and walks in between.

Suddenly, the cartoon-idea light bulbs go off in the rickety Wrigley press box, where, weary of covering a non-contender, members of the infamous New York media begin putting together the pieces of a larger story. Isringhausen's outing comes only a month after another impressive young Mets hurler, Bill Pulsipher, made his major-league debut. And there's another kid pitcher in the minors, Paul Wilson, who's supposed to be even better than the other two. This trio -- "Generation K" as they were eventually dubbed -- becomes The Story of the 1995 New York Mets.

"I just went up there and was doing exactly what I was doing in Triple A. I don't think I ever threw the ball better in my life," Isringhausen recalls.

He certainly never put up better numbers. Isringhausen posted a 9-2 record with a 2.81 earned-run average in 1995, good enough to finish fourth in the race for National League Rookie of the Year despite only playing half the season in the majors.

Writing at the dawn of spring training during the following winter, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica summed up the expectations of the Mets' young arms: "They are supposed to make history for the Mets the way Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan did in the 1960s, the way [Dwight] Gooden and [Ron] Darling and [Sid] Fernandez did a decade ago."

He had pitched three months in the major leagues after ripping through the minor leagues in a hair over three years -- approximately as long as he had considered himself a pitcher -- and he was a star. It seemed too easy.

It was.

"We were like gods in the minor leagues," he recalls. "And when we got to the big leagues it was the same way. And that's where the immaturity part starts. I went home in the off-season thinking the game was easy. I didn't hardly work out. I came back, like, 20 pounds heavier. And I got my brains kicked in the next year."

There were not many comparisons to Seaver or Gooden during the 1996 season, when Isringhausen went 6-14, allowing nearly three times as many runs per game as he had during the previous season. The other members of the Generation K triad weren't faring any better: Pulsipher's elbow blew out during spring training, and Wilson's arm was beginning to crumble as well.

Isringhausen pitched most of 1996 with torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and bone spurs piercing the ligaments in his elbow. But his psyche was in even worse shape. He knew what the expectations were for him, and he saw how spectacularly short he was falling. His 1996 ritual after a bad game -- and there were a lot of bad games -- involved icing his throbbing arm, driving to a neighborhood bar near his place on Long Island, and drinking until the pain subsided. Then he'd drive home.

"[Partying and drinking] is a part of New York, and I wasn't able to control it real well," he says. "When I went 6-14, the pressure got to me, the papers got to me, and that's how I relieved myself. I was a time bomb."

Trying to be a starter was turning the closer into an alcoholic.

On Sept. 20, 1996, in what must have felt like a mercy killing, the Mets announced that Isringhausen's sophomore season would be cut short a start early, so he could have his shoulder and elbow operated on. In a conference call with reporters, he expressed confidence that he would be back in the majors the following spring.

Jason Isringhausen pitched the following spring, but not in the majors. After spending the entire off-season rehabbing and reliving the horrors of a 6-14 year, he did not suffer being consigned to Triple A well. During his second start of the 1997 season, against the mighty Toledo Mud Hens, he gave up a first-inning home run to Bob Hamelin, another one-time-phenom-in-exile. Isringhausen stormed off the field, slugged a water cooler, and went on to pitch six more innings. The next morning, he found his hand swollen.

His pitching wrist was broken.

Thirteen games removed from his last save opportunity, Jason Isringhausen is sitting in the dugout talking -- or, not talking -- about pressure.

This seems like a suitable topic because he is, after all, the closer for a team that has been vying throughout the year for its division championship or a "wild card" spot in the post-season playoffs, and is presently only a game behind in the race for the American League West pennant. Every game during the next month will have visible playoff implications, and his job is to finish any of them Oakland leads narrowly in the ninth inning. But lately he's been struggling, and a pennant race isn't the easiest time to get problems worked out.

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