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 knows failing closers seldom fade away. They explode, often blowing up their team's fortunes along with their careers. Donnie Moore was an all-star closer who gave up a huge home run to Boston's Dave Henderson during the 1986 American League Championship Series. Boston went to the World Series; Moore's California Angels stayed home. Three years later, he shot himself. The Moore case is, of course, extreme, but there have been many promising closing careers ended by failures in situations such as the one Isringhausen finds himself in now.

Wearing his practice uniform -- green mesh jersey, white game pants, and a pair of mirrored wraparound shades under his cap -- the closer dismisses this as routine job stress, which -- in this job -- it is. "Usually it's just three outs," he says. "You have to put a lot of things behind you, not worry about a lot of things, and have a very short-term memory. You go in and try to get three outs as quickly as you can. Sometimes you do it, sometimes you don't. That's the life of a closer."

One thing Isringhausen has to keep out of his mind is that he is pitching on medically borrowed time. He has had four major arm operations, the last of which reconstructed his right elbow in 1998. It's easy to forget his medical history watching him pitch: He throws harder today than he has at any other point in his career.

But his arm occasionally likes to remind him what it has been through. Lately the source of discomfort, and some grumblings-in-print, is what trainer Larry Davis describes as a "microscopic" tear in his right biceps that tends to flare up after -- never while -- he pitches. Davis said it worsened after Isringhausen pitched both games of a July 17 doubleheader in Colorado, the day a streak of 14 consecutive saves snapped.

"You never know when that last throw is gonna be," Isringhausen says, the afternoon sun bouncing off the mirrored shades. "So you just try not to think about it. Everybody knows that it's possible, so if something happens you deal with it then. ... I know I never really had a Plan B, but I'm sure I'll come up with one if I need one. And hopefully I'll just do this for eight or nine more years, retire, and then play golf and fish every day."

The need for a "Plan B," of course, could be rendered somewhat moot by the contract he doesn't yet have for next season -- something else he can't think about. "I'm not worried about it because it's out of my control," he says, apparently forgetting that any pitch he throws during the pennant race might be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars that are, or are not, in his next contract. "We're gonna deal with it after the season. That's the way I want it."

But blocking out the future gets tricky when the bad outings are piling up while the games become more and more important. In August, the A's went 11-16, and their closer suffered with them, blowing two of his five save chances and pitching wildly in non-save situations. The A's are still in the pennant and wild card races, but that has more to do with the ineptitude of the teams Oakland is chasing than with the A's.

Isringhausen's struggles were evident to anyone who saw his last outing of the month.

Called upon in the ninth inning to keep the A's within a run of the White Sox, the closer gave up a hit, walked three, and handed Chicago a run by hitting a batter with the bases loaded. He was pulled after getting only a single out.

Three days later, in Toronto, the A's carried a small lead into the ninth inning, and Manager Art Howe would call on Jim Mecir, a reliable "setup" reliever who does not usually close out a game, to pitch the ninth, while Isringhausen sat and watched from the bullpen. He declined to chat with reporters after the game. He knew he might lose it.

Which is the reaction his coaches were counting on.

"Anger will bring him out of this," says Rick Peterson, the pitching coach who is trying to get his first-year closer through something of a positional rite of passage. "It got to the point where, all right, we're gonna give him a break for a little bit, let him catch a breath of fresh air. And, all of a sudden, you know, you get angry at yourself. You say: "Hey, that's my job. That's my role. Ishould be out there.' And you ask yourself: "How am I letting this slip away?'"

At the age of 24, not even two years removed from his enormous initial success, Jason Isringhausen is locked away in a New York City hotel room, crying, scared, and alone, as doctors try to figure out what has eaten through his esophagus and filled his right lung. They think it is cancer, but cannot rule out AIDS or tuberculosis. Because whatever is making it hard for him to breathe might be contagious, he will not allow anyone to visit him. So Isringhausen sits awake in bed, staring at the television, or the ceiling. He is alone in a place that feels farther from home than any other.

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