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

And this is what he remembers thinking: "I'm gonna die here soon."

While it certainly didn't feel that way at the time, his bout with what turned out to be tuberculosis was good for Jason Isringhausen. Doctors ordered him to take 12 pills a day for nine months and to stop drinking. He responded to the treatment in every sense. "TB really changed my life," he says. "I couldn't drink or anything. For nine months. So now I really don't do it all that much. I mean, I might have a beer here and there. I'll go out with the guys. I'll have crazy nights once in a while. But it's not like it used to be."

New outlook notwithstanding, Isringhausen's luck didn't change when he resumed pitching. After six mediocre September starts for the Mets, he was sent to the Puerto Rican Winter League. He performed brilliantly there as a starter, going 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA. But, he says, "it felt like if I threw one more pitch my arm would explode."

The tiny holes that had been poked in his elbow ligaments by the bone chips he played with in college had been stretching ever since. So, after pitching with a torn elbow ligament for five years, the closer opted for reconstructive surgery that would cost him the entire 1998 season.

Doctors placed tendons from his wrist into his elbow, and Isringhausen went home to Illinois to rehabilitate. He spent loads of time with his childhood buddy Watson.

"It was definitely good for him to get away from there [for a year]," Watson says. "We hardly ever talked about baseball. We just played a lot of PlayStation [video games], a lot of cards, a lot of bowling. Well, he couldn't bowl, but he went with us. I mean, he was struggling a lot in New York. And, well, Brighton is kind of the opposite of New York: We don't even have taxicabs here."

Isringhausen also spent his time at home courting Lorrie Reis, a jet airplane saleswoman from nearby Jerseyville. They were introduced at a Super Bowl party and married almost exactly a year later. The closer credits Lorrie with keeping his wild side in check. And not just because she won't let him buy motorcycles.

"Pretty much now when I think about doing something stupid, I have to think about her too," he says. "It's her reputation, not just mine. And I don't want her to think she's married to some idiot."

Isringhausen returned to spring training in 1999 with his mind and arm rehabilitated. He still had his stuff, but the snap, crackle, and popping noises coming from his elbow told him -- and the Mets -- that he couldn't take the physical burden of starting once every five days.

Isringhausen took an ensuing demotion to relief work in stride, but as easily as he accepted his new role -- middle relief -- he also knew something was wrong. The curve was still working, and everybody noticed how much harder he could throw when he didn't have to worry about saving himself so he could pitch six or seven innings. He just wasn't getting anybody out: After being up with the Mets as a starter, sent down to the minors to learn to be a reliever, and then being called back up again, his numbers -- 1-3, 6.41 ERA -- simply weren't very good.

A closer often pitches poorly when the game is not on the line. It's not that he doesn't want to pitch well when he's not closing; it's just that he does not see pitching in "those types of situations" as his job.

A few days after being temporarily benched in the wake of a frightening 8.41 August ERA, Jason Isringhausen described the situation this way: "I lost my job without even doing it."

On the surface, this is an absurd statement (he's paid to pitch, after all), but it is not wholly without merit. Of his 11 appearances in August, only five were in save situations. And many closers admit having to fight to focus when they are asked to do something other than protect a tiny lead in the last inning.

"When I closed," recalls former big league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, now a practicing sports psychologist, "I was one of those ADD, the-world-doesn't-spin-fast-enough-for-me types. I was most at ease when I knew the batter had as much to lose as I did. I didn't do well when there was nothing on the line, and I think most of these guys are the same way."

That Isringhausen had a natural affinity for closing seems painfully obvious in retrospect, but A's General Manager Billy Beane saw it first. He jumped at the chance to send Billy Taylor, Oakland's broken-down, 37-year-old journeyman closer of the moment, to New York at the July 31, 1999, trade deadline for Isringhausen and another reliever, Greg McMichael.

"We just thought that, from a mental standpoint, it takes a different type of person to be a closer," Beane says in his office as Isringhausen -- just a few feet away -- rummages through a closet. "Izzy was sort of a hyperactive, high-energy guy who might respond better at the end of the game. I mean, no one ever questioned his stuff: It was always just whether he'd pull his head out of his ass."

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