This is the moment a closer is supposed to live for: There are two outs in the ninth inning of a close game, and thousands of people stand in unison, clapping feverishly, feeling victory. This is when the adrenaline rush usually pushes the closer's fastball to nearly triple-digit speeds and restores his focus. But tonight, there's a trace of doubt in the applause and, just maybe, in the closer himself.
Tonight, in fact, most of the 18,000 people at the Oakland Coliseum are pissed off at Jason Isringhausen.
Just a few weeks earlier, the mere sight of him sauntering in from the Oakland Athletics' bullpen, with that gunslinger gait -- arms frozen at his sides, ready to draw -- would have put the whole park at ease. But making the all-star team doesn't mean much when you've blown two saves in a row in the middle of a pennant race, most recently surrendering back-to-back home runs (on back-to-back pitches) in New York, and, before that -- blunder of all baseball blunders -- balking in the deciding run in Chicago.
And now Izzy is threatening to screw up another one.
It started well enough: Isringhausen hauled his 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound frame up the pitcher's mound and hurled four successive rawhide beebees down at Cleveland's Travis Fryman. Two were strikes. The fifth pitch was a curveball thrown so hard and spun so tight that Fryman, convinced it was a fastball, turned to human Jell-O when the pitch dove -- as if on roller-coaster rails -- at the last possible instant. Swing (if you could call it that) and a miss.
But a groundout and two seeing-eye singles later, Cleveland runners are on first and third. At the plate is Omar Vizquel, a capable hitter representing the go-ahead run. Isringhausen is behind in the count, two balls to no strikes, and the grumbling in the crowd begins to morph into boos. He needs to throw a strike here. Instead, it's ball three, and the booing gets louder. The pitcher takes a violent swipe at nothing in particular, and after unfolding himself from the bent-at-the-waist, dangle-armed posture he assumes before each pitch, takes a deep breath, rears back, and delivers a scorching fastball, knee-high, that shaves the inside edge of the plate. Strike one.
He bends, hangs arm, and delivers again, but this time Vizquel smacks a sinking line drive toward center field, a seeming single that has "third straight blown save" written all over it.
He sees his center fielder, Terrence Long, chugging, bending, lunging, and then sliding headlong through the outfield grass -- with the ball, and the game, in his glove.
As he always does after a successful save, the closer leads the handshake line toward center field. When he reaches Long, instead of offering a hand, Isringhausen puckers up and plants one on his center fielder's head. And why not? Life seems good, at least for a few hours.
A little more than a year ago, Isringhausen was floundering, a former phenom who seemed unable to stay out of trouble or the hospital long enough to get his train-wrecked career back on track. Once a prized pitching prospect with the New York Mets and supposed heir to the pitching throne formerly occupied by Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, he'd let the pressure get to him, and then his drinking got out of hand. And then his arm gave out, all those times in all those places. And then tuberculosis entered his lungs. And then he was made into a mediocre mop-up reliever. And then the franchise he was supposed to save gave him away, to Oakland, for chump change.
So, after narrowly escaping his third blown save in three tries, on the verge of the most crucial stretch of the season, Isringhausen will cling to one thing as if it were as important to him as his next breath: being the closer.
Jason Isringhausen, all of 4 years old, is standing on top of the two-story house he lives in on the outskirts of a speck-on-the-map southern Illinois farm town named Brighton (pop. 2,770). Because the house is still fairly new, no railings have been installed on the roof yet. This is unfortunate because, at the moment, Jason is boasting to his two older sisters that he can fly. They think he is kidding.
All three of them are wrong.
"No, he couldn't fly, but he made a pretty good thud," recalls his mother. "But that was typical. He was always climbing, falling, cutting himself, you know, getting on a first-name basis with everyone over in the emergency room."
Almost from the moment Jason Derik Isringhausen was born to Chuck and Georgene Isringhausen, a Shell Oil refinery machinist and a secretary who happened to be a pretty good softball player, he showed a penchant for collecting scars. His mother learned when he was just a toddler to keep the knives in their cabinets, and out of his reach, but that didn't stop him from reveling in situations that could, and did, result in bodily harm. During a 17-hour family jaunt to Virginia, when Jason was 12, she recalls, "he spent most of the trip counting his scars. I think he got up to 114."
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.