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Mudville: April 15, 2024 9:46 am PDT

Eric Gagne

"You need innings and maturity; you need to understand how to fail and succeed. ”

More than ever, today’s version of Major League Baseball is a show.

Everyone has walkup music, choreographed celebrations follow walk-off wins, and big hits and dugout routines with props have become the norm.

From a Spitballin’ perspective, nothing is better than an iconic entrance from a dominant reliever. The energy in the ballpark during a big game was explosive when Edwin Diaz would come in to Timmy Trumpet’s Narcos or when Kenley Jansen entered a game to California Love at Dodger Stadium.

Historically, the groundwork for modern closers was laid by those who came before them. Trevor Hoffman’s Hell’s Bells and of course Enter Sandman for Mariano Rivera were probably the two most notable entrance music choices among closers of the previous generation.

For a three-year run however, no closer’s entrance was more on the money than Eric Gagne’s “Game Over” entrance, complete with Welcome to the Jungle playing over the Dodger Stadium speakers. For 84 straight save opportunities from 2003-2004, the game indeed was over for Dodger opponents pretty much as soon as Gagne walked out the bullpen door.

The 2003 Cy Young Award winner joins us this week for a special two-part Spitballin’.

Gagne joins us this week in Part 1 to discuss his path to the majors and how he became a closer. Next week, we dive into his historic run from 2002-2004, his late-career World Series win, what he thinks of the game today, and much more.

Fans certainly remember Gagne as a dominant All-Star closer with his record-setting 84 straight saves converted over two seasons, but before we get into that next week, let’s take a look at how Gagne went from a French-speaking kid who grew up rooting for the Expos in Montreal to the major leagues.

Please join us as we go Spitballin’ with the last closer to win a Cy Young Award – Eric Gagne.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gagne! Looking forward to talking about some of the incredible things you accomplished in the game, but first let’s go back to when you were a kid. Can you tell us what baseball was like for you as a kid growing up in Canada?

My dad put a team together because there wasn’t really any organized baseball. He would get the kids together and drive his Malibu around and pick up all the neighbors. I played hockey most of my life, but my dad wanted us to play multiple sports. I loved hockey too, but I really fell in love with the game of baseball. My dad was very involved with me and my brother. He always pushed me through all different sports, but baseball was it for me. I played Little League and Federation. Canada was different because we didn’t play ball in school; we played club ball. I played for Team Quebec when I was 15 and went on from there. It was around that age when a scout came to my dad and asked if I would be interested in playing professional baseball. That was rare in Montreal. My dad told the scout to come talk to me and he did. He told me I had a lot of talent and asked if I wanted to play professionally. I didn’t really know what he meant, so I just said, “Sounds great.”

2/26/1999: Pitcher Eric Gagne #68 of the Los Angeles Dodgers poses for a studio portrait on Photo Day during Spring Training at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Florida. (Credit: Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport)

Yes, Montreal isn’t as highly scouted as Southern California, that’s for sure! It takes a lot to get on the map there. Did you grow up as an Expos fan?

Yes, I was a big Expos fan growing up. My favorite players were Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Tim Wallach. I loved all those guys. I was a third baseman at that time, so I really looked up to Tim Wallach. I wanted to hit, so third base was my position. I didn’t start pitching until I was a little bit older. My dad was an Expos fan too. Unfortunately growing up when I did, we didn’t have many games on TV. We lived a little far from the stadium, but I did go to some games in Montreal growing up as a kid.

You came to the United States for college and ended up at Seminole State in Oklahoma. How did you end up in Oklahoma from Montreal?

That was a different route than most take. I played for U18 Team Canada but I got kicked out of the academy for some reason. My parents were getting divorced and I was a little bit rebellious. I didn’t know what I was going to do. That was 1994 and I actually got drafted by the White Sox that year. I didn’t know what I was going to do.  A good friend of mine was going to Seminole and they needed a pitcher, so he recommended me. I was getting recruited on a full scholarship to go there, but I didn’t speak a word of English so it was hard to understand the process. I had some help translating and we worked it all out.

I was like, “What? I didn’t even really argue with you and you’re kicking me out of here?” He said, “No, you’re going up to LA. You leave tomorrow morning. Pack your shit, you’re going to the big leagues.”

That’s crazy that you didn’t speak any English when you came here. Was that a tough transition to make going to Oklahoma from Montreal and not speaking English?

A kid from Quebec going to Seminole is a little bit different. Talk about culture shock! I didn’t speak any English, but it was fun. They were very welcoming and the people there were very warm with me. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a great experience. If you didn’t love baseball, you weren’t in the right place. I called it bootcamp baseball. It was baseball all day. We woke up in the morning and it was right to baseball. Afternoon and evening was baseball too. It was really good for me to understand if I wanted to make that my career. I came out of there very disciplined. I got to play in the NJCAA World Series, which was fun. I was there for one year and it was tough. I had to record all the classes and play them back so I could understand what was being said. I didn’t have a translator, so I had to teach myself. Going to bed at night I had to sit there and think about how I was going to ask for food the next day. I would go to McDonalds or Subway because they worked with combos and numbers. I could just go and shout a number out and they give you food. That’s was the easiest thing to do.

You had a really good first year in A ball, but then needed Tommy John Surgery and missed all of your second year. What was your mindset, not having been a high draft pick and then having a big setback like that early in your career?

It was hard. I had never been hurt in my life and didn’t know what to expect with Tommy John Surgery. I didn’t know if it would be a year or two years and what kind of rehab we were going to do. I came into Savannah, Georgia for my first year and started off pitching really well, but by the end of the year I was hurt. I kept pitching through it though. I kept throwing in the offseason and came into Spring Training with my arm hurting a lot and my velocity had dropped. I just didn’t tell anyone.

At the end of Spring Training, they saw me icing my elbow and knew that it hurt me a lot. They took an MRI and told me I needed Tommy John. I was really down on myself for four or five months. I went to San Diego for rehab and it was better than I thought, even though it was very boring. I missed a year and came back and pitched in Vero Beach the next year. I didn’t feel 100% back yet, but I had a pretty good year and made the All-Star Game. I went up to AA that year for the playoffs and did well there too. The next year I was in AA and had an amazing year [as a starter]. My arm started feeling a lot better and I almost won the pitching Triple Crown.

3/10/2006: Pitcher Eric Gagne of the Los Angeles Dodgers during spring training in Vero Beach. (Photo by Robert Seale/Sporting News via Getty Images)

Pretty amazing to think you can go from being an amateur free agent who missed a year of development to Tommy John Surgery to the major leagues pretty much in less than three years. What was it like to get that call to the majors at the end of your AA season in 1999?

I got that call to the big leagues in 1999 and it was amazing. Having Tommy John was tough, but baseball was all I had in life. I wasn’t going to quit baseball and go do something else. I didn’t have an education, so I had to stay in the game and do what I had to do to rehab. I worked really hard and bounced back well. When I came back, I really wanted to make it to the big leagues, so I was focused and worked my butt off. The Dodgers gave me great rehab. When I got called up, it was pretty funny. I was pitching and the manager took me out after five innings. I was pitching good and had a low pitch count. I hadn’t given up a run and had like eight or nine strikeouts. I was kind of like, “What the fuck is this? Why are you taking me out?” Finally he said, “Eric, shut your pie hole. Take your butt into the clubhouse, grab your shit and get out of here.” I was like, “What? I didn’t even really argue with you and you’re kicking me out of here?” He said, “No, you’re going up to LA. You leave tomorrow morning. Pack your shit, you’re going to the big leagues.”

You talked about how that was a goal of yours coming back from the injury. What was going through your head when you realized you were finally reaching that dream?

It was an amazing moment. Even pitching in AA, I didn’t think I could get to the big leagues. It wasn’t something that seemed realistic to me. I always wanted to be on the mound and play baseball for a living, but it never seemed real to me. When I got called up, I called my mom, my brother, and my dad. They told me I was going to get a start against Florida, but I had to meet the team in Chicago to throw a bullpen and get acclimated to the team. Chicago has a very small clubhouse, especially for the visitors. I walked in and saw Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park, and all these guys making $10 million a year. I was like, “Wow, this is The Show!” It was a lot of stress and was hard on me. I was really a fish out of water and couldn’t imagine going out there that night or the next day to pitch. You dream your whole life to make the majors and then when you get there, you don’t know if you really belong, but it was a lot of fun. I had a very good month and thought, “Hey, maybe I do really belong here.” That month went by so fast. It felt like two days and the season was over.

8/8/2001: Eric Gagne #38 of the Los Angeles Dodgers tosses the ball in a stream of light before a game against the Montreal Expos at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Dodgers defeated the Expos 13-1. (Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

What did that do for your mindset that offseason and going into the next year? You still were just 23 and hadn’t pitched in AAA yet.

That offseason was fun. My family and friends back home in Montreal were all crazy with me because it was my first time in the big leagues. I worked hard and got to Spring Training and felt like I had to prove myself, but still thought I was going to make the team. I felt like I belonged. I got to Spring Training and totally sucked. I had a bad Spring Training. I have always been a slow starter because coming from Canada, we never pitched January through April. I just wasn’t ready. I was still young and trying to skip AAA was hard. The way the schedule was that year, we were playing the Expos in Montreal to start the season, so they didn’t want to expose me. If I got my butt kicked [in my hometown], it wasn’t going to be good for my psyche, so they sent me down for two weeks to start the season. I pitched well and they called me up, but I was up and down that whole year. I was a little inconsistent. It took me about two years to get my feet wet, get some failures and learn how to pitch. I’m glad I didn’t skip AAA because I did a lot of learning there.

All this time you’re talking about, from 1996-2001, you were being developed as a starter. We all know your historic place in baseball came as a closer. Can you talk about how you made that transition?

It was a little crazy because I was coming into that year thinking I was going to be the number two starter in AAA. Jeff Shaw had been the Dodgers’ closer and he retired, which made a big hole in our bullpen. We didn’t have someone waiting that they knew would just slide in there. I went to see Jim Tracy and asked to try out as the closer, or at least have a shot in the bullpen. I had been in the bullpen with Team Canada and had always loved the adrenaline that came with the pressure. They weren’t for it right away, but the guy who convinced them was Dave Wallace. He saw me rehabbing in Vegas and my stuff played better for one or two innings. The Dodgers didn’t want to do it because I had become a big prospect and they thought my value was as a starter. They agreed to try it, but they still wanted to build me into being a starter.

Eric Gagne #38 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws a pitch in the ninth inning against the Anaheim Angels on July 3, 2004 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California. Gagne picked up his 21st save as the Dodgers won 8-5. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

What was the process of making that transition?

They had me throw and I was throwing 95 or 96. Then they shut me down for three days and I came back and was throwing 96, 97, 98, so they were like, “Maybe we have something here.” Then they gave me two days off and when I threw again the velo was still there. They were just testing me because they didn’t want to hurt me. The Dodgers were always very cautious with their prospects, which is why I thought they were so good at developing them. They understand that you need innings and maturity; you need to understand how to fail and succeed. After that, they told me I was going to make the team, but it would be closer by committee. After three weeks, I had gotten a couple saves against San Francisco where I had faced Jeff Kent, Reggie Sanders, Barry Bonds, and those guys. We were in San Diego next and Jim Tracy came to me and said I was going to be the closer and not to do anything different. From there, I took it and ran. The next three years were unbelievable and not just because I had a great run. We had such a great group of relievers like Paul Quantrill, Guillermo Mota, Paul Shuey, Tom Martin, and a bunch of guys who helped me become the reliever I became.

Join us next week when we continue our interview with Eric Gagne. We discuss his historic run as the Dodgers closer, winning a World Series with the Red Sox, his thoughts on the game today, and much more. In the meantime, give a listen to Eric Gagne’s “Game Over” Baseball Podcast, which is available in English and French!

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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