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Mudville: April 22, 2024 9:46 am PDT

Eric Gagne II

"Until the day I die, I want to keep doing baseball stuff.”

When I was a kid, my uncle Duke used to ask my friends and me what baseball records we thought would never be broken.

The typical answers were always Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Cy Young’s wins record, or Hank Aaron’s career home run record – hey, this was the 1980s.

Without fail, The Duke would respond, “The right answer is Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters. To break that record, someone would have to throw three straight!”

The reason we’re talking unbreakable records on BallNine this week is because Eric Gagne is probably holding one – and he’s our guest again for Spitballin’ this week.

Gagne joined us last week for Part 1 of this interview in which we discussed how he went from being a young kid in Montreal who loved hockey and baseball to a major leaguer. This week, we pick up in 2002 when he became the Dodgers’ closer.

It was during his time as the Dodgers’ closer that Gagne saved a Major League Baseball record 84 straight games. At the time, the previous record was 54, which was held by Tom Gordon. In the 20 years since Gordon set the 54-game record, apart from Gagne, Zack Britton has come closest – saving 60 straight.

Over the course of baseball history, only five pitchers have saved even 50 straight. Aside from Gagne (84), Britton (60), and Gordon (54), Jeurys Familia (52) and Jose Valverde (51) have also converted over 50 in a row.

Fifty straight saves is impressive and all, but it isn’t close to 84. The way we see it, nobody is coming close to that number anytime soon, if ever.

Aside from the sheer dominance and incredible talent it takes to save 84 straight, there’s a lot of luck involved. In addition, changes to the game have made the feat even harder, especially with the Commissioner’s “Manfred Man” starting off on second base in extra innings.

Gagne’s career isn’t just about an unbreakable record, though. He has a great appreciation for the game and a humble respect about his place in the game’s history. Gagne is the last closer to win a Cy Young Award, having done so 20 years ago in 2003. He’s a three-time All-Star and his three-year run from 2002-2004 is matched by very few, if any, closers in baseball history.

And yet if you talk to him, he’s just a person who fell in love with baseball as a kid and loves the sport to this day, just like any of us. Gagne has been giving back to the sport and has been focused on using his influence to spread his love of baseball to kids whenever he could. Earlier this year, he started the Game Over Podcast, which has versions in French and English and is available on YouTube.

Today, he joins us to discuss his place in baseball history, so please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Eric Gagne.

Michael Tucker #20 of the San Francisco Giants is tackled by David Ross #40 the Los Angeles Dodgers as he tried to charge the mound to get to Dodger pitcher Eric Gagne #38 during the 8th inning June 24, 2004 at SBC Park in San Francisco. The fight broke out after Eric Gagne #38 pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers threw an inside pitch to Michael Tucker #20 of the San Francisco Giants. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Thanks for joining us again this week, Mr. Gagne. We’re ready to put your historic run into some perspective today. Let’s start out in 2002, your first season as Dodgers closer. You had great success from the start and were named an NL All-Star. What was it like being an All-Star your first season as a closer?

That was the tie [All-Star] game in Milwaukee and we got booed. The next year they decided to say that the All-Star Game was going to count for home field advantage in the World Series. That was 2003 and happened right in the middle of my streak. I ended up blowing the save in the All-Star Game that year! Hank Blalock homered off me in the eighth and he later became my teammate in Texas. The All-Star Game was a shit show. It’s not a restful or relaxing weekend; they have us doing all kinds of stuff. But to walk into the clubhouse and see guys like Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter, they’re the best of the best. It was pretty intense. I was glad I wasn’t by myself. [Each year] we had multiple Dodgers in the game, so that was cool.

It was just surreal. There were so many big names and just to be named an All-Star was such an honor. It was nerve-wracking but a lot of fun. I was broke, though, too! I wasn’t making any money yet, but I had to fly my parents and family and everyone in for the game. I spent like $20,000 in money I didn’t have, but it was fun and worth it. My whole family wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I was really happy they were there.

You mentioned the save streak. It’s incredible you saved 84 straight games when the record at the time was 54 by Tom Gordon. Nobody has come close to that record and I doubt they will. Was there a time when you realized you were on this streak and had a shot to break the record?

I was just so focused on one pitch at a time, one out at a time, and getting out of there. I also hate the phrase “save the game.” I like to say “preserve the game.” I always saw it as the team had done their job to get a lead and I didn’t want to be the guy who messed it up for them. I watched SportsCenter and they would mention it every so often, but once it got close to the record they started doing a graphic about it. I didn’t really feel pressure about it. I just thought it was kinda cool. The only time I started to feel a little pressure was towards the end. When I blew the save to end the streak it was almost like a relief. Adrian Beltre hit a home run for us to win the game anyway, so it was like a win-win. I knew I was in the zone, so I just focused on my job and didn’t feel the pressure mount.

The fans lifted me up and made me feel like nobody could stop me. It’s a very special bond and I try to explain that fans can do some really cool things for players. I was a baseball fan first, then I became a player.

It’s been 21 years since you set the record. Zack Britton managed to save 60 straight since, and now that’s the second most ever. Nobody is even remotely close to you. Do you ever think that maybe you have one of those Major League Baseball records that will never be broken?

With the new rules now, it changes everything. You have the guy on second base in extra innings and you’re going to use your closer in different roles. Just by the nature of the new rules, I don’t think anyone can do it. I hope it gets broken though, because it will bring my name back up! I just think it will be hard to do with the way the game is now. It depends so much on the team, too. One error can mess everything up. It wasn’t just me out there, everything had to be right and everything needed to click. Shawn Green threw two or three guys out at home plate during the streak and if any of them [had] scored, there wouldn’t be a streak. Houston had that hill in centerfield and no normal outfielders would go up the hill to make a play, but Dave Roberts went up the hill and robbed a home run from Lance Berkman. That kept the streak alive.

Even the way I blew the save to end the streak. Dodger Stadium had the best infield surface in baseball, but a grounder hit a pebble and the ball stayed down on Olmedo Saenz. I can still remember clearly, watching it take two easy hops then the third one hit a pebble and stayed down. He felt so bad about it, but it was a relief and we won the game. That could have happened on save number 20 and we aren’t here talking about it. We had such good outfielders and really good infielders, so that all helped me. Our infield was Adrian Beltre, Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora, Shawn Green. Just great guys behind me, I made some good pitches and had a lot of luck.

You were the last closer to win the Cy Young Award and one of just two or three who won it strictly as a one-inning guy. There have been so many great closers, but very few have accomplished what you did. What are your thoughts about that?

Just recently I went to the site of where Cy Young was born and they had all these historical things about him. I look at my Cy Young, but to really understand what it means, I felt like I had to understand who Cy Young was. I was looking at his statistics and he pitched 455 innings one year. That’s more innings than I pitched as a closer my whole career. It was amazing to be a reliever and win the award. My own opinion is that I don’t think a reliever should be able to win the Cy Young Award. When I won it in 2002, there really wasn’t any starter who stood out [as a strong candidate]. Jason Schmidt and Mark Prior finished tied for second with two votes each. I think that’s why I got it. I look at it and pinch myself; it’s a really cool thing.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Eric Gagne signs the wall within the green monster prior to the first regular season game ever between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jon Soohoo/Getty Images)

I think the best relationship between fans in baseball is when a team has a superstar closer. That moment when a dominant guy comes into the game with his entrance music and the whole stadium is behind him is great. For that three-year period, Dodger fans would go nuts as soon as that door to the bullpen opened in the ninth for you to come in. From your perspective, what was that relationship like with Dodger fans?

I really felt like I fed off their energy. I could always feel the love in the air. Every day I woke up and my arm was sore, my back was sore and everything hurt. It would get in the sixth inning and if it was a close game, my adrenaline would start to kick in. Then I’d warm up and if I had to come in, the door would open and the fans would just go crazy. The adrenaline from that was the best drug in the world. The fans lifted me up and made me feel like nobody could stop me. It’s a very special bond and I try to explain that fans can do some really cool things for players. I was a baseball fan first, then I became a player. I understood what it was like to be a fan and for them to give me that love was pretty insane.

I never made it Dodger Stadium until 2017 and then ended up going to a lot of games there ever since. I thought it was a great place to play, especially since the Dodgers are in a run of having great success.

Of course I am going to say it’s the best city to play in because I had success there, but it really was awesome. I was lucky to play on some very good teams in some great cities. I was on the Red Sox and Boston was such an awesome place to play, even though I sucked there. It’s a beautiful city and baseball is religion to them. The team would lose and the next morning everyone would be stuck in traffic and in a bad mood. I have had a good career no matter where I’ve been, but LA has a special place in my heart.

Since you mentioned the Red Sox, how satisfying was it to win that World Series ring in 2007?

It was a little bittersweet because I felt so bad that I really struggled there. When they made the trade for me, I was really excited and it was a lot of fun. I think I tried to do too much right from the start because there were really high expectations. Looking back, there are guys who play 20 years and never even sniff the World Series, let alone have a ring. I have one and look at it and it’s amazing. I look at my career and think I made the All-Star team, won a Cy Young Award, and have a World Series ring. I am very grateful for that because I played for really good organizations. It was really cool to go to the parade too, even though I got booed. I think I’m the only guy ever to be booed at a World Series parade. I was like, “You’re supposed to be happy, guys! We’re done with this and we won!” But coming from Montreal, I understood the way they felt. It was like being a Montreal Canadiens fan. It’s personal to them and like a religion. I was mad that I couldn’t pitch the way I wanted to pitch, but its water under the bridge now. I look at my Cy Young and look at my World Series ring and am just like, “Wow!” I have PTSD when I hear “Sweet Caroline,” but that’s all good.

Kevin Youkilis #20, Jason Varitek #33, Mike Lowell #25, and Eric Gagne #83 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate after winning Game One of the 2007 Major League Baseball World Series against Colorado Rockies by the score of 13-1 at Fenway Park on October 24, 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Last week you mentioned that you always loved hitting. You managed to hit one career home run in the majors. We always love asking pitchers about their hitting, so the floor is yours to tell us about that home run.

I remember how I felt to hit it and I remember that I ran way too fast around the bases. I should have pimped it a little bit and enjoyed my run around the bases. I think I got too excited because the inning after that I gave up like four or five runs. The excitement was very short-lived because I think I was sent down to the minor leagues too. It’s one of those things that was fun and I enjoyed it, but my job was to throw the baseball and get people out.

Doing research for this I saw that you got to play for the Savannah Bananas earlier this year. What was that experience like for you?

It was really cool. Talk about changing the game and reaching out to a new generation of kids. What they’re doing with the game is really cool. They’re using social media the right way and connecting with the youth. I think I’d describe it as a circus with a baseball game being played in the middle of it. It’s really entertaining to be there. I loved it because the players are the show. Everyone wears yellow and I’ve never seen that much merchandise being sold. I hope people take notice.

I think it’s a great way to grow the game, even worldwide. You go to Europe or Asia, and people would love to see this. It’s like watching Cirque du Soleil, but with sports. The fans know the players’ names and there’s great interaction. It’s not just a circus show either; they can really play. They love the game and are talented. It’s outside the box and I even had a little bit of a hard time. When I got on the mound, everyone was dancing and I’m like, “What’s going on here? I gotta focus and throw strikes!” It was hard for me to get out of my bubble, but I liked it and hope to get back and do it again. I think it’s important to support that kind of baseball.

That’s awesome. I hear the comparison to the Harlem Globetrotters and I think that’s pretty accurate. I also wanted to ask about the podcast you’re doing, which I thought was great. There’s an English and French version, which is really impressive to me. Can you talk to our readers about the Game Over Podcast?

I started a podcast because I have a lot of opinions and I love talking baseball. I really wanted to talk about the fun stuff going on around the game today. Things like the Savannah Bananas, players like Shohei Ohtani. I want to give my opinions on how I think we can grow the game. I don’t want to talk about just what is happening on the field, but everything around the game. I do it in French and English and want to give a platform where kids could get to know some of the people around the game. I’m working on it and getting better. I have noticed that it’s easier to answer questions than it is to ask them. Asking the right questions is not as easy as it sounds. I have a lot of respect for guys like Joe Rogan who have these really popular podcasts. They make it look so effortless. It’s tough to have the right setting, ask the right questions, and make it fun. That’s what I’m trying to do with the Game Over Podcast.

It’s great. I saw the ones you did with Larry Walker and Russell Martin and thought it was really cool to listen in on some great conversations and hear your opinions on the game.

It’s a good platform for me to give my opinion and talk baseball and that’s what I enjoy doing. I like to share my experience and give kids a place where they can hear what my experience was like. I want to try to reach everyone talking about everything from girls and women playing baseball to the Savannah Bananas to the Eric Sims of the world. Anyone who has that passion, I want to give them a platform and have conversations about baseball with them. I like talking about everything from minor leaguers to really anything fun about the game. I just love baseball. We have some good guests coming up. I’ve been talking about the new rule changes and the direction of the game and what we can do to make it better. It’s fun to hear other people’s perspective and what they think about the game.

This has been so great and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. My last question for you is just asking your reflections on what you’ve been able to do with the sport of baseball over your life. Going from a young kid in Montreal to being a Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion. Could you put that all into perspective for us?

It’s been an amazing journey and I want to continue to make an impact on the game. I want to help young kids enjoy the game. I want to share my wealth of knowledge with them. I just love the game of baseball and it has given me everything. I have had a lot of good in the game and a lot of bad. I have had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of crying and a lot of joy. I have gotten standing ovations and I have been booed in the World Series. I am very, very grateful for all the chances that have been given to me. It’s been a journey; it’s been fun, but hard and it’s always been super rewarding. I’m still doing what I love and enjoying the ride. Until the day I die, I want to keep doing baseball stuff.

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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