Gossage, 39, faces uphill struggle Spring training report

February 28, 1991|By Gerry Fraley | Gerry Fraley,Dallas Morning News

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Two days into spring training, and the Texas Rangers know this about reclamation project Rich "Goose" Gossage.

When throwing for five minutes on the side with no hitter present, Gossage performs adequately.

Gossage, 39 and ineffective in the major leagues since 1987, faces an uphill fight to make the team as a long reliever.

"If it doesn't get any better, it'll be real borderline," manager Bobby Valentine said after Gossage's second consecutive throwing session. "Hopefully, it'll get a little better like it does with everybody . . . It's up to him to prove what he still can do."

Gossage reported in fine condition at 227 pounds and is fit enough to turn down a day off in favor of pitching 15 minutes of batting practice. Despite his accomplishments -- nine-time All-Star and second all-time with 307 saves -- Gossage has followed instructions as obediently as any rookie.

He already has begun to share the knowledge gathered in 18 major-league seasons with closer Jeff Russell. Valentine puts a high value on the "meanness" Gossage could bring to the bullpen with his snarling-on-the-mound presence.

None of that means anything if Gossage throws poorly.

"I feel like a rookie," Gossage said. "I have to prove myself all over again."

After a difficult 1989 season during which he was released twice -- by the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco -- and sent into free agency by the New York Yankees, Gossage could not find a job.

He pitched in Japan last year and met apathy when he tried to return to the majors. The Rangers showed the most interest, but they offered only the spring training invitation and a $325,000 salary if Gossage makes the team. He earned $1.25 million with the Cubs in 1988.

Performance dictated the situation. Gossage did not pitch well in 1988-89, going a combined 7-5 with a 3.54 ERA for three teams. The power went out.

In his prime, Gossage roared. A bear of a man, he had a frantic delivery that made Mitch Williams seem controlled and dared hitters to catch up to the high fastball. Most failed. From 1976-86, he averaged 8.59 strikeouts per nine innings.

Gossage kept the same punishing delivery, but his body could not provide the same power. In his last two major-league seasons, he averaged 5.31 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He doesn't have the same velocity," Rangers coach Davey Lopes said. "His arm is still good, but he'll get hurt if he throws just high fastballs. He has to throw to spots."

The Rangers hope hard times have had a positive effect on Gossage. He has taken quickly to pitching coach Tom House's suggestion of a more compact delivery with an emphasis on working hitters low and away with the slider as prominent as the fastball.

It is a major change for someone who lived by a macho code on the mound. There is no promising history of changing power pitchers so late in their career.

"I wouldn't waste their time or my mind if I thought I couldn't still pitch," Gossage said.

The field enhances Gossage's chances. Valentine lists two certainties in the bullpen: Russell and lefthander Mike Jeffcoat. Brad Arnsberg had six victories and five saves last season, but Valentine said only "something real radical will have to happen for him not to make the team." The Rangers apparently remember Arnsberg's slow finish: a 6.08 ERA over his final 18 appearances.

"With a guy with [Gossage's] background and a guy in my position, you have to give him enough opportunities to make a proper evaluation," Valentine said.

The Rangers will give Gossage a decision sometime before the final 10 days of camp, giving him time to look elsewhere if need be. The recent lack of attention suggests this may be Gossage's last shot. He takes it.

"As long as I can stay healthy and compete, why not play?" Gossage said. "I don't want to look back and say 'I could have kept playing.' "

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