SARASOTA, Fla. -- What can Chicago White Sox reliever Bobby Thigpen do for an encore?
Trust me, it's impossible for him to improve on his record 57 saves. Thigpen knows this as well as I do. He had a ready answer:
"I could go 35 for 35, or 38 for 38 or 40 for 40 and we win the division. It's a better year for me and for the team."
A miracle scenario, nonetheless. Absolute perfection is required to rack up 35 saves in 35 opportunities. But there is a near-precedent.
In 1984, when the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, Willie Hernandez, their bullpen star, had a dream year: 32 consecutive saves. Hernandez finished with 32 for 33. His lone failure was of no consequence; it came after the Tigers had clinched their division.
"What about Eck?" Thigpen asked. "He was 48 out of 50 last year."
Among the many good things about Thigpen is his healthy respect for his fellow bullpen pitchers. Oakland's Dennis Eckersley, Thigpen acknowledges, is still No. 1. In the last three seasons, Eckersley has averaged 42 saves. If not for Eckersley, the A's wouldn't be working on a fourth consecutive pennant.
"Just because I had a high number doesn't mean I'm the best," Thigpen said, referring to his 57 saves. "Maybe I had the best year of all the relievers. I'm not saying I'm bad or I'm not as good as some of these guys. Some guys got a better curveball. Some guys throw harder. I throw harder than Eckersley, but he has better control."
Not so fast. We're talking numbers. The fans will expect another heroic year.
Thigpen had just thrown hard for 12 minutes to bullpen coach Dave LaRoche. To simulate game-conditions, LaRoche constantly was offering an imaginary count:
"Two and one, right-handed batter; two and two-two, left-handed batter."
After about every third pitch, LaRoche shouted: "Good pitch, Thiggy, you got that guy."
Finished, Thigpen sat down on a bench.
"You shoot for 30, not 40 or 50," he said. "The goal is 30, the plateau you shoot for. What happens if I only get 35? Does that mean I'm not as good as last year?"
I told him I understood; 38 for 42, for example, would be an outstanding year.
Thigpen agreed. Above all, he realizes saves are linked to opportunities. More remarkable than the 57 saves was his 65 opportunities, also a one-season record. For purposes of comparison, Doug Jones of Cleveland was second in opportunities last year. Jones had 51.
Some day, of course, a reliever will come along and break Thigpen's record. But identical or similar circumstances would be required. More specifically, he would have to be the closer with a club such as the 1990 White Sox who, without the long ball, won 94 games, 83 by two runs or less.
"A lot of good things have to happen for someone to get that many saves," Thigpen said.
I agree. But there is more to it. The right man has to be there at the right time.
Ten, 15 years ago there was absolutely no indication that Robert Thomas Thigpen would be the man. Growing up in Northern Florida, he never had the usual boyhood dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer.
He was only a good high school player, better than average, but from a small school. Still, he realized his baseball ability could be a free ticket to a college education. Landing a scholarship wasn't easy.