Late great Mesa closes out doubts

July 25, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Indians designated Orioles all-time saves leader Gregg Olson for assignment last week. Sent him packing because they already had the dominant closer in the American League. Let him go because Jose Mesa wouldn't let him pitch.

How's that for a telling episode of "How the Baseball World Turns"?

Mesa suddenly is on top of it. He watched for years while Olson built a reputation as one of the game's top closers, never suspecting that he someday might be the guy looking down from the mountain in the bottom of the ninth. Watched and waited for a career to develop in Baltimore, only to leave town with a suitcase full of unfulfilled expectations. Landed in Cleveland. Look at him now.

On a team crowded with established stars, the 29-year-old right-hander may be the primary reason the Indians have been able to take control of the American League Central race. Mesa is 26-for-26 in save opportunities, which must be irksome to an Orioles front office that also let Lee Smith get away recently, but is pure bliss for the Indians, who took a major gamble when they chose not to sign an accomplished closer last winter.

"When we did his contract, he asked me, 'Am I going to get that shot?' " said Indians general manager John Hart. "We said, 'We're not going to get anybody else.' "

There were rumors of a spring deal for veteran closer Rick Aguilera, and the club signed Olson (picked up by Kansas City yesterday) to a minor-league contract, but manager Mike Hargrove handed the ball to Mesa in the ninth and has yet to experience a single moment of regret. Even Smith, who has helped put the California Angels on top of the AL West, has blown three save opportunities this year. Mesa has been nearly perfect. The Indians are 29-1 in the games in which he has appeared.

"This is the direction we hoped he'd go," Hargrove said. "You never can say, 'We're going to make Jose our closer, and he'll be successful.' You can only say, 'He'll be the closer, and hopefully he'll adjust to it and do the job.' He has done that."

Not bad for a guy who had to be pushed into the bullpen last year.

His sudden transformation wasn't so sudden, really. The Indians moved him into the bullpen last season and used him as a setup man to see how he would respond to a full-time relief role.

It seemed like a strange move at the time, considering that Mesa was the Indians' winningest starter the year before. Generally, it isn't considered good front-office policy to trade your top starter for a middle reliever -- which essentially is what the club did by moving Mesa into the bullpen -- but the long-range strategy now appears brilliant.

"We made him a setup man with the idea in mind that he might become a closer," Hart said. "He's a two-pitch guy. A power guy. For five innings, forget about it, but the hitters end up catching up to you. We weren't writing him off, but we felt that he might be limited as a starter."

Mesa originally hated the idea. He complained that club officials didn't tell him what they were planning to do. He wanted to remain in the rotation and felt that his performance in 1993 (10-12, 4.92 ERA) was solid enough to warrant another chance. It was, after all, only his first full year as a major-league starter.

"I was really upset," he said. "I was coming off my best year. The next thing you know, you're a reliever. I was mad."

Now, he's glad. Glad that Hargrove and former Indians pitching coach Phil Regan persuaded him to make the best of a frustrating situation. Glad that the Indians gave him a multi-year contract (two years plus two option years) and a chance to be the closer after a 1994 season in which no Indians reliever registered more than five saves. Glad and -- admittedly -- a little surprised at the way things have turned out.

"I never thought I'd be leading the league in saves and be in the same company with guys like Dennis Eckersley and Lee Smith," Mesa said.

Apparently, no one did. His new contract didn't even have an All-Star clause, so Hart called him upstairs after he was named to the American League squad and handed him a check for $10,000. Just because he deserved it.

Why didn't O's think of that?

Before anyone takes the Orioles to task for failing to recognize that Mesa had a chance to be their closer of the future . . . they did.

The organization tried to convert Mesa into a reliever a couple of times after he came to Baltimore in the 1987 deal that sent Mike Flanagan to the Toronto Blue Jays. The timing just wasn't right.

Mesa underwent reconstructive elbow surgery the year after the trade, so the Orioles' player development department had to tread lightly with his potentially fragile arm.

"Back in 1988, they talked about making Olson a starter and me a reliever," Mesa said. "I was relieving at Triple-A when I had my surgery. Afterward, they sent me to Double-A to be a reliever, but I didn't think I could do it."

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