Being a closer at Camden Yards isn't easy

Hard to find workaday world parallels to Tommy Hunter's job for Orioles

  • After the Orioles traded Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in December 2013 and failed to sign a proven closer in free agency, right-hander Tommy Hunter inherited the ninth-inning role.
After the Orioles traded Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics… (Leon Halip, Getty Images )
May 15, 2014|Dan Rodricks

As I watched Miguel Cabrera's killer home run fly into the night, giving the Detroit Tigers a 3-1 lead over the Orioles in the ninth inning of Tuesday's game at Camden Yards, I wondered: Where in the real world, outside of baseball, does one person get the opportunity to either complete or ruin the excellent work of another?

Poor Tommy Hunter. He became the Orioles "closer" this season. That means he comes late into games to preserve his team's lead and close the other guys down. It's a high-pressure job.

"Tommy Hunter is not a closer," someone barked on Facebook on Sunday, after Tommy — aren't we all on a first-name basis with him? — had blown a save against the Houston Astros.

I barked back that Tommy had saved 11 games in 13 opportunities.

"Two blown to get eleven?" came the reply. "How's that math over the course of a season? He's lucky not to have blown five or six already."

Aw, go suck an egg.

Look, you don't dump on the home team in May — a real fan waits until at least the All-Star break — and you don't turn on a guy at the first sign of trouble.

But a lot of people are worried about Tommy. They don't think he has that ninth-inning killer instinct that closers are supposed to carry to the mound. They don't think he can finish with the big pow-pow-pow, like that machine-gun-in-the-car-trunk finale of "Breaking Bad."

That cranky Facebook critic came to mind Tuesday night when Orioles manager Buck Showalter presented Tommy with a great opportunity to complete a masterpiece.

The home team's starter, Ubaldo Jimenez, had done his job superbly, holding Detroit to zero runs and just three hits over seven innings. Then relief pitcher Darren O'Day came in and zilched the Tigers, too. Things were looking pretty good for the ninth inning.

But Tommy turned a masterpiece into catastrophe. I mean, it was Götterdämmerung. First Cabrera, then Victor Martinez hit home runs, giving the Tigers a 4-1 lead, and Orioles' fans — even the woman sitting in front of me, who arrived late, talked incessantly about everything but baseball and hardly watched the game — fell quiet.

Stunned silence, followed by a lot of grumbling.

This time the Orioles did not pull off a comeback. When he woke up Wednesday — assuming he got sleep — Hunter had blown three saves in 15 opportunities, and there's all this drama now, with people wondering if Tommy is done as the O'closer, and my God, what will Buck do?

I know: Tommy's a big boy (6-3, like 260) and he gets paid ($3 million this year) to shut down the other guys.

I'm old-school. I think Ubaldo should have kept pitching. He was having an excellent game.

But, of course, they don't do things that way anymore. They have all these specialists to relieve the starter and set up the closer.

And it's a beautiful thing when it works.

When it doesn't — when your teammate gets assigned to finish your excellent work and blows everything up instead — that's a serious ouch, a good night's work spoiled, death by friendly fire.

It's hard to think of another place where this occurs in life.

I suppose a lawyer who's been part of a trial team can mess up a perfectly fine defense with a closing argument that makes jurors yawn.

In brigade-style kitchens, a saucier who's been hitting the sauce can ruin the signature entree of the executive chef.

I suppose all that's true.

But I don't think much compares with the baseball closer, the specialist handed the opportunity to save or ruin, in a matter of minutes, in a very public way, the fine work of a colleague.

I looked up "closer" in job listings, and found most of them in sales.

A closer not only starts deals — anyone can do that. A closer finishes them. A closer gets a customer off a fence and into a new car or vacation home. Sometimes someone else gets the conversation started and the closer moves in when the deal seems near. But most of the time, the closer is finishing his own work, not someone else's.

In the film version of "Glengary Glen Ross," the David Mamet play, Alex Baldwin plays a foul-mouthed salesman dispatched to a real estate office to motivate its lackluster staff to sell homes in a new development called Glengarry Highlands. He berates and threatens and lectures the salesmen. ("A-B-C. Always Be Closing. Always be closing! … You close or you hit the bricks!")

Faced with being fired, the salesmen covet the names of good customer prospects. They want "the Glengarry leads." But what their bosses want are the most effective salesmen, true closers who will not blow those valuable leads.

There might be a real-world parallel here, after all.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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