RELIEF pitching is in the spotlight as a new baseball season begins - what with Dennis Eckersley's sweep of the major 1992 individual awards and Rollie Fingers's induction into the Hall of Fame. Yet many casual fans know relatively little about this aspect of the game.
A common misconception, for example, is that relief pitching is a new phenomenon. True, the current level of attention may be unprecedented, but the bullpen itself has been part of the game for 100 years - and even the idea of relief specialists goes back more than half a century.
Indeed, the one moment that is still the most famous of all occurred in 1926 when Grover Cleveland Alexander of the St. Louis Cardinals came in from the bullpen in the last game of the World Series and struck out the New York Yankees' Tony Lazerri with the bases loaded.
By the 1940s, relief pitching was gaining prominence on a regular basis, thanks to such late-inning stoppers as Hugh Casey of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and Johnny Murphy and Joe Page of the Yankees. Then in 1950 Jim Konstanty became the first reliever voted Most Valuable Player as he helped lead Philadelphia to a pennant.
Many other relievers gained fame in the ensuing years, with three more earning MVP status: Fingers in 1981, Willie Hernandez in 1984, and Eckersley last season, when he also won the American League Cy Young Award.
One reason it took a while for relievers to get their full due was that until relatively recently there were no official statistics by which to measure them. Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman came up with the concept of "saves" in the 1950s and kept unofficial records for many years, but it wasn't until 1969 that baseball made them official - and a few years later before all the wrinkles were ironed out.
Even today, the "save" rule is one many fans don't understand, since it is necessarily a bit complicated in order to give credit properly without tossing it around indiscriminately.
First, to gain credit for a save, a pitcher must come in with his team in the lead, finish the game, and not be the winning pitcher. In addition, he must meet one of three conditions:
(1) Enter the game with the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck - in which case it doesn't matter how brief his appearance is;
(2) Pitch at least one complete inning while preserving a lead of three runs or less; or
(3) Pitch effectively for three innings if the lead he inherited is more than three runs. In practice, though, it is usually only the first condition that applies.
The way most modern major-league bullpens are constructed, there are "long" or "middle" relievers who come in first; then "set-up men" who try to get the game to the ninth inning; and only then the star "closer," who usually is called upon just in tight spots, with one- or two-run leads, and seldom for more than an inning.