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'Rags' to pitching riches: Righetti's skill sparked debate

Star closer, who some thought should start, to join Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the evolving history of relief pitching, Dave Righetti spanned eras.

By the time Righetti's active Major League playing career ended in 1995, closers usually pitched only a ballgame's final inning. But Righetti routinely was asked to do much more than that as the New York Yankees' bullpen ace from 1984-90. It was common for him to work as many as three innings, occasionally longer, in pursuit of a save.

As a former starting pitcher, Righetti could physically adapt to pitching multiple innings. Perhaps more importantly, he could adjust to the task mentally through self-motivation.

"If there was anything that was kind of a credo for me, the one thing you wanted to do was be on a team, obviously, and you wanted to be on good teams," said Righetti, the Yankees' all-time save leader with 224 until Mariano Rivera came onto the scene. "And when you were, you wanted to be wanted by those people that were running those teams. Most of my career with the Yankees, I felt my job was to be as good as I could be. In this game, that's what it really comes down to."

Righetti was to be recognized for his accomplishments Thursday night as one of four inductees into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame (BASHOF). The Giants' pitching coach since 2000, Righetti has deep local roots as a San Jose, Calif., native who graduated from Pioneer High School. He'll join former Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown, ex-49ers tight end Brent Jones and the late A's owner Walter Haas in this year's induction class.

Righetti's skill was evident. He saved 25 games or more in each of his seasons as the Yankees' closer and twice made the American League All-Star team. In 1986, he accumulated 46 saves, then a Major League record.

Yet he inadvertently found himself in the middle of a raging, ongoing debate conducted by New York fans, and particularly the media. With an arm like his, should he start or should he close?

Righetti's proficiency as a starter at the outset of his big league career fueled this issue. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1981, when he finished 8-4 with a 2.05 ERA, and on July 4, 1983, he no-hit the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. It was the first no-hitter by a Yankee since Don Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

Righetti was the first pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter and lead the league in saves (fellow BASHOF inductee Dennis Eckersley was the next hurler to accomplish this feat). The left-hander's versatility should have won admirers. Instead, it provoked impatience among observers, especially when Righetti blew a save or two.

"The writers had a field day with it, back and forth, pro and con stuff," Righetti said recently. "And it drove me nuts."

But Righetti's peers fully appreciated him.

"'Rags' is a great teammate, just an extremely competitive guy, no matter what he's doing," said former Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, now the Los Angeles Dodgers' manager.

With great relish, Mattingly recalled an exhibition game in which somebody bunted for a single off Righetti. The next time the opponent came to bat, Righetti hit him with a pitch. Righetti always embraced a challenge; he couldn't understand anybody who would take an easy way out.

Experience taught Righetti not to let his competitive fire consume him. He understood this when he became the Giants' pitching coach.

"You know you're competitive and you want your guys to be that way -- being a pro every day and keeping an edge," said Righetti, 54. "But I'm very mindful of not going over the line, so to speak. I'm a lot more patient."

Giants left-hander Jeremy Affeldt confirmed this.

"He's so calm," Affeldt said. "Nothing's ever a big deal. Nothing's ever, 'Let's revamp everything.' He'll ask you what you think. ... You don't ever feel you're backed in a corner that you can't get out of."

Righetti's diverse pitching background, which inadvertently caused him trouble in New York, has become an asset.

"He's done everything in this game. He's started, he's closed, he's been a middle-relief guy. You can't substitute experience," Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "There's nothing that you're going to go through that he hasn't been through. That brings a lot to the table. When he's telling you things, you know that he's experienced it. He's not just going by what somebody else told him or what he thinks the situation would be like. You know that he's actually been through it. And that goes a long way when you're talking to players. That separates him from most of the people that I've been around."

Chris Haft is a reporter for

San Francisco Giants