January 21st, 2004 was a sad baseball day for me. Yes, it was the middle of winter and still weeks away from pitchers and catchers arriving at spring training. Opening day was three months away and the World Series wouldn’t start until late October. The only baseball news on this day was a small item in the USA Today announcing that Jesse Orosco had retired rather than to report to training camp with what would be his tenth team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and his 25th season.
You might think that Jesse was an important player to me, or possibly one of the all-time greats. Neither of these are particularly true. He did play the first eight years of his career with my beloved Mets, so I was well aware of his presence and impact as a relief pitcher. I suppose we had a love/hate relationship during the years that he was the Mets closer. The closer has pretty much everything on the line. He comes into games late only when his team is ahead. If successful, the team wins and the closer earns a save. If not, it is a dreaded blown save and likely a loss for the team. Unfortunately, it is only the blown saves we remember.
Later in his career when not closing games, Jesse was typically brought in to face left-handed batters in tight situations. He was a left-handed pitcher with a sweeping curveball thrown at a three-quarter angle that came in particularly sharply to lefty batters. It is primarily what kept him in the league for so long and allowed him to be an effective major-leaguer through the age of 45. Only seven men pitched while older than Jesse and four of them are in the Hall of Fame.
Of course my best memories of Jesse are from the Mets championship season in 1986. It was one of the most amazing post-seasons in baseball history. Jesse closed out the Houston Astros in the sixteenth inning of game six of the National League Championship Series. He was completely exhausted after pitching an unusually high four innings in relief. He faced Kevin Bass with the tying run on third base and the winning run on second. Legend has it that first-baseman Keith Hernandez walked to the mound and told Jesse that if he through anything other than curveballs, he would kill him. He struck out Bass on the next three pitches, all curves.
A little over a week later, Jesse was on the mound for game seven of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Again, he closed it out striking out Marty Barrett on yet another sweeping curve. Jesse flung his glove into the air and fell to his knees creating an iconic photo that appeared in newspapers and books and posters and t-shirts.
A year later, Jesse was traded from the Mets and meandered around the Majors for nine other teams. I would catch a clip of him occasionally, but didn’t give him a lot of thought. He was a good, and sometimes very good lefty reliever who stuck around long enough to set the Major League record for most games pitched in a career. This is pretty impressive for a guy who never led the league in any significant statistic and made two All-Star teams in 24 seasons.
What made Jesse’s retirement such a sad day for me was none of the above. It turns out that Jesse Orosco was the last person to play in the Major Leagues that was born before me. It was the final nail in the coffin of my own potential Major League career. Any time that I dreamed that I could still play second base for the Mets, or pitch an inning or two, or even just pinch hit, I could justify my delusion by saying, “If Jesse Orosco is still in the league, I still have a chance.”
January 21st, 2004…Two careers ended that sad day.