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September 21, 2007
Sports of The Times

The New Gossage? The Old One Says Yes


Across the country, all the way to the mountains of Colorado, is not too far to experience the heat, embrace the hype, when Joba Chamberlain goes into the game.

The occasional fastball under the chin — even over the head — is music to an old intimidator’s ears.

“No fear and power and forget it,” Rich Gossage said. “Good night.”

Good luck to Yankees opponents this fall, once the game gets to Chamberlain, setting up for the still-formidable Mariano Rivera. And good grief to the plan to terminate this tandem of contrasting personalities by inserting Chamberlain into the starting rotation next season rather than have him continue in his current role and groom him as the closer for when Rivera retires.

That’s my opinion, but better you should hear it from the mouth of Goose Gossage — the Yankees’ dominant closer from 1978 to 1983, a starter for one regrettable 9-17 season with the White Sox in 1976 and a setup man for the great Dennis Eckersley in Oakland late in Gossage’s 22-year career.

This would seem to qualify him, albeit from afar, as an expert observer on the subject of sensible deployment, the best job for Joba.

“I really don’t see how they can think about making him a starter after what we’ve seen,” Gossage said in a telephone interview. “You can find starters — I know they have other young kids — but how are you going to find another character like him? How are you going to replace him? Before he came up, those setup guys were killing them.”

“Before he came up,” in measurement of years, given the roll call of failed relievers on various levels that at the end of the most important days too often made Rivera’s a painful out or three longer.

From the New York state of mind, hasn’t this season already become the telling tale of the seventh and eighth innings? Even with Chamberlain pitching under restrictive house rules, witness the Yankees surging, the Red Sox faltering under the fatigue of Hideki Okajima and the failure of Eric Gagné, and the Mets’ desperation based on the kind of late-game heartache they suffered last night in an 8-7 defeat without Billy Wagner in Florida.

“Someday, mark my words, one of these setup guys is going to make the Hall of Fame,” Gossage, himself a deserving outsider, said. “That’s how valuable they’ve become. In my opinion, the best setup guys now have a tougher job than the closers. They pitch more innings, inherit more runners. And this kid, with the attitude and excitement he brings, man, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Gossage hasn’t met Chamberlain — the Yankees’ real-life Steve Nebraska (from the 1994 film “The Scout,” starring Albert Brooks) from Lincoln — but Chamberlain nonetheless had him at hello.

Upon seeing a clip of Chamberlain’s father, Harlan, weeping as his son pitched recently at Kansas City, Gossage had a flashback to 2005, the College World Series, a Nebraska game, a husky Cornhusker with a pudgy, pugnacious face under a flat-brim cap.

“I really liked him, the way he carried himself,” Gossage said. “They were talking about his father having polio, the whole story, and when I saw him in Kansas City, it hit me. That’s the same kid.”

The 21-year-old with the fiery makeup and the fastball consistently pushing triple digits has the ability to make major league hitters flail at the well-spotted bender into the dirt. Break it down any which way; as Gossage said, hitters more often than not are succumbing to Chamberlain’s swagger.

“I saw him throw those two pitchers over Kevin Youkilis’s head when they played Boston,” he said. “I loved it. The same thing used to happen with me when I tried to get it inside. When I missed, my body would get out front, my arm would lag and the ball would fly.

“And guess what? It was a great purpose pitch, only now they’re protecting these hitters every chance they get. It makes me sick. I went crazy when they tossed the kid that day. I screamed, ‘What the heck is this game coming to?’ ”

He actually said this a bit more colorfully, unfiltered passion still at Gossage’s disposal so long after an eight-out save in Boston — back when closers were no quiche-eating, one-inning wonders — in an October 1978 game of some historical significance.

Of course, not all great relief pitchers must pose, or posture, or wear a menacing-looking mustache, as did Gossage. Rivera, an impassive, 170-pound fireballing incongruity, long ago put the lie to that.

But if Chamberlain has proved anything in his first six weeks in the major leagues and — incredibly — his first pro season, it is that he was born for the late-innings challenge. He has come out of nowhere, out of the Gossage mold, into the fire.

“This kid is just what the doctor ordered,” Gossage said. “Look what he’s done.”

Then look at the recent fortunes of the Red Sox and the Mets. We rest our case.