Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Man Who Threw Too Much

Robb Nen's Last Pitch

Courtesy of

The story of the 2002 World Series is written in ThunderStix and Rally Monkeys.

It's the story of the Anaheim Angels taking Games 6 and 7 and claiming their first world championship. There are pages on Scott Spiezio's improbable home run. There are long, rhapsodic passages written about Frankie Rodriguez's whipsaw motion and wicked breaking balls. And there are whole chapters dedicated to the power of Troy Glaus.
But there's a footnote to the story, too, a bit maybe only the folks in San Francisco still carry with them. It's a little something about losing heroically, about laying it all on the line and having everything you've got not be enough.

Call it the Robb Nen note.

The beginning of it is an ending.

It's Saturday, October 26, 2002. Game 6 of the World Series in Anaheim. The San Francisco Giants lead the Angels 5-4 in the top half of the eighth. Barry Bonds has just misplayed a ball down the left-field line, allowing Chone Figgins to take third and Garret Anderson second, and 40,000 fans are rolling their ThunderStix and swinging their Rally Monkeys like they're exorcising demons. With nobody out and the game on the line, Giants manager Dusty Baker walks to the mound, takes the ball from reliever Tim Worrell and calls for his closer, Robb Nen.
Nen comes in with 43 saves on the season. He's nailed down two games in the World Series so far, plus three in the NLCS, and two more in the division series. He's money. He sports a big-time fastball, a slider known to make grown men cry and a funky toe-tap delivery that makes it impossible for guys to dig in because it messes with their timing. This much, the Giants know: When Nen takes the mound, in the words of first baseman J.T. Snow, you always feel "like you could relax, like it was over."

He told me, it must have been a thousand times, 'let everything you do show your respect for the game,' " Nen says. " 'Don't cheat yourself, and don't cheat your teammates.'

Troy Glaus, the Angels' Hoss of a third baseman who has three home runs in the Series and is one-for-two on the night, steps in. This is the closer's moment: Head-to-head with a bruising bat and the game, and the championship, on the line. My stuff against yours, no quarter and no holds barred. This is the time when Nen reaches back, not just to the reserves of strength in his arm, and not just to 300-plus saves worth of experience over a 10-year career, but all the way back, to the lessons his dad, former big-leaguer Dick Nen, taught him about always going hard. "He told me, it must have been a thousand times, 'let everything you do show your respect for the game,' " Nen says. " 'Don't cheat yourself, and don't cheat your teammates.' "

His first pitch is a cut fastball tailing out and away for ball one. His second is a slider, also outside, but Glaus hacks at it anxiously and the count is even at 1-1. The third pitch, another slider, cuts two feet outside, and Glaus, chastened by the last swing, holds back.

Two-one. Hitter's count. Enough with the slider; Nen is coming in and going all-out. "I knew Glaus was sitting dead-red, but I had to throw the inside fastball," he says. "I couldn't stand the idea that later I'd think maybe I hadn't thrown as hard as I could in that situation." He fires. The ball starts off inside, but it fades when it should bite. It comes out over the plate.

Nen sees the flight of the ball and winces.

Glaus tracks it and tattoos it.

His double, over the outstretched glove of Giants center fielder Kenny Lofton and off the wall, scores two. The Angels take a 6-5 lead.

Nen retires three of the next four hitters, striking out two of them, but the damage is done. The tide is turned. Twenty-four hours later the Angels -- not the Giants -- are World Series champs.
Troy Glaus is a hero.

Robb Nen never pitches again.

He wasn't right out there that night. Check that. He had nothing … nothing but a pitching shoulder full of torn labrum, torn rotator cuff and a whole lot of want-to.

His arm slot was slipping like a setting sun. His velocity was a memory. The Robb Nen who'd scared the bejeezus out of big-league hitters with 97-mile-an-hour nastiness for the last eight-and-a-half years was a ghost.

And he knew it.

He knew every time he jogged in from the pen that he ran a serious risk of getting hammered. He knew every time he threw that he was grinding an already traumatized area of his body. He knew every time he took the ball that it meant waking up in the morning, or waking up in the middle of the night, with a pain so basic and unrelenting that he had no words for it. And if he didn't know for sure, he at least had to wonder each and every time out: Was he doing irreparable damage? Would the next inning, next batter, or next pitch, be his last?

He threw anyway.

"It didn't matter what he was feeling," Giants bullpen coach and longtime friend Mark Gardner says. "He took the ball. He was a warrior."

Willis Reed, Shun Fujimoto, Curt Schilling, Emmitt Smith, Robb Nen ...
The list isn't long.

It's the rare athlete who raises his game, through the pain and beyond the risk, to some absolute, damn-the-torpedoes level of commitment. And while it's right, in these days of war and natural disaster, to keep sports in proper perspective, it's also right to say these athletes and their commitments elevate the games they play, make them resonate and inspire, make them matter.

Nen took the old, almost clichéd, idea about making sacrifices for the good of the club and brought it to life, stretching it to the nth degree. Some guys give up playing time. He gave up his shoulder.

And when he did it, he gave a word like "team" a real shape and weight, and transformed an abstract thing like "desire" into something palpable. He turned the game into a series of questions: What do you love? How much do you love it? What would you be willing to give up for it?

"You want to believe, if it were you, you'd do the same," says Kirk Reuter, who had the locker next to Nen's. "But I don't think any of us knows. All we know is that he did it, and we know we just respect him so much for it."

By the 2002 All-Star break, Nen had 24 saves and a sparkling 1.58 ERA. He'd walked six batters and struck out 40 in 40 innings of work. Opposing hitters had managed just a .182 batting average against him, and he'd given up only 26 hits and seven runs. In other words, he was Robb Nen, an elite closer, the same guy who'd saved 45 with an ERA of 3.01 in 2001, and 41 more with an ERA of 1.50 the year before that.

But numbers aside, things were changing.

"A few weeks before the break, in Toronto, something felt wrong," he says. "I'd pitched an inning and a third [and thrown 21 pitches] that night and I remember sleeping on the plane going home and waking up with the top of my shoulder just aching."

Pitching is a violent act. Every outing does some kind of muscular damage and leads to some degree of swelling from which a pitcher must recover before taking the hill again. "Every pitcher's MRI I've ever seen is 'irregular' in one way or another," Giants head trainer Stan Conte says. Major-league ball clubs have sophisticated approaches to preparation and rehab, and expert medical staffs dedicated to the players' physical well-being, so we tend to forget how traumatic and unnatural the ballistic motion is. Concentrating on results, on balls and strikes, on hits and outs, we don't think much about the thin line between fluid mechanical performance and painful mechanical failure.

Nen spent his entire career dancing on that line. "My mechanics were a mess," he says. "Everybody tried to coach me off them." He had a slide step instead of a leg kick on the wind-up, and a left-toe stutter-step in his delivery that held his arm and shoulder back a half-beat before they came slingshotting toward the plate. Not the sort of thing you'd train a guy to do. "There was some problem about my toe pointing down when I was coming up, and when I tried to correct it, I just literally stumbled into the tap thing. It was an accident. But when I did it, it felt right to me, and I could throw real hard that way so I stuck with it."

When you're going right, when you're racking up strikeouts and saves and reveling in the W's, you don't think about it much. But when Nen did think about it, he figured he was probably playing with fire with the pressure his delivery put on his body. "With those mechanics, to do what I did … I was lucky," he says.

Until his luck started to run out.

He talked to Conte about the soreness just before the All-Star break, after working three innings and throwing 53 pitches over back-to-back nights in Arizona. "I didn't think too much of it at first; pitchers are always sore," Conte says. "But as time went on, it just never got better." Ice, anti-inflammatories, therapeutic massage, stretching exercises, light lifting, an extra day off when the team could afford it -- nothing helped. The trend was downward. Each game, it took him longer to warm up and longer to cool down. "It would get really hot," Nen says. "And I could pinpoint the pain. It wasn't like the general crankiness you always deal with as a pitcher."

Though he did deal. And dealt, too. Despite the pain, and what had to be a growing sense of dread, Nen kept going to the mound and kept getting guys out. He logged 19 saves in the second half of the season and posted an ERA of 2.94 over 34 innings. "I'm not really sure how he did it," Conte says. "Beginning with about six weeks to go in the season, he had a real problem with velocity, and he was having a hard time coming back each day."

There's a Faustian bargain here. Nen and the Giants were dealing with the devil. They were willing to sacrifice his arm, the last two years of his $36 million contract with the club, and maybe the rest of his career, for a chance to play in and win the 2002 World Series.

"I remember we were trying, Sabes [general manager Brian Sabean] was trying, to bring someone else in so we could give Robbie a break," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti says. "I wished we could have protected him more."

We felt to continue pitching wasn't going to make it worse," Conte says. "It was just going to hurt.

Of course, they could have. They could have sat him down, put him on the DL and used someone else. But the short-term risk in that move was great -- blown saves, lost games and fast-fading hopes of winning the NL wild-card spot -- and so they didn't.

"We felt to continue pitching wasn't going to make it worse," Conte says. "It was just going to hurt."

If jealousy is the green-eyed monster, championship lust is the monster's big, bad beast of an older brother. And if Nen's sacrifice demonstrates something noble about sports, it also reveals something cold, something willing to press on despite the human cost. There was some all-consuming impulse that made Conte keep nodding his assent, Dusty keep picking up the bullpen phone and Nen keep taking the ball.

His dedication was singular and spectacular -- "We'd see him in the training room all the time, and what he went through, all the work, all the pain, just to throw one inning … I honestly don't know anyone else who would have done it," says teammate Scott Eyre -- but given the pennant-race circumstances and the intense longing of everyone in the organization, from the clubhouse to the front office to the fans in the stands, it was also, in a way, expected of him.

"You knew he wasn't going to use his arm as an excuse," Reuter says. "He was a team-all-the-way guy."

Down the stretch, Nen worked with guile and mystique as much as unhittable heat. His arm action was convincing ("I never stopped throwing all-out," he says), but the pitches weren't buzzing like they once had, so guys were often getting themselves out, gearing up to hit the Nen of old, the Nen who once clocked 102 miles-per-hour in the 1997 World Series, the Nen who'd always made them look slow.

Maybe he should have taken himself out of the mix. Maybe he should have let Worrell or Felix Rodriguez carry the load. But he was getting results, right up until the last, and, as Conte says, closers don't grow on trees. "It's a mental aspect. Some guys have it, some don't. A lot of guys can get three outs. Robb Nen could close."

Attitude was key. Fifty percent of closing is 100 percent mental, or something like that. "You had to believe to close," Nen says. "You had to know you were going to get people out every night, know that you were going to get their best guys out, every night." Which is why, somewhere in the midst of a stream of meetings with Conte, and visits to doctors for MRIs and diagnoses ("The doctor would say, 'I think it's this,' or, 'It could be that,'" he says), Nen stopped listening, stopped really trying to figure out what was wrong with the shoulder. No news was good news. The Giants were pushing for the NL wild-card spot. They needed a closer. What else did he need to know? "I got paid to close games, not watch them," he says. "I didn't want to know. I didn't want to know enough to have to make a decision."

His teammates knew he was hurting, but he didn't say much about it. Words weren't his way; talking wasn't his thing. He sat alone. He rode home from the ballpark in a quiet car with his wife, Jendi. He sipped a beer in a clubhouse corner. He woke up in the middle of the night gritting his teeth.

What was there to say? The arm felt lousy. Talking about it wasn't going to make it feel better and it wasn't going to get anyone out, either.

Was pitching with it making it worse? It's hard to know for sure, though Nen says: "I'm pretty sure I was doing more and more damage to it as we went along." Pitching certainly made it more painful. The shoulder needed rest. "We saw a labrum tear in the MRI, and we [Conte and Giants manager Dusty Baker] talked to him about shutting it down," Conte says. "At a certain point, seeing what he was going through physically, it was like watching a prize fighter who's getting teed-up, you know? We were like, 'Let's call it and go home.'"

Nen was having none of it. He saved nine games in September, the most he'd saved in any one month all season, striking out 14 in 10 innings. "It was just guts," Righetti says. "He got more precise with his location." Then, in the postseason, when the Giants turned off the speed gun in Pac Bell (now SBC) Park because he'd lost so much on the fastball, he somehow took his focus up a notch, registering seven saves in helping his club get past Atlanta and St. Louis, and on to the World Series and Anaheim.

Where Troy Glaus was waiting for him.

"I held it off for a while, but it went quick at the end," Nen says. "It just kept going down, down, down. In that last game, I wasn't throwing hard at all. I figured I could get him out somehow, but I could feel I was in trouble."

Officially, the Glaus at-bat is the last word. The last entry in the record book on Robb Nen is "Nen replaced Worrell; Glaus doubled to left."

Nen had always carried his losses with him, replayed them in his mind, used them for fuel the next day. "It's the last thing that happens," he says. "It stays with you."

Glaus' double, the finality of it, drove Nen on to three surgeries (to repair a torn labrum, torn rotator cuff and torn capsule cover around the shoulder joint) and three rehabs in two-and-a-half years. He sat in a wheelchair in the hospital lobby after the second surgery, listening to Conte tell him, "I think we can bring it back" [even though nobody has ever come back from a full cuff tear at the major-league level], and actually believed him. He washed windows and mirrors when Conte, making like Mr. Miyagi, thought it would help his range of motion. He threw when he wanted to rest and rested when he wanted to throw. One minute, he was just days from coming off the DL, and the next he was barely able to move. He was in ice, on meds, in the weight room and on the table.

None of which was quite enough. In February 2005, he announced his retirement.
"I just couldn't get back," he says.

Why did he do it?

Why, two years into a four-year contract, and with every nerve ending in his throwing shoulder screaming at him to take a seat, did he go down flinging, right up until that 2-1 pitch to Glaus?

It was a bunch of things …

It was the responsibility and the step-up he felt his big-ticket contract demanded.

It was that they asked him to.

It was a promise he made to himself back in the Triple-A days, when bone spurs and a stretched nerve cost him the better part of three seasons, to stay off the DL and in the action, at all costs.
It was his boys being on a roll, going 46-28 in the second half, including 18-7 in their last 25. You ignore what your body is saying at a time like that; you forget how cranky your shoulder is.

Your heart is the one doing the driving. "It was a phenomenal time," Nen says. "I kept imagining getting the final outs of every game and series, and it just kept happening."

It was the right time of year. "They were in the middle of a pennant race," Jendi, his wife, says. "There was just no way he would give up pitching then."

It was the fact that he could. Maybe he couldn't go like he once did; maybe he couldn't go like he'd like. But he could go. "If I could play catch before a game," he says, "I knew all I'd need was to get between the lines and then deal with the pain the next day."

The fantasy about the kind of commitment Nen made is that there is some defining moment, some particular instant in which, like Doyle Brunson at the tables at Binion's, or Gary Cooper in the streets of Hadleyville, he went all-in. The truth is more gradual than that. It's a decision he made bit by bit, warm-up by warm-up. Like a kid puffing anxiously into a balloon, he kept stretching the skin, wondering how much and how long it would hold.

It was the sense he had, never spoken but always clung to, that in this day and age, the doctors could fix him up when the season was over, no matter what he did. "You see what they do with Tommy John surgeries and things now," he says, "and you feel like there's nothing they can't do, you know?"

It was the indescribable giddiness he'd felt winning with the Marlins back in '97, and the fervent hope of sharing it with his Giants friends and teammates in '02. "When we beat St. Louis in the LCS, and guys were jumping around the clubhouse, laughing and shouting, pouring champagne everywhere," he says, "I remember I just sat at my locker for a minute and watched it. To see their faces light up like that … that's what I pitched for."

It was the personal high, too. Forty thousand screaming fans in the stands. TV cameras. Bright lights. The guy in the box wanting a piece of you, and you looking to take him down. The game in the balance. It's an intoxicating blend.

"I remember during my rehab, we were in L.A., and I drove to the stadium that afternoon and all I could think about was maybe I'd never get another chance to take the mound in front of a full house," he says. "I'd never get that adrenaline rush again. The little white towels waving in the air, the moment, everyone screaming. There's no better rush than that."

But I'm telling you, the guy is a gamer; he's an iron worker who goes up on a bridge.
And maybe more than any of those things, it was simply Nen being Nen, something not easily reduced to explanations, something intrinsic. "It sounds like a cliché, I know," Conte says. "But I'm telling you, the guy is a gamer; he's an iron worker who goes up on a bridge."

Closer is a job. Teammate is a role. But gamer is an identity. Somewhere along the way, gut-check becomes the principle by which you organize your life and stalwart becomes the prism through which you see the world.

Who knows when it starts? Maybe it's the first slap on the back from a Little League coach for a job well done. Maybe it's the wave of confidence and self-certainty that comes with your first strikeout or first save. Maybe it's something you see in your dad, and in your ball-playing idols, and try to model. Maybe, like perfect pitch in the ear of a musician or the deft touch in the hands of a sculptor, it's something you're blessed with -- and cursed with. However it comes to you, there comes a time when it's simply a part of you, when you can't remember being and wouldn't know how to be any other way.

The cost of Nen being true to his identity (and, in the classic Brian Wilson way, true to his school) and of the Giants being true to their dreams of a first World Series championship in San Francisco, was steep.

It cost the team at least $18 million, the benefit of Nen's lights-out services over two years of the Barry Bonds era, and the day-in-day-out presence of someone Snow calls the "tone-setter" for the ballclub.

It cost Nen at least two years of pitching, another shot at the postseason (in 2003), a sense of belonging and a fitting end to his career.

It's July 9, 2005. Robb Nen Day at SBC Park in San Francisco. Nen stands awkwardly in the Giants' dugout, waiting to be introduced to the crowd. He's got one foot up on a step and he's nervously jamming and yanking his hands in and out of his pockets. He knows the park by heart, but he's out of his element now. He walked the clubhouse tunnel in street clothes and loafers. He's in the dugout and not the pen. There's a podium, not a hitter, waiting for him out on the field. It all feels wrong.

"You know you're not going to play forever," he says. "But you have this fantasy that, when the end comes, it will come on your terms. This was not the way I wanted to go."

Now Nen lives a full and happy life in Orange County with Jendi and their two daughters, Rylee and Taylor. His shoulder is considerably better. He can still move around, wrestle with the girls on the lawn, play golf with friends and work out at the gym. But he lives with the loss, too, with the sense that things are, and always will be, unfinished for him.

Maybe it would be easier to swallow if he'd gotten Glaus out, if there was a Series ring to show for his efforts, if the devil had paid up. More than rings, though, Nen tends to measure the loss in terms of connections. "I miss the clubhouse," he says. "I miss guys ragging on each other. I miss being there for each other. I miss being a part of that."

The guys miss him, too.

At the Nen-Day festivities, Gardner tears up.

Righetti, with a crack in his voice, tells you: "Without a doubt, my biggest high in this job was watching Robbie do what he did that fall, and without a doubt, my biggest low is knowing he can't ever do anything like it again."

Snow sits in front of his locker and puts his head down in the pregame clubhouse, almost three years after Game 6 and the disappointment of the Glaus at-bat, and says, "You just wish he could still be here."

Was it worth it?

Nen says, quickly, with the automatic voice of a man halfway trying to convince himself that it's true, that he has no regrets. "I was fortunate to get to play in the big leagues, and I was fortunate enough to be in the All-Star Game three times, and I was fortunate enough to get a World Series ring and to play in two World Series," he says. "Really, I was grateful for everything I got."

Listening to him, wondering at how he pushed his body when it was at its weakest, and feeling frustrated by the unquestioned will to win that drove him to pitch and drove the team to use him, you experience regret on his behalf.

But that's not the whole of it. In the end, it's a more complicated feeling than that. Because there he is at the podium between home plate and the pitcher's mound on that July afternoon, sun shining down and the bass-heavy opening bars of "Smoke on the Water," his bullpen theme song, ringing out, the crowd is rising to its feet. The lady with a hat made of Giants baseball cards takes it off and waves it wildly. The transplanted fan who drove from Portland just for this moment claps his hands above his head like he's at a Queen concert. Two women wearing "We Love Robb" T-shirts dance like joyful lunatics in the first row behind the dugout. Fathers point him out to their sons. Mothers whisper stories of his exploits to their daughters. It's been almost three years since he last pitched for them, but they haven't forgotten.

Nen waves and nods in appreciation. Then he puts his right hand to his chest, as if to keep it from bursting, and you can see it on his face … it's not a blush, it's a rush. And in that moment, you think, yes, there's been a loss, but he's gained something, too, something enviable and rare, something that might only come with the sort of sacrifice he made.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. Comment on E-ticket at

1 comment:

CCD said...

Dusty Baker and the Game 6 blues.

Does Dusty have any idea how to handle a pitching staff?