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When Closers Became Cool

We may be living in a bullpen moment this postseason, but ‘Relief Pitcher’ was here first

Atari/Ringer illustration
Atari/Ringer illustration

This postseason, we’ve seen hitting heroics from players as high-profile as presumptive MVP Kris Bryant and as anonymous as Conor Gillaspie. We’ve seen duels between aces. We’ve seen defensive sleight of hand; Javier Báez’s tag work may have won the week. Increasingly, though, October baseball is about bullpens. The month’s defining moments — both triumphs and mistakes — have hinged on the use or misuse of one- or two-inning weapons: Buck Showalter’s failure to call on Zach Britton to extend the Orioles’ season; Dave Roberts’s slow call to Kenley Jansen in relief of Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 and quick call to Jansen to set up Kershaw’s save in Game 5; Terry Francona’s willingness to summon Andrew Miller to snuff out or forestall rallies in the fifth and sixth innings; Bruce Bochy’s Pyrrhic pursuit of platoon advantages in a season-ending episode of musical mounds.

Relievers threw 36.7 percent of regular-season innings in 2016, easily the highest rate ever. That percentage has risen to 44.3 percent in the postseason, which, if it holds, would be a big increase from last postseason’s 39.5 percent. We’re not so far away from seeing starters and relievers split October’s innings equally, eroding the distinction between the two; Kershaw’s signature playoff appearance came while he was moonlighting in relief. Given that trend, it’s no surprise that many teams on track for playoff appearances targeted closers at the trade deadline, including Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon. Not only are relievers shouldering more of the October load, they’re also getting outs more effectively than ever, which explains why some analysts recommend that teams let them take on even more work.

Things weren’t always this way. How did relief pitchers come to dominate our discussions? How have inferior arms who are limited to one trip through the order turned into the studs whose absence we lament and whose presence we celebrate? When did short relievers become so cool?

Today’s bullpen usage patterns have been in the works for a while. In fact, reliever use has been on the rise since the beginning of modern baseball history.

As you can tell by eyeballing that graph, though, the rate of increase isn’t constant; some periods have seen more rapid reliever proliferation than others. We can pinpoint the peak of the trend toward more relievers by comparing each year’s rate of relievers per game to the corresponding rate from a few years earlier.

That circled spike, which denotes the year when reliever use was inflating faster than at any other point in the past 50 seasons, was 1991, when the rate of relievers per game was 22 percent higher than it had been in 1987. Games weren’t getting any longer, so for managers to cram more relievers into each game, they had to use each pitcher for fewer outs, on average; the rate of innings pitched per relief appearance was falling faster than it had in any year since the 1940s.

The impetus for that acceleration was a pitcher who spent the first half of his Hall of Fame career in the rotation. In 1988, Athletics manager Tony La Russa converted versatile reliever-spot starter Dennis Eckersley, who’d thrown two innings or more in nearly half of his 1987 appearances, into a specialized weapon who never entered earlier than the eighth and got fewer than six outs in more than 80 percent of his outings. In his new role, Eck nearly tripled his save total, leading the majors with 45. Today’s wins-above-replacement stats say he was less valuable to the A’s than he had been the year before, but thanks to his higher-leverage assignments, he was perceived to be better, making his first All-Star team as a reliever and finishing second and fifth, respectively, in AL Cy Young and MVP voting. When the closer-equipped A’s improved by 23 wins and won a pennant, every team wanted one. Just like that, the more flexible “fireman” model popularized by Goose Gossage and others was out; in 1989’s Major League, the Yankees’ closer, Duke Simpson, looks like Gossage but (unlike Gossage) enters with two outs in the ninth. In 1990, the Reds rode their “Nasty Boys” bullpen to a title, and in 1991, relievers recorded 0.54 saves per game, which remains the all-time record.

That same year, 35 miles south of Eckersley’s A’s, at Atari Games headquarters in Milpitas, California, Mike Hally and Peter Lipson had an idea for an arcade game. It wouldn’t look like any arcade game the company had recently published. Although the company had released R.B.I. Baseball in 1987, Atari games at that time tended toward fighting or shooting (Batman, Pit-Fighter, ThunderJaws, Steel Talons) and driving (Race Drivin’, Street Drivin’, Hydra, Road Riot 4WD). Hally was an Atari veteran who’d worked on classic coin-ops such as Gravitar and Star Wars; Lipson had just finished developing Rampart, a puzzler/fighter, and Shuuz, a video game version of horseshoes. The pair had worked together previously on 1987’s Blasteroids, an Asteroids update, but their new collaboration wouldn’t feature spaceships or explosions. This one would have an incredibly un-arcadey name: Relief Pitcher.

A few years earlier, it would have had an incredibly un-arcadey concept. But both baseball’s expanding pitching staffs and the ebbing arcade market had shifted toward action in smaller bursts. “By the end of the ’80s, the business was changing,” Lipson, Relief Pitcher’s lone programmer, recalls. “There were more casual games coming that didn’t require the huge investment of player time.” Lipson and Hally, the project lead, belonged to an Atari contingent of lifelong baseball fans who played softball together and took frequent field trips to Bay Area games. They wanted to work on a baseball game, but they also wanted to produce something different from its predecessors. “If people get bored, they don’t want to play a whole nine-inning game,” Hally says. “So that’s when I came up with the idea that you basically start with the game in the eighth or ninth inning with men on base and just all different kinds of scenarios.” (Tell me more, Rob Manfred might say.) Lipson thought the unorthodox structure offered a solution for baseball being poorly suited for, as he says, his “understanding of what made video games work — the pacing/difficulty ramping, the constraints of controls, the need to get quarters frequently, the ability to rank against other players on a high-score table.”

The game evolved through a few permutations during development, from a simplistic bar-top title — the baseball version of Shuuz — to a more fully featured simulator with multiple modes.

Screenshot/Atari
Screenshot/Atari

Even in its final form, which took Lipson about nine months to program and which included the option to play nine-inning games, the hook remained the ability to role-play as a relief pitcher. Browser-based versions are available here and here. You’ll notice that the generic pitcher on the title screen looks a lot like Tom Glavine, which isn’t a coincidence. “Our artist (who wasn’t much of a fan) used him as a model and didn’t change it enough,” Lipson says.

Screenshot/Atari
Screenshot/Atari

If you select the single-player relief pitcher mode and choose your (unlicensed) teams, you’ll hear a familiar digitized voice setting up the scenario: “It’s top of the ninth, nobody on, nobody out,” the voice says — a save situation, of course. “You could have an easy early level by starting it with your team in the lead, a few outs already, and no one on base,” Lipson says. “Later levels would have more men on base, fewer outs already registered, and eventually you’d even be trailing in score.”

The voice, and the accompanying likeness, belong to Jack Buck, Cardinals broadcasting legend. Hally and Atari audio guy Don Diekneite were longtime Cardinals fans, and Buck was their dream get for the game. “We said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if we could get Jack Buck to come out to Atari and do all the voiceover for the whole game?’” Hally says. “And the marketing department went along with it, called his agent. His agent said this is how much money he wants. [He] showed up at Atari in his red Cardinal suit. He was great.” Although Hally and Lipson gave Buck a script, they didn’t want him to stick to it. “We also encouraged him to just wing it and announce a virtual game for a while,” Lipson says. “That’s where ‘A foul tip into the stands — it hit a little kid!’ came from.” In the era of protective netting, that cringeworthy ad lib would go the way of Madden’s animated ambulance.

<em>The aggressively early-1990s-looking ‘</em>Relief Pitcher’<em> team at Atari HQ: Mike Hally, Jack Buck, Don Diekneite, Peter Lipson</em>. (Courtesy of Mike Hally)
The aggressively early-1990s-looking ‘Relief Pitcher’ team at Atari HQ: Mike Hally, Jack Buck, Don Diekneite, Peter Lipson. (Courtesy of Mike Hally)

Although Atari covered Buck’s fee, the developers had to cut costs elsewhere, which explains the fake teams (Bashers, Dusters, Speeders, and, uh, Strokers) and players, as well as the unnamed ballparks that look suspiciously like real places (Fenway, Wrigley, and the Astrodome). “I basically just stole the pictures of the ballparks,” Hally says. “I didn’t pay for that.” They also named some of the players after Atari employees. “I had the most home runs of any player in the game,” Hally says. “I’m in charge of the project. I might as well use my power to make some power.” Cosmetic compromises (and quirks including an ambidextrous catcher) aside, the guts of the game were ahead of their time. Hally and Lipson invented (and patented) an innovative control scheme that required the player to use three buttons and a joystick for batting, baserunning, and pitching, although their vision was in some ways more ambitious than the technology allowed.

<em>A limited-edition baseball card (typos and all) produced by Atari to market the game.</em>
A limited-edition baseball card (typos and all) produced by Atari to market the game.

The game, which was later ported to Super NES and the handheld Atari Lynx, made it to market in 1992, when Eckersley again led the majors with 51 saves, this time winning the Cy Young and the MVP Award (the latter of which relievers have been locked out of ever since). Without the save-driven hoopla that fueled those awards, Relief Pitcher wouldn’t have happened. “The idea of being a relief pitcher might have been less attractive without the contemporaneous hype around the closers of that era — just like Angry Birds would probably have failed if there wasn’t something inherently cool about angry birds,” Lipson adds. “So even if it didn’t drive the design, it made it more likely to succeed.” Hally doesn’t remember making an explicit link between Eckersley, the rise of the one-inning save, and the premise for Relief Pitcher, but he thinks there had to be a subconscious connection. “It was part of the time,” he says. “It was like, that’s what’s going on in baseball, so why not insert it into a baseball game?”

<em>Hally and Atari marketing exec Jerry Momoda play ‘</em>Relief Pitcher’<em> in the lab. (Courtesy of Mike Hally)</em>
Hally and Atari marketing exec Jerry Momoda play ‘Relief Pitcher’ in the lab. (Courtesy of Mike Hally)

Despite the marketing materials’ promise that it would be “the best baseball game ever,” Relief Pitcher wasn’t exactly a smash. “I had fun, but I don’t think I got much of a bonus for it, and I doubt Atari made much,” Lipson says. “It should have been on every bar top in the country, along with Shuuz. Hell if I know why that never happened.” Maybe America wasn’t quite ready for a video game starring a Glavine-rip-off reliever, any more than it was ready for a football game featuring Adam Vinatieri or a basketball franchise that let the player serve as sixth man. But baseball was ready for the reliever’s ascendance, and Relief Pitcher — a cultural artifact unearthed from its era’s archaeological record — reflects that.

Relievers have benefited from a rebranding effort better than Burberry’s, which whitewashed their old identity as washed-up starters and gave them their own renown as high-status specialists who excel in an equally indispensable role. The campaign began with the official adoption of the save stat in 1969, and it’s still paying off this postseason, even as the save belatedly loses its luster. You might not have heard of or played Relief Pitcher, but by existing at all, it marked a milestone step in the reliever’s transformation from appendix of the pitching staff to larger-than-life leading man — and, to the team that’s trailing late, formidable final boss.