It was surreal – almost like an out-of body experience.
The date was April 6, 2015 – Opening Day at Dodger Stadium – and it was time for the pregame ceremonial first pitch. Standing on the mound were former Dodger Cy Young Award winners Don Newcombe (1956) and Fernando Valenzuela (1981). But before the pair of Dodger legends could make their simultaneous tosses, the loud speaker suddenly blared out a very popular and very familiar song – one that immediately sent chills down the spine of those who recognized it, and most did. It was ‘Welcome to the Jungle‘ by Guns and Roses – the song made popular (to Dodger fans, at least) as the entrance song of another former Dodger Cy Young award winner – closer Eric Gagné (2003). Yes, that Eric Gagné. “Game Over” Eric Gagné.
Suddenly the bullpen gate swung open and out strode the former Dodger closer, who made his way to join Newk and Fernando on the Dodger Stadium mound.
It was surreal – almost like an out-of body experience; and it drew a roaring standing ovation from the 53,518 in attendance – a roar of the likes not heard or seen since 2003 and 2004 when Gagné set his historic 84 consecutive saves record that included 55 saves in 55 save opportunities during his epic Cy Young award-winning season, thus becoming the first pitcher to record 50 saves in more than one season and the fastest pitcher to reach the 100-save mark.
Okay, I have to admit that I knew it was coming. I knew that Gagné was in town for the Hall of Fame Sports Spring Open House in the City of Industry which also included Newcombe, 1962 and 63 NL batting champ Tommy Davis, 1969 NL Rookie of the Year Ted Sizemore and Dodger great Steve Garvey. At the conclusion of that event, Gagné was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me for a brief interview.
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RC: Over the past several years I have interviewed a number of longtime and lifelong Dodger fans. Almost to the person, when I ask them what their favorite memory at Dodger Stadium is, it was when Welcome to the Jungle started playing and you entered the game during your incredible and historic streak. What was that like for you?
EG: It’s hard to describe. I try to explain to my friends and my kids – my kids are older now and understand – and it’s hard to describe, crazy, emotional, everybody was so into it. The energy in there gets your adrenaline pumping and I think everybody fed off of each other. It was just amazing. I wasn’t there for Fernandomania and all that stuff but I heard it was just amazing. And I’d seen Hell’s Bells for Trevor Hoffman, it was really really cool, so I think I was really really lucky to be part of that.
The fans did the whole thing, I just had to show up and throw but it was unbelievable. It was the best feeling I ever had, the adrenaline rush – that’s why I could throw a lot of innings – because [the fans] gave me that adrenaline rush and goosebumps every single day. It was the best time I’ve ever had.
RC: It seems to me, and I could be wrong, but it seems that your entrance song started it all. Is that your recollection or do you have any knowledge of that?
EG: I know Mariano [Rivera] had a really good entry song, and then Trevor too, but I think it became more popular maybe. Maybe people started noticing a little more because it’s L.A., it’s Hollywood. And I think the Dodgers did a great job with it, they did a really good job on the PR side, you know, the face and stuff and the Guns and Roses and all, and I think it just grew. I don’t think anybody expected that, it just went crazy and it was a very exciting feeling to be just like… all so surreal.
Even now, it’s hard to believe that it was me on the mound, it’s hard to believe. For three years it was unbelievable, not just the streak – everybody talks about the streak – but because the fans were so into it, my teammates were so into it. It was amazing, it was fun.
RC: Dodger fans have a reputation, whether warranted or not, of arriving late and leaving early, but during your three years as the Dodgers closer, you kept the fans in their seats until it was “Game Over.”
EG: That was the plan. I really didn’t know the whole thing before. I knew they came in late, I didn’t know they left that early before. But it’s cool to see that I made a little bit of a difference. I think the fans wanted to see it, they’re starving for a winner, they’re always starved for a winner.
It’s fun to see now what they’re doing, the new ownership, they’re really going for it and it’s really cool to see because I’m a Dodger fan. It’s cool to see the fans get what they deserve, the team that they deserve and it’s fun to watch.
RC: When you first came up to the big leagues, you came up as a starter and that didn’t work out and you moved to the bullpen. When was the connection made for you to become the Dodgers closer? When did you develop the closer mentality and all?
EG: I’ve always closed when I was younger. On my Canadian team I used to be a closer so I knew I could do it, my arm just felt better, I threw harder. I think the first game in San Francisco when I got a save… I had one in Colorado but I had one in San Francisco where [former Dodgers manager] Jim Tracy really trusted me. He came out on the mound and talked about what’s going on. I had two men on and one out and he let me keep the ball. That was a huge confidence boost for me and for the team and for Trace, it was mutual. And from there is just grew bigger and bigger and my confidence went up and up. The rest is just a blur.
RC: After spending some time with the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers in 2007 and 2008, you left the game. You then attempted a comeback with the Dodgers in 2010 but it didn’t work out. Was that when you realized that it was over for you?
EG: I knew my body wasn’t feeling as well as I wanted, my body started to break down a little bit. I felt good when I came to spring training but you’ve got to remember that I wasn’t throwing on an everyday basis. I was just throwing as a starter and then I came in late and handed the baseball. My arm felt good, it’s just my back, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It’s a lot of work to get to this and see it through a whole season. I could do it for a month but it’s hard to go for a whole year. I was just glad I could finish with the Dodgers. It was an honor to be a Dodger and I’m still a Dodger. I’ve always been a Dodger, I’m always going to be a Dodger so it’s really cool.
RC: A couple of years ago you attended a game at Dodger Stadium. They put your face up on the jumbotron and you got a standing ovation. It almost appeared you were welling up with tears. What was that moment like for you?
EG: It was emotional. It’s still emotional because every time I go there I get goosebumps. The feelings you get, the emotions you get, all the memories I have there, it’s just so cool, I had so much fun. It’s home, for me it’s home and it’s fun to see the fans remember and I could be part of that little something with the Dodgers. The Dodgers are such a big thing, a big history, and for me to be part of that it’s just really really cool.
RC: You’ve been out of the game for five years now. What’s it like being out of the game that you spent nearly your entire life in?
EG: It’s hard but you readjust. For me I just got back in baseball in France, I coach a little bit. I didn’t know if I would like coaching, I didn’t know if I’m patient enough and I am. I’m still playing baseball, I’m still doing baseball stuff, I’m still throwing.
RC: What level are you coaching at?
EG: I coach a national team in France, I coach a bunch of kids in pro ball – A ball, Double-A, Triple-A. They come to my house for a month or two in preparation for spring training. I do these kind of things, it’s just fun. It’s not like all year so I can golf, I love golfing, I’m a huge golfer. So I can coach and I can do it passionately and not every single day trying to go through it. I just kind of do it passionately, the way I like to pitch, that’s the way I coach.
RC: What’s it like doing autograph signing events like this one here at Hall of Fame Sports?
EG: It’s fun to see that they remember you. For me, you forget that, you forget that feeling that you did some good things. It’s fun to see, it’s really rewarding and I’m glad I’m here. It’s fun to see the fans and they still have their jersey on. It’s crazy, it’s fun. There’s so many good stories. It’s fun to see these fans and basically get in touch with them again.
RC: One last thing – the Cy Young award pins that the Dodgers are giving away this season – what do you think of that?
EG: I don’t know yet, I haven’t seen it but it’s really cool. Just to be part of the Dodgers, it’s crazy. Just to be part of the history of the Dodgers. It’s something that I could never dream of.
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(Author’s Note: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Chris Weber and his great staff at Hall of Fame Sports for allowing me into their inner sanctum for this interview; and to Jack DeLance of JD Legends Promotions for arranging this interview with Eric).