Welcome to the Jungle

While relaxing this past weekend in an impeccable cabin in Arnold, I (of course) felt the need to watch ESPN. Among the Olympic news, I saw scrolling on the bottom line: “Dodgers sign P Eric Gagné to a minor-league deal.”

"He cusses in French, perfects his English watching Seinfeld..."

It feels like it’s where he belongs.

I’m not going to lie. I used to be a huge Eric Gagné fan. I have been ever since I read the 2004 article in ESPN the Magazine.

Ask him how it’s gotten so good, and Eric Gagne will tell you it’s because it used to be so bad. He was 17 when his parents divorced, and it floored him. His father, Richard, drove a Montreal city bus, and his mother, Carole, waitressed in a Greek cafe, and, because they worked all hours of the day and night, he never knew their marriage was in tatters.

When he found out, he closed off, became a tough guy. Wore an earring in his eyebrow. Got the tattoo. Food? Who needed it. Eyeglasses? Who needed ’em. Sore arm? Pitched through it.

His minor league career was littered with denial. At Class-A Savannah in 1996, he tried to pitch through a dull ache in his elbow for six months until the Dodgers finally sent him to Dr. Frank Jobe for Tommy John surgery. He spent the entire 1997 season thinking about quitting, thinking about playing college hockey at the U. of Vermont or pursuing a psychology degree at McGill, never thinking about food. “I guess I was sad or whatever,” he says. “I wouldn’t eat.”

When he returned to the Dodgers’ minor league camp in 1998, he could only heat his fastball up to 88 mph. So he invented a pitch. A changeup. A changeup that ideally would look like a fastball for 55 feet and then fall off a cliff. A changeup that didn’t change much for four months at Class-A Vero Beach. Then, in his last seven starts, it finally clicked: he went 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA.

For whatever reason, it made sense to me. I was a fat kid with glasses who was studying French, with my (step) parents having gone through a divorce. He was a fat kid with glasses who spoke French, whose parents went through a divorce. As he racked up saves like Hollywood directors rack up bad scripts, I identified with him. He was this imperfect hero, chasing down a perfect save streak. Gagné fired 98 mph fastballs with ease, following them with Bugs Bunny changeups. I was by no means a Dodger fan, but damn, was I rooting for him to keep it going.

Game Over

I wanted to go to a Dodger game so badly when he was in L.A. A friend told me how when he entered a game, the lights would go out — a harbinger — and Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” would blare from the Dodger Stadium speakers. The scoreboard would flash “GAME OVER.” It was a spectacle.

As a teenager, I remember keeping that ESPN the Magazine for when the Dodgers came to Oakland, but Gagné was on the DL then. The next time, when he was with Texas, I brought the magazine for him to sign. He was on the DL again.

If they knew his real story, though, his teammates would realize the B.D.A. is just a B.D.T.B. (Big Dumb Teddy Bear). They have no idea that the scar above his right eye isn’t from hockey (Valerie got her hair caught on his pierced eyebrow a few years back, and Gagne had to rip the piercing out.) That he’s scared to get Lasik surgery to correct his vision. That he has 50 pairs of glasses at home, some of them horn-rimmed. That he just wrote a children’s book called Break Barriers, touching on his eating disorder and his parents’ divorce. That he doesn’t speak in team meetings because he’s hopelessly shy. That he keeps the 55 baseballs from last year’s portion of his save streak in a brown paper sack. Or that the first time his mom saw him earn a save at Dodger Stadium, she began to weep. “She and the rest of my family are overwhelmed,” Gagne says. “See, to them, I’m still the same little guy from Mascouche.”

Everyone knows the rest. Not long after his streak of 63 consecutive saves was snapped, he started to fall apart. Then came the Mitchell Report. Gagné on Sunday admitted to using HGH while with the Dodgers in 2005. It felt wrong watching him in failed stints with the Rangers and Brewers, like a famous actor doing a string of straight-to-DVD releases.

So really, I hope Gagné has some measure of success in this go-around with the Dodgers. Sure, he may not even make the team. If he does, no way does he replicate that past success. Hard-throwing Jonathan Broxton is pretty well-entrenched as the 9th inning guy. But it would be nice to see him make the team and do well again in a middle relief role.

He’s already got the respect of his new teammates, such as Ramon Troncoso, who wore the number 38 last year for the Dodgers.

“He made that number for the Dodgers,” Troncoso said.

It hangs lifelessly, not even expectant, handed over – loaned, maybe – by a guy across the room.

“It’s his,” Troncoso said.

Gagne, 34, will pitch the next six weeks for a place in the Dodgers bullpen and a half-million dollars and another summer sitting out beyond the left-field fence, waiting for his turn. He’ll pitch so his four children – including a daughter named Bluu – can experience it with him. He’ll pitch because you don’t stop trying, not at 34, not even when the beer leagues are the only ones calling, not even as a steroid era parolee.

His sole goal is to pitch in the big leagues again.

“I want to play another three or four years,” he says, smiling. “But I’ll take one day.”

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One thought on “Welcome to the Jungle

  1. It just won’t be the same, however, having Gagne with the Dodgers without Barry Bonds with the Giants to take Gagne’s 100-mph heater deep into McCovey Cove for a foul ball, only to crank the next one deep into the right-field bleachers for a bottom-of-the-ninth dinger.

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