Rest in Peace, Rod Beck

I went to the computer yesterday to find out the score of the Cubs game, but was instead confronted with the headline “Ex-Cub reliever Rod Beck dead at 38“. This is a sad day. While he only made 102 appearances out of the bullpen for the Cubs, he left a lasting impression on me. He was the kind of guy that I, and the vast majority of the Wrigley faithful, wanted to root for. A 240 pound closer with a handlebar moustache and an 86 mph “heater”. The Shooter, as Beck was known, wasn’t an athlete. He was a ballplayer. He seemed very much like the kind of guy who played baseball simply because he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. What I’ll remember most about him, however, was his part in the Cubs’ magical playoff run in 1998.

I didn’t expect much from the Cubs in 98. The highlight of sitting through a brutally cold opening day was the tribute the team made to a recently deceased Harry Carey and I had little inkling that the team would in the playoffs at the end of the year. But then, on May 6th, a rookie named Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros while allowing only two baserunners. Then in June Sammy Sosa started to heat up and completed his transformation from frustrated wannabe slugger to one of The Men Who Saved Baseball. While hindsight casts a pall on the whole thing, I’ll just say that to a high school kid in love with the Cubs, having Sosa was like manna from above. Beyond the big two there were a number of characters all of whom delighted me for different reasons. Mickey Morandini, who came out of obscurity to have his best season in the bigs. (Click here for a horrifying image of Mick. Imagine running to second with that mug staring you down.) Henry Rodriguez, whose home runs would prompt a shower of Oh Henry bars to rain onto the grass at Wrigley. Glenallen Hill, a man so strong he broke a bat on a checked swing and so terrified of spiders that he once fell through a glass coffee table in his house sleepwalking while having a nightmare about them. Mark Grace, the only player I still possess a Starting Lineup figure of. But Rod Beck stood out on the field and in the clubhouse. It was as if someone had called central casting and said ‘Get me a fat closer!’

The contrast between Wood and Beck was compelling. Kerry was a big, strong kid from Texas who, even at the age of 21, looked like a major leaguer. Someone who didn’t follow baseball would be forgiven upon laughing when told that Rod Beck was a professional athlete. Wood had an arm that scouts dream about; he threw 100 mph heat and sliders so nasty they overpowered hitters. Beck’s pitches had two speeds, slow and slower. Yet Beck’s career ERA is lower (3.30 vs. 3.68) than Wood’s. He saved 51 games during the 1998 season. He was all scowls and that dangling arm, every routine save threatening to turn into an adventure. The pressure never seemed to effect him. He looked the same with a three run lead and nobody on as he did during a bases loaded tie game. He was well suited to be a closer because of this. This was best illustrated during the last week of the season in two very different games.

The first was against the Brewers when Beck came into a game with a two run lead and left the losing pitcher. This game is more well known for being the game when Brant Brown almost killed poor Ron Santo by dropping a fly with two outs in the ninth. (The call Santo made will haunt anyone who has heard it. Noooooo! He dropped the ball! Nooooooo!) The Cubs remained tied for the wild card when they should have been up a game with three left to play. It wasn’t entirely Beck’s fault, but no one would have been surprised if he came out a little gunshy next time. Five days later he was out on the mound, getting a pop fly from Joe Carter for the winning out in a one game playoff against the Giants. The Cubs were in the playoffs for the first time in 9 years and I remember Beck running around like a madman, looking impossibly happy. One of the few genuinely good memories from a lifetime of Cubs fandom. Beck was rewarded with five points in the MVP voting, making him forever the 18th most valuable player in the majors in 1998.

Photo via chicagosports.com, taken after the last out of the one game playoff

After the Cubs Beck went downhill quickly, dropping out of the majors for two years, until he became a story again in 2003 as the closer for the AAA Iowa Cubs. He had a microscopic ERA and he lived in an RV near the park, a lifestyle that was well documented at the time. All he wanted was another chance to pitch in the majors and to enjoy the life of a minor leaguer in the meantime. When the Cubs finally released him I was glad that he was going to get a chance with a team. The Padres signed him and he immediately started saving games, getting 20 in all, despite having just 36 appearances on the year. I dutifully checked the box scores, looking for ‘S – Beck’ every morning. It made me happy that he got one last go around, something that a lot of players never get the chance to have.

And now he’s gone. Usually, when a pitcher dies a sordid autopsy report follows, but with Rod Beck it makes no difference to me. He played the game with, if not class, a blue collar pride and a winning attitude. He was a joy to watch pitch and I wish his family the best. He was respected around baseball, despite his pudgy appearance. (“I’ve never heard of anyone going on the disabled list with pulled fat” was his take on the matter.) Last December Ryan Dempster picked Rod as his favorite closer of all time in an article for mlb.com. While I never got to see him take an at bat (he went 4 for 19 in 13 seasons, with one RBI) he was a spectacle on the mound who played the game with his heart on his sleeve for everyone in the stands to see. That’s why Cubs fans loved him; because he cared. After game three of the NLDS, minutes after the Braves completed their sweep of the Cubs, a forlorn Rod stood in front of his locker answering questions with a frog in his throat and a tear in his eye. The game had gotten out of hand on his watch and he clearly felt terrible for letting his teammates down. Never mind that the Cubs were doomed from the second the series started and that they shouldn’t have been in the playoffs in the first place. That they wouldn’t have been there without Rod. Of all the certainly valid criticism you could level his way, one thing that no one said was that he didn’t care. It was moments like that when Rod Beck ceased to be a goofy looking reliever and became a person instead. He will be missed.

Rod Beck, 286 career saves 8/3/68 – 6/23/07

Did you know? Closer Rod Beck [SJ Giants]

Resilient closer used guts, guile [SF Gate]

When Rod Beck ruled the world [Deadspin]

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Published in: on June 25, 2007 at 2:15 pm  Comments (1)