AN Interviews Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers

Rollie Fingers' career began in Oakland, where he helped the A's to three consecutive World Series titles.  Of the A's 19 Series contests, Fingers appeared in 16 of them, recording saves in half of the club's dozen victories over those three seasons.  He was named Most Valuable Player of the 1974 Series.  He later won MVP and Cy Young awards in the same season (1981) with the Milwaukee Brewers, and became just the second reliever to enter Cooperstown, following Hoyt Wilhelm.

I had the chance to talk to Mr. Fingers on Monday while he was in New York promoting the latest Pepsi Max commercial, which features current and former stars- including Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley- in a Field-of-Dreams setting.  It was an interview that almost wasn't.

Rollie- Pepsi

When Nico first approached me with the opportunity last Wednesday, I saw that I would get on the phone with Rollie at approximately 11:30am.  Not wanting to overdo things in terms of preparation as I did when I interviewed Reggie Jackson last year, I decided I'd start typing up my questions at about 10:00 the morning of (they had been floating in and out of my brain for a few days, so it wasn't like I was starting completely from scratch). 

At about 8:30, while in the restroom, my cell phone rang.  I didn't recognize the number so I hit "end call."  It rang again. Again, I ended the call.  This time the person left a message.  As I listened to my voice-mail, my heart started racing.  It was a lady who told me that she had Rollie Fingers waiting to talk to me.  Before the message ended, she called again.  I picked up, and she repeated what she had said earlier. 

I told her, "I thought it was supposed to be at 11:30." 

"Yes", she replied.  "Eastern Time."

Gulp.

"I'm not ready."

"I will give you fifteen minutes to get ready."

Gulp.

I frantically went to work on my questions, and on my way to my car (where I would perform the interview), she called again.  I asked for one more minute, and sixty seconds later I was on the phone with Rollie Fingers:

67M: Thanks for taking some time for me this morning.  Tell me about the commercial.

Rollie:  They called me up about two months ago and wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing a Pepsi Max commercial, and I said, ‘Well, what's it all about?' and they gave me a rough rundown, and I asked who was going to be in it, and they started name dropping, and so I said ‘Yeah, it sounds like it will be a lot of fun.'

It's a takeoff of the Field of Dreams, where you're out in the cornfield, and you're hearing the whispers.  They're whispering ‘ zero calories.'  CC Sabathia is in it, and they brought in Mike Schmidt and Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson and myself, Carlton Fisk, Randy Johnson...just a bunch of guys.

Pepsi Ad

We had a lot of fun doing it.  We were in this warehouse, and they made this warehouse look just like a cornfield.  They brought in real corn, they brought in real sod.  They put a Pepsi Max vending machine in there that was empty and we were all sitting around on benches waiting for a delivery.  I mean {sounding impressed}, it was really well-done.  I couldn't believe all the work it takes to make a sixty-second commercial.

67M:  Sounds like you had a lot of fun with that.  But let's talk about your career a bit.  A lot of people might not realize that you began your career as a starter.  Different scenario, I imagine than someone like Dennis Eckersley, but take us through how your role as a reliever came about and if you were accepting of that role.

Rollie: Well, when you got to the big leagues back when I played, you made it as a starter.  You didn't make it as a relief pitcher.  I had about 35, 40 starts in the big leagues (37, to be exact), threw a couple of shutouts.  But they (his starts) really weren't consistent.  In 1971, I made the made the ball club as the fourth starter, and it got to a point where I couldn't get out of the second inning.  I'd get knocked out, wait four days, get knocked out in the third inning, wait four days, get knocked out in the second inning again.  And finally our manager, Dick Williams, says, ‘That's it.  You're in the bullpen.'  And I was basically mop-up.  I mean I was on my way out of baseball.

Well, we were playing the Yankees one day in New York, and we were getting beat like 11-3.  All of a sudden it's the eighth inning, and we're winning, 13-11, and I'm the only guy left in the bullpen.  He's got to use me or the pitching coach {laughs}.  He ran me out there, and I pitched two shutout innings against the Yankees that night.  I got a save.  I think the next day, we had gone on to another city, and I pitched another two or three more innings, got another save.  Dick Williams calls me into his office and says, ‘From now on, you're my closer.'

That's how I became a relief pitcher.  I loved the opportunity to come into games that were on the line and I didn't mind the pressure.  I had the type of arm that I could throw every day for two or three innings, and I kind of just fell into the role.  That's what kept me in the big leagues because I was on my way back to the minor leagues that year.

67M: And the rest is history.

Rollie: Yeah, and the rest is history.

67M: Any aspiring pitcher dreams about being on the mound for the last out of the World Series.  You got to do that twice.  I can't even begin to imagine what that feeling is like.

Rollie: Yeah, I think every kid dreams about being on the mound for the last out.  And all of a sudden you're there.  And for me, in 1972, I got a one run lead with two outs in the ninth inning, trying run is on base, and I got to look at Pete Rose.  You know? {reliving the moment...laughs}  I thought it would be easier getting the last out in the World Series.  But it's a dream you have your whole life and all of a sudden it's there, and then in five seconds it's gone. But those five seconds are the best; they're the best five seconds you can spend.

67M: And the next thing you know you have a bunch of guys jumping on you.

Rollie: That's what it's all about.  Guys jumping on you, and dumping champagne on you.  That's what the World Series is all about.  We had a blast.  We did it three years in a row in Oakland and I couldn't have been happier.  I was just happy to be a part of that ball club.

WS 1972

67M: Sal Bando once said that if your teams played in New York they would talk about the A's as one of the greatest teams ever.  Would you agree?

Rollie: Oh yeah.  Playing in a small market area we didn't get the publicity.  Back then when we traveled we had one sports writer with us. And if you were with the Yankees you had ten sportswriters traveling with you.  That's just the way it is.  If you're playing in Chicago or in New York, you're going to get more media coverage.  And being in Oakland we didn't get a whole lot of that.

67M: I imagine the sideshow didn't help either.  You had Finley, the garish uniforms, the mustaches, and the fights.  I'm sure that kind of took away from what the team was about, which was as fundamentally sound as any team could be.

Rollie: Oh yeah. Everybody on that team came up through the minor leagues together.  We all played together in the minors, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, myself, and Dave Duncan.  We were on the Modesto A's in 1966.  I played with Rudi and Reggie again in Birmingham in the Southern League.  So we all came up through the minor leagues together and we all hit the big leagues just about the same time in 1969, 1970.  And we played together a couple of years (in Oakland), and then it all came together for us in 1971.  We won the (division), got beat in the playoffs.

We had great teams.  Great pitching staff- Catfish Hunter, Kenny Holtzman, Vida Blue.  Don't get much better than that.  We had great defense, timely hitting, and we were deep in the bullpen.  It wasn't just me, we had guys down there with me, guys like Bob Locker, Darold Knowles, Paul Lindblad, Jim Todd.  We had some pretty good relief pitchers, and that's why we won.

Rollie 1972

67M: I'm glad you mentioned that because I always likened the set-up man to an offensive lineman.  They do a lot of the dirty work but don't grab many of the headlines.  So it's good to hear you mention guys like Locker and Knowles who I imagine made your life a little bit easier.

Rollie:  No doubt about it.  Back then the starting pitchers wanted complete games, so they tried to stay in the ballgame as long as they could. Consequently, the games I'd come in, I'd have guys on second and third one out, or bases loaded nobody out.  They don't have that today.  Pitchers that come in the ballgames today, the Mariano Riveras and the Trevor Hoffmans and those guys, they come in to start the inning with nobody on base or maybe a man on base with nobody out.  And it's a different ball game.

67M:  Based on how closers are somewhat glorified, do you see yourself as sort of a pioneer?  Surely there were relief specialists before you, but you kind of took it to a different level, wouldn't you say?

Rollie: Yeah I would think that.  Back in the early 70's, relief pitching wasn't that glorified.  But there were a few other guys that started doing it around the time I did.  Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw.  I think organizations started to realize back then that you have to have a guy like us if you wanted to win.  And that's when they started grooming guys to become relief pitchers, and every team that won a World Series back then had a "closer", guys that would put out a fire or a rally or something that was happening late in a ballgame.

67M: And now it seems that set-up men are finally getting their just due.

Rollie:  Well, pitching staffs are different nowadays.  Now a team carries 14 pitchers sometimes.  Back when I pitched we carried nine or ten pitchers.  You got a lot of bodies down in that bullpen.  That's why you see so many pitching changes.  Sometimes I look at a boxscore of a 4-3 ballgame, and they used 14 pitchers (combined).  How do they do that?  But that's just the way the game's played now.

67M:  I was about ten years old when Finley's A's broke up completely.  Sad times for me growing up.  My feeling has always been had you been able to stay together you would have made a run at that five in a row that the Yankees had.  Who was going to beat you?

Rollie: Yeah.  Well, we had a chance in '75 when we went into the playoffs, but I think losing Catfish Hunter certainly didn't help us. He was us in '72-'73-'74 but then he had that contract dispute with Finley, and he ended up going to the Yankees.  Had we had him, we might have had a better chance against the Red Sox in the playoffs.  But Boston beat us three in a row, and that ended it for us.

67M: I have to talk about the mustache.  A lot of people (on our site) may not know how the birth of the Mustache Gang came to be, and how yours became the most famous of them all.  Take us through that.

Rollie:  Well, Reggie came to Spring Training with a mustache (in '72), and he wouldn't shave it off.  And everybody on the ball club got on him to shave it off because there were no mustaches in the big league at the time.  So myself and Catfish Hunter and Darold Knowles- I think there were three or four of us- we got together and (decided to) start growing mustaches.  And if we grew mustaches, Dick Williams would make us shave our mustaches and then Reggie would have to shave his, too.  That's the only reason why we did it. And then Charlie Finley got wind of what we were doing, and he told everybody on the ball club that if they had a mustache on Opening Day, they'd get 300 bucks.  And that's the only reason why I grew this thing, was to get 300 bucks out of Charlie.

Fans loved the mustaches, they loved the long hair, the colorful uniforms. And then we started winning, we started packing ballparks.  We'd go on the road and have sell-outs.  And then we won the World Series in '72 and I couldn't shave it off.  Won again in '73 and '74, and I couldn't shave it off.  It just kind of stayed with me.  I haven't had it off in forty years.  I'd be afraid to see what I'd look like now without it {breaks into laughter}

67M: Well I have some old baseball cards.  I know what you looked like back then, but I don't know about now. {laughs}

Rollie: Yeah those first two or three are the ones without the mustaches.

Rollie 1968

{Rollie advises he has another interview waiting but has time for one more question.}

67M: Wanted to talk about Oakland A's history in general.  I've always felt that they should honor theirs the way the Yankees, and even the Giants do.  Having you guys back every once in a while or more often anyway than these put-together reunions...

Rollie: Oh yeah.  I've felt that would be a great idea.  I wouldn't mind it. We haven't been together for probably about eight years.  I think we all got together with the '72 team, about ten years ago.

Reggie-Rollie reunion

I think it would be great. Put a bug in somebody's ear at the Oakland A's and see what they say. I wouldn't mind doing it all.

67M: Consider it done.  Thanks for your time, Rollie.

Rollie: My pleasure.

(Mine too.  And I won't even get on you for wearing a Brewers' uni in the commerical). :)

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