Ed Puskas: What a relief Rollie Fingers was

What a relief it was to have Rollie Fingers in the bullpen for 17 major-league seasons.

Fingers, a Steubenville native who lived in nearby Toronto until he was 9 or 10, was ahead of time as one of baseball’s first relief specialists with the Oakland Athletics.

Fingers’ Hall of Fame career — which began in 1968 and ended in 1985 — started in an era when relief pitchers were less specialists and more starters who couldn’t make the grade or sore-armed guys relegated to mop-up work.

Fingers admits that was him early in his career.

“I was a starting pitcher in ’71 and I couldn’t get you guys out — that’s how bad it was,” he said. “[Athletics manager] Dick Williams threw me down in the bullpen. I was more or less a mop-up guy. If the starter got knocked out early or something and we were behind a lot, I’d come in.”

But one fateful series changed the direction of his career.

“We were playing the Yankees in New York and we were getting beat 11-2 or something like that and we had gone through everybody on the team,” Fingers said. “It was the eighth inning and all of a sudden we were winning 13-11 and I was the only guy left in the bullpen. Dick’s got to use either me or the pitching coach, that’s it. He brings me in and I pitch two shutout innings against the Yankees that night and came in the next night and got another save. Then we went to Boston right after that had a day off, then pitched three innings against Boston and got another save.”

Williams knew then he had something in Fingers.

“He called me in his office and said, ‘From now on, close games, seventh inning on, I’m going to you,’ “ Fingers said.

That’s how Roland Glen Fingers became one of the first — and best — relief specialists in baseball history.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” said the 72-year-old Fingers, who returned to his native Ohio for the ninth annual Youngstown State First Pitch Breakfast on Saturday at The Embassy in Boardman.

Fingers, who has lived near Las Vegas for the last 20 years, brought an treasure trove of baseball stories with him to the Mahoning Valley.

Fingers, who later became known for his legendary waxed handlebar mustache, made his major-league debut at 21 in 1968, when he made one relief appearance in a 13-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 15 at Tiger Stadium.

Fingers allowed four runs in 11/3 innings. Two came on a Bill Freehan home run.

“Sal Bando came over from third base right after Freehan hit it and said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, kid,’ ” Fingers said.

But Fingers became an integral part of the A’s dynasty. Oakland won three consecutive World Series championships (1972-74) and during his time with the franchise, the A’s never finished any lower than second place.

If not for free agency and Oakland owner Charlie Finley’s unwillingness to pay his players, the A’s might have kept winning deeper into the ’70s or ‘80s.

How cheap was Finley? Consider: Fingers said he never made more than $70,000 a year with Oakland.

In 1972, Fingers saved Games 2 and 7 of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. He also won Game 4 in relief.

“I thought I’d get a pretty good raise after that,” Fingers said.

Finley broke the bank for an extra $1,000 for the reliever’s 1973 salary.

“I called Charlie and told him what he could do with that raise and slammed the phone down on him,” Fingers said.

The only problem was that in those days, Finley wasn’t just the owner, he was also the A’s general manager. So players also had to negotiate contracts with the mercurial and notoriously tight-fisted Finley.

Not Fingers.

“I hired an agent and told him, ‘You deal with this [expletive], because I can’t do it,” Fingers said. “From 1972-76, I never spoke to Charlie Finley.”

But that wasn’t the end of their adversarial relationship.

Finley tried to sell Fingers and left fielder Joe Rudi to the Boston Red Sox and left-hander Vida Blue to the Yankees in 1976. Fingers and Rudi brought $1 million each. Finley picked up $1.5 million for Blue.

As it happened, Boston was about to begin a series in Oakland when Finley and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey agreed on the deal.

“I packed up my stuff in a box and went over to the visiting clubhouse,” Fingers said.

But after three days, then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn pulled the plug on Finley’s fire sale and ordered all three players returned to the A’s.

Fingers had warmed up in the Boston bullpen twice during the series, but never got into a game. Nor did Rudi, who had been hurt. Blue also never pitched for the Yankees during his exodus from the A’s.

“If I’d gotten into a game in that series, I don’t think they could have done anything,” Fingers said. “But I didn’t. So I packed up my stuff and walked back over to the A’s clubhouse.”

Fingers signed with the San Diego Padres as a free agent after the 1976 season. He recalled negotiating with Padres owner Ray Croc and general manager Buzzie Bavasi.

“We were in Ray’s office and Buzzie said, ‘We’d like to have you pitch out of our bullpen,’ ” Fingers said. “I said, ‘What kind of money are we talking about?’ He said, ‘We’ll give you a five-year contact at $250,000 a year and a half-million signing bonus.’

“I said, ‘Give me the [expletive] pen!’ “

Fingers saved 35, 37, 13 and 23 games for the Padres from 1977-80, then was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on Dec. 8, 1980. Less than a week later, the Cardinals dealt him to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Fingers was 6-3 with a 1.04 ERA and was the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1981, when the Brewers won the AL East, but lost to the New York Yankees in the ALDS. He saved 29 games in ’82, when Milwaukee got to the World Series and lost to the Cardinals.

By the time he retired after the 1985 season, Fingers had amassed a then-MLB record 341 saves. He finished with a career record of 114-118 and 2.90 ERA.

Fingers, then 39, could have played at least another season, another meddlesome owner was to blame for the end of his career.

“[Then-Reds manager] Pete Rose wanted to sign me in ’86, but Marge Schott said I’d have to shave off my mustache,” Fingers said. “I said no. I wasn’t going to do that.”

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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