Ball game over for starters?

The ball game is nearly over for starting pitchers. Soon, they’ll be as rare as Expos fans. Oh, sure, somebody<ital> will be out there on the big-league mounds when games begin, but the long reign of dominant starters is over. Forty-year-old barrels like Roger Clemens are kaput.

The new kid on the block is the closer, the aristocrat who strolls from the bullpen for the ninth inning to nail down a verdict undertaken by faceless starters and assorted relief pitchers.

Once, way back when Abner Doubleday first put his name on a baseball, pitchers finished what they started. As the game evolved, relief pitchers were invented to rescue them if they stumbled. Then, to seal victory, hard-thinking managers brought in their one-inning specialists to pin down the ninth inning.

Occasionally, those early-inning relievers stumbled before the ninth inning, so a replacement, a set-up man, handled the eighth inning, clearing a path for the closer. And that’s the way it is now on the brink of another World Series — starter, reliever, set-up man, closer.

Inevitably, the question arises: what diminished the role of the lordly starter, guysuch as Bob Feller, say, 18 years in the big leagues, with three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters, a dizzying 36 complete games and 348 strikeouts in 1946? Or like Warren Spahn, an unquenchable left-hander — pitching or talking. All old Spahnie won were 363 games in 21 seasons. In 16 of those years, he topped 250 innings — and twice he went past 300. Nowadays, if a guy approaches 200 innings, he’s practically knighted.

By an uncanny coincidence, to lend comment on such ponderous questions, there are experts in the house, a couple whose names happen to be Feller and Spahn. Providing access to this pair is one Jack Dominico, who owns and operates the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Intercounty Baseball League in southern Ontario. Every spring, Jack brings aging Hall of Fame ballplayers to Toronto to appear at his team’s opener. Availed of Feller and Spahn, out came your agent’s notebook.

Feller said modern pitchers take unprepared arms to their work.

“I milked cows,” he said. “I milked ’em morning and night for years. I picked corn all day long, too. And I guided a harrow behind horses.”

He paused to ask, “You ever see a harrow? You have to guide ’em through rough ground like this.” He began swaying his arms, holding them parallel in front of him. Then he said pitchers nowadays don’t milk cows, they don’t shuck corn and they don’t guide those harrows. Feller added no wonder they can’t go nine.

Spahn, sputtering, said today’s pitchers are lazy. Actually what he said was, “They’re so damned lazy.” He used to go to the outfield between starts and throw the ball like an outfielder, not lobbing it back to the guy hitting fungoes but rifling it in as an outfielder does. “Strengthened the arm.”

But another former pitcher isn’t so sure modern pitchers don’t work hard — Dr. Ron Taylor, team doctor for the Blue Jays since their inception in 1977. He’s been there, done that — 11 big-league seasons, mostly as a reliever before the invention of closers. “You seldom see a big-league pitcher who doesn’t work at his conditioning, putting in running time and work on the sidelines,” he says. “Also, they’re bigger and stronger than they used to be, and there have been scientific studies to help them.”

And closers, what produced them? “They’re usually guys with one dominant pitch, someone the manager figures can go in there for one inning and take over.”

As a player, Toronto-born Taylor’s most memorable moment came in the 1964 World Series, pitching for the Cardinals in Yankee Stadium. With a 4-3 lead, he worked the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, allowed no runs, no hits and only one base-runner — Mickey Mantle, who walked in the eighth on a 3-and-2 count after Taylor had fanned him in the fifth.

Nowadays, with bigger and stronger hitters than 30 years ago, late traffic often threatens before the ninth inning. Thus, enter a reliever to pitch the eighth, the set-up man. Who knows, soon at your neighbourhood ballpark: nine-man pitching rosters, each guy working an inning. God knows what happens if she goes extra innings.