By JAY LeBLANC
Bobby Thigpen played nine big league seasons and finished his career with 201 career saves, but he’s best remembered for the 57 he notched for the Chicago White Sox in 1990. Dominant closers came and went over the next 17 years, but none managed to surpass Thigpen’s single-season record. Until last season, that is, when Francisco Rodriguez racked up a whopping 62 saves for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
“I was getting phone calls all summer, the closer he got,” Thigpen said Tuesday morning before the team he serves as pitching coach for, the Winston-Salem Dash, took on the Potomac Nationals in Woodbridge, Va. “I knew it was a matter of time before somebody did it. A couple guys got close a couple years in a row - you know, five or six years ago, when [John] Smoltz and [Eric] Gagne had 55 back-to-back - so it was a matter of time. I felt fortunate and happy that I kept it for 18 years.”
The White Sox selected Thigpen, who played with future big leaguers Jeff Brantley, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro at Mississippi State University, in the fourth round of the 1985 draft. He made his big league debut about 14 months later on Aug. 6, 1986, and went on to post a 1.77 ERA and secure his first seven career saves down the stretch that season. Thigpen upped his save total to 16 in 1987 and set the stage for his record-breaking season with consecutive 34-save campaigns in 1988 and 1989.
Thigpen said he benefited greatly from throwing to Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk during his formative years with the White Sox. “He was great for me,” he said. “Having him back there behind the plate, I never really had to worry about what pitches to call … Whatever he put down, I figured that was the best thing to throw at that point, so I never really had to worry about how to pitch to guys, because I had him back there and I just depended on him a lot to do that for me.”
Thigpen’s save total dropped back to 30 in 1991 and he followed that up with his worst season to date in 1992, saving 22 games - the fewest since his rookie year - with a career-high 4.75 ERA. After posting a 5.83 ERA and earning just one save in his first 25 appearances during the 1993 season, Thigpen was traded to the contending Philadelphia Phillies. He helped to solidify the bullpen down the stretch as the Phillies - led by players like Curt Schilling, Lenny Dkystra, John Kruk and Darren Daulton - went on to capture the National League East division title and then defeat the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. The Phillies fell to Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays in the Fall Classic, but Thigpen did his part, contributing 2 2/3 scoreless innings in two relief appearances.
“It was a great bunch of guys and they had just a great time playing the game,” Thigpen said, while reminiscing about that Phillies squad. “At that point in my career I was kind of thinking about hanging ‘em up and getting tired of the game - I wasn’t having fun anymore. And when I got to [Philadelphia] in ‘93 for two months it made me realize that the game was still fun, and I just had a great time and I wanted to keep playing after that.”
Thigpen signed with the Seattle Mariners that offseason but was released after posting a 9.39 ERA in seven April appearances, effectively ending his big league career. “[Ken Griffey Jr.] was making a name for himself,” Thigpen said. “He kind of ran the show there. Randy [Johnson] I had known since college when we played up in Alaska in the summer league … He’s a different guy. He goes about his business and does his own thing, but it was fun being there with him. Jay Buhner was another one that I got to know pretty well, and he was just a great guy to be around, too.”
Thigpen, who finished with a 3.43 ERA in 568 2/3 innings, succeeded with just a pair of very effective pitches for most of his career. “I was basically just a sinker-slider guy,” he said. “I kind of developed a changeup later in my career, but for the most part, I just came in and threw sinkers and sliders.” He also had the mental toughness - and perspective - needed for the closer’s role. “You’ve got to forget about yesterday,” Thigpen said. “Win or lose, you’ve got to be able to just bounce back the next day, because you’re possibly in the game every day. You have to have a short memory.”
Now 45, Thigpen is trying to make it back to the majors as a coach. He’s in his first season as pitching coach for the Dash after spending the past two summers managing the White Sox’ Rookie-level Appalachian League club, the Bristol Sox. “[Managing] was kind of different for me,” he said. “I really liked it, because it helped me realize that I was actually watching half the game. In other words, when you’re managing and you’re running things, you have to watch everything, every pitch. As a pitching coach you can kind of relax with your guys in the dugout, and you don’t really pay attention when you’re hitting as much.”
Thigpen said he’s still in the process of learning what it takes to be a good pitching coach. “You know, it’s something that I guessed would come natural because I’ve always been a pitching guy,” he said. “After this year I’ll probably feel more comfortable - I’m still a little nervous that maybe I’m not doing something right, or maybe I’m not keeping up with something the way I should. So even though I’m a pitching guy, I’m still kind of learning on the job.”
Although he’s getting his feet wet as a pitching coach in 2009, Thigpen thinks he’d make a good big league bullpen coach. “I’d like to get back. I’d like a bullpen job,” he said. “I’m not necessarily sure if I’d like to be a pitching guy, but I’d like to be a bullpen guy. The reason I say that is because with the relievers, the bullpen guys, a lot of the preparation is mental. Like I talked about before, it’s having to deal with success and failure, and I think I could do well as far as helping guys cope with the day in and day out of being a reliever.”
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.