As a kid, Rich Gossage's dreams never matched those of his father. "My dad always said, 'You're going to play in the big leagues some day,' " Gossage recalled. "I pooh-poohed that. I would be like, 'Aw, dad, please don't say that.' And sure enough, here I am."
Gossage did more than just play in the major leagues. He became a dominant relief pitcher in a 22-year career that will receive its finishing touch on Sunday when he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For Gossage, a shy, humble guy from the Rocky Mountains, what has transpired since those talks with his dad, Jake, is simply mind-boggling.
"I can't even really comprehend my career," said Gossage, elected in January on his ninth try. "Really, I just can't believe that a kid from Colorado, just a big fan of the game _ it's totally overwhelming being elected to the Hall and to have had the career that I had."
What's even more difficult to believe is that it took so long. The "Goose" was as significant a pioneer as anybody in the evolution of today's relief pitcher.
Gossage finished his career as a Seattle Mariner in 1994 with a 124-107 record, 1,502 strikeouts and 3.01 ERA in 1,002 games. He ranks third in both wins in relief (115) and innings pitched in relief (1,556). Of his 310 career saves, Gossage worked more than two innings 52 times (by comparison, prior to the 2008 season, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had done that just once in 443 saves and San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, the career saves leader, has never done it) and recorded at least six outs in 125 saves.
"I saw that total evolution of what the bullpen was to what it became," said the 57-year-old Gossage, the second top reliever to be inducted in the past three years (Bruce Sutter was elected in 2006 in his 13th year on the ballot, joining Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, and Dennis Eckersley). "I knew how the job evolved. No one had a better seat than I did.
"I think the closers today are so dominant in that role that people kind of forgot what we used to do, the number of innings that we pitched, the jams that we used to come in to. Now it takes three guys to do what we used to do."
Gossage signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1970, and it's no coincidence that he has invited his first big league manager to Sunday's ceremony. Acting on the advice of renowned pitching coach Johnny Sain, Chuck Tanner made a special trip to Appleton of the Class A Midwest League in 1971 to teach Gossage to throw a changeup. It only took about five minutes, and Gossage finished the season 18-2, was selected league player of the year, and made the jump to the White Sox the next season.
"Chuck Tanner was the most influential manager in my career," Gossage said. "I would never have made it if he hadn't made that trip."
Up with the big club, the 20-year-old right-hander became a reliever and Tanner taught him the most important lesson of all.
"He told me when I first came to the big leagues, 'Son, if you don't make that hitter as uncomfortable as you can, you might as well go do something else,'" Gossage said.
Gossage was dubbed "Goose" by rookie-year roommate Tom Bradley, who said Gossage looked like a goose when he leaned over on the mound to get the catcher's sign. And at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with a blazing fastball, Fu Manchu mustache and menacing stare, following Tanner's advice was easy, even for somebody whose demeanor off the field was the exact opposite of what he portrayed on the mound.
"He came out of that bullpen like John Wayne," Tanner said. "He had no fear of anybody. He was an intimidator with a 99 mile-an-hour fastball, 100 once in a while, and that would intimidate anybody."
"When I went between the lines, it was Jekyll and Hyde _ two different people," Gossage said. "Playing in the major leagues is not for the faint of heart. It was kind of the law of the jungle. You either eat or get eaten. If you're soft, you'd better be really, really good."
Gossage was anything but soft, and though he was good at his new job he didn't relish it initially.
"When Chuck put me down there, I didn't want to be in the bullpen," Gossage said. "That was an old junk pile down there where old starters went that couldn't start anymore. But hell, I was in the big leagues. I would have cleaned the toilets, whatever was necessary to stay."
Gossage simply had to throw to stay, and he quickly became enamored with the frenetic pace of his new role at a time when the position was evolving. Fingers was instrumental in Oakland's three straight World Series titles (1972-74) and Sutter was on the cusp of becoming a show-stopper for the Cubs.
"I hated the days off between starts," Gossage said. "I really enjoyed the opportunity of coming to the ballpark every day and pitching in a big situation with the game on the line. The bigger the jam, the better I felt I was.
"But those were grueling outs. Every pitch was maximum effort, every out was so critical because I came into situations that God couldn't get out of. I came into situations where you couldn't even allow the ball to be put in play, and I got out of them because I could strike guys out."
Tanner also helped Gossage when he urged the front office to trade left-hander Tommy John to the Dodgers for slugger Dick Allen in December 1971.
"Dick was a pro. He was like having a manager on the field," Tanner said. "He'd go in to the Goose and say, 'Hey, let them know you're the boss out here. Don't be afraid to throw one under their neck. Not only will you get his attention, everybody on the bench of the opposing team is going to look at you and you'll get their attention.' And Goose would listen to him."
"He (Allen) took me under his wing and taught me how to pitch my first year in the big leagues from a great hitter's standpoint," Gossage said. "No amount of money could have paid for that experience and advice."
Though Gossage played for nine teams, his star shone brightest in the six years he spent in the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, the team he idolized growing up in Colorado Springs, where he still lives.
Gossage signed as a free agent with New York in November 1977 and in his first season in the Bronx had 27 saves and a 2.01 ERA to help lead baseball's most storied franchise to its second straight World Series triumph. He was on the mound for the final out of the memorable playoff victory over the Boston Red Sox, the decisive Game 4 of the ALCS against Kansas City, and the Game 6 Series clincher against the Dodgers.
"Putting on the pinstripes was special, totally awesome," said Gossage, who will be wearing a Yankees cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. "The first time I pitched at Yankee Stadium I stood on the mound and looked around and my legs were shaking. I couldn't hardly put one foot in front of the other. I just stood there, and I looked around at the vastness in that huge stadium and I said, 'Dad, this is for you.' That was overwhelming."
There were low points, to be sure _ losing the 1980 ALCS to the Royals, surrendering the infamous pine-tar home run to George Brett three years later, and allowing Kirk Gibson's three-run homer in the final game of the 1984 World Series while pitching for San Diego.
Reflecting on those setbacks reveals the real Goose.
"I'm proud of those home runs," he said with a big smile.
Gossage will be enshrined with Dick Williams, one of his former managers, the late Larry Whiteside, a pioneering black journalist who will receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and Ford C. Frick Award winner Dave Niehaus. Former Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, former Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and former manager Billy Southworth, all deceased, will also be inducted.
Induction day isn't likely to be gleeful while Gossage is on stage. After all, this is a man who cried when they tore down Comiskey Park and who will cry again when the Yankees move to a new home next year. And he'll have to thank too many people who are no longer around, especially his dad, who died when Gossage was 17, and his mom, who died two years ago.
"She was my biggest fan. She always said, 'I hope I'm around if you go into the Hall of Fame,' " Gossage said, his voice quivering. "It's going to be very emotional for me. The anxiety is killing me. Maybe I just shouldn't even talk. I'll just give it to somebody to read."