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Talkin’ to Gene Garber about weird windups and reliever usage

Mar 5, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

CLEARWATER — I have avoided Chris Farley moments here, but I almost went fanboy on this guy a little while ago:


That’s Gene Garber, former Braves (and Phillies and Royals and Pirates) reliever. He’s a Braves spring training instructor these days, and he had some time to talk to me this morning as the Braves waited to do drills here in Clearwater.

For those who never saw him pitch, Garber had a most unique windup. He turned his back completely to the batter before coming home. Most people call that the Luis Tiant windup, as Tiant much more famously pitched that way. People of my vintage and disposition saw Garber do it first, however. Not that he originated it. Indeed, he told me he started doing that in the minors when, in 1971, both Garber and Tiant were in the International League. Garber was a starter back then, Tiant had pitched the night before and Garber watched him. The next day Garber gave it a try and it stuck.

“I liked being able to hide the ball,” Garber told me. “I didn’t throw 95, I needed something.” I asked him if it was hard to keep his balance whipping his head around like that from the second base to the home plate side. “No, it just came naturally. Immediately worked.” Garber said that he’s heard from a lot of kids who tried to do that — many of them Braves fans from the 70s and 80s like me — and he said everyone gives it up almost immediately because of the balance thing. If it hadn’t immediately clicked for him, he never would have done it either.

“I think you should teach that to Craig Kimbrel,” I told Garber. “Give him another weapon.”

“I don’t think he needs any more weapons,” Garber said. “He’s doing just fine.”

We transitioned into talking about the changing roles of relievers over the past couple of decades. Garber was a “closer,” technically speaking, but unlike closers today it wasn’t a ninth-inning-only thing in his day and his innings totals always greatly outweighed his games pitched. Indeed, they weren’t usually called closers. They were “relief aces” or “firemen” who might come in as early as the sixth inning — whenever a fire flared up they were required to extinguish — and pitch two or three innings some days. That usage pattern is long gone.

I asked Garber if he, were he the Braves manager, would consider using Craig Kimbrel in such a fashion. He’s a strikeout machine, obviously, and that tool would be pretty useful to get out of jams in which the opposing team had runners on as opposed to starting the ninth inning with no one on. Plus, I noted, Kimbrel just got a big contract extension, so his saves totals aren’t critical to his future earnings for the next several years. Garber, while acknowledging the utility of that kind of thing said it just wasn’t ever going to happen again.

“A manager will never be second-guessed by using his closer in the ninth,” Garber said. “Or his seventh inning guy in the seventh or eighth inning guy in the eighth . . . Even if you blow the game, at least you did it by the book.”

Unlike a lot of relief pitchers of his era, however, Garber didn’t sound like it was something terribly regrettable, noting that teams have lots of pitchers who can get strikeouts now.

“Take the Braves the past few years. Venters can strike people out. O’Flaherty could. It’s not like Kimbrel is the only one who can do that,” Garber said. “The game just changes.”

It does indeed. And it’s good to hear from someone of a previous era who can acknowledge that without casting aspersions on the new era. Things just change.

  1. stackers1 - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Wasn’t he the guy that ended Pete Rose’s 44 game hitting streak?

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:54 PM

      He was. Pissed Rose off major when he celebrated it after retiring him.

      • psousa1 - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:23 PM

        and Rose was pissed off that Garber didn’t challenge him with fastballs

  2. youngwomanscreek - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    Totally unrelated to baseball, of interest – he is VERY active in farmland preservation. Chairs the Ag Preserve Board in Lancaster Co, PA (has for years) and has a farm there. When he is not at spring training you can find him farming or working on preserving farms.

    • billybawl - Mar 5, 2014 at 4:23 PM

      That’s funny because first thing I thought when I saw the picture is that he looks like he’d be at home in a beater Ford or Chevy, checking the fence and listening to old country music.

  3. paperlions - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    When I hear the name Gene Garber, I immediately think of this image.

    No, I have no idea how or why I remember Garber as a player or his 1981 Topps card….I guess that just speaks to my obsession with baseball cards as a boy.

    • TheMorningStar - Mar 5, 2014 at 2:29 PM

      Gene Garber circa 1981 is a god to all those beard envious d’bags in Brooklyn!

  4. clydeserra - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:30 PM

    this is the best thing I will read all week.

    • billybawl - Mar 5, 2014 at 4:23 PM

      The Tiant story alone would have made a good article.

  5. happytwinsfan - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    i think he’s on to something when he says that managers usually don’t get ragged when they “go by the book”, 9th inning guy in the 9th, 8th in the 8th etc. and the managers know it. their desire to avoid criticism leads to a self fulfilling prophecy where relievers aspire to be the “closer” or failing that “setup man” etc., because closers make the most money, making it hard to sign free agent relievers without assuring them of a valued set role.

    some day some manager and general manager is going to break that mold by saying i bring in my best guy into the most critical game situation, anytime from the 7th on, and who pitches the 8th or the 9th is going to depend on the changing day to day match ups, and everybody will be paid according to their effectiveness not their job title.

  6. moogro - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:03 PM

    If there were a more pronounced drop-off from Kimbrel like there is on other teams, it would be a more difficult question. It seems the overall trend of a rising talent pool in relievers in MLB will diffuse the pressure on managers to use the best reliever in the highest leverage situations.

  7. jwoltman2 - Mar 6, 2014 at 12:34 AM

    WOW! Gene Garber. I haven’t seen him since 1969, since I [and my brother, Dave] were the batboys and Gene pitched for the York Pirates. First-class guy. Terrific pitcher. Huge competitor. Dave spoke with him a few years ago asking him to speak at our Susquehanna Baseball League banquet. Gene talked with him at length but, unfortunately, declined. His story and reason was touching [I’ll not elaborate here]. And I respected him immensely for holding to the promise he made to his brother and to his family when he set off to pursue his baseball career. Happy to see Gene is still involved with baseball and the Braves. I wish him all the best. I thank him for the 2 years we knew him here in York and the wonderful memories he gave my brother and me. And for always being a friend to two young aspiring ballplayers who looked up to and admired him. GODSPEED, Gene!

  8. mikhelb - Mar 6, 2014 at 5:29 AM

    Gene Garbee… he was nicknamed “La Lavadora” by either Jaime Jarrín, long time radio narrator of the Dodgers (he’s been with the tean since they arrived to LA or even bit before) or by the late Mario Thomas, one of the greatest mexican radio voices who narrated the San Diego Padres games from their arrival to MLB until 1997 when they moved from the radio station he worked at… he died a few years later but his legacy continues with Eduardo Ortega (along with his Padres partner Juan Ángel Ávila and Oscar Soria of the DBacks spanish radio one of the two best narrators from México).

    Oh yeah I forgot: la lavadora means the washing machine because his windup looked like a washing machine in motion. i think the nickname was even translated to english.

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