June 23, 2006
When Mets' Closer Falters, the Reds' Coffey Dashes In
By JOE LAPOINTE
When Cincinnati relief pitcher Todd Coffey sprints from the bullpen to the mound, he seems to be a young man in a hurry. But Coffey's emergence this season as the closer for the surprisingly competitive Reds has been a gradual journey of patience and progress despite multiple obstacles.
Early in Coffey's seven-season trajectory through the minor leagues, he needed elbow surgery. He was almost 100 pounds overweight. The Reds considered releasing him until Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the team's medical director, went to bat for him.
"I told the front office: 'If this kid is done, he's got nothing, it's going to ruin his life,' " Kremchek said in a telephone interview. "After the surgery, I told Todd: 'I'm going to level with you: Your elbow's fixed but you've got to get in shape.' He had the tears, the whole nine yards."
Having saved Wednesday night's game against the Mets after Billy Wagner, one of the game's premier closers, failed to convert his own chance for a save in the top of the ninth, Coffey has a record of 3-1 with five saves and an earned run average of 2.29. He has one blown save to Wagner's four, and could be a significant factor as the Reds continue to fight for first place in the National League Central.
Because of his size and full-speed dashes to the mound, Coffey might be a particularly noticeable factor, too. At age 25, he is 6 feet 5 inches and 230 pounds. In high school, he weighed more than 300 pounds when he was drafted in the 41st of 50 rounds in 1998.
Coffey is leaner than he used to be and his fastball is faster, but he is still a work in progress, according to his manager, Jerry Narron, and his interim pitching coach, Tom Hume. What could be wrong?
"I don't have a mean bone in my body," Coffey said, a potential shortcoming in a role that calls for intimidation. Against the Mets this week, Coffey arrived three hours before game time to play catch in the outfield. The other players call him "Hot Coffey," but Narron encouraged the nickname "Big Nasty" and urged Coffey, a North Carolina native, to grow his red beard and mustache for a more intimidating look.
"If he wants me to get mean and nasty out there, I'll just get meaner and meaner," Coffey said. Narron said he approved of Coffey's dashes from the bullpen but added, "I'm just hoping he doesn't pull a hamstring."
Coffey said he started sprinting in from the bullpen while playing in the minors for Chattanooga in 2004.
"All of a sudden, I started getting more adrenaline, so I started running in a little faster, a little faster, and then it turned into a dead-out sprint every time," he said. "Since then, it's pretty much been full out, let's go after it. It kind of helps me focus."
When Kremchek performed surgery to replace a ligament in Coffey's right elbow in 2000, he had to cut into Coffey's wrist and both legs before he found a tendon that was strong enough to transplant, weave and behave as a ligament.
Coffey's rehabilitation took more than a year, and he was surprised to find his velocity gradually growing to 97 miles an hour, faster than it had ever been.
Coffey, who married his high school sweetheart, Nikki, at 19, worked his way through six minor league stops. He was called up to the Reds last season and had a record of 4-1 in 58 innings, most of them in middle relief. Coffey recalled the day he informed his father, A. T. Coffey III, of his promotion.
"He couldn't even talk, he was crying on the phone," Coffey said of his father.
Pitching runs in the family. In a telephone interview, A. T. Coffey III said his own father, A. T. Coffey Jr., was a semiprofessional pitcher for the Rutherford County Owls before and after World War II. When Todd pitches, his father records the games to show his grandfather, who is 81 and living in a rehabilitation center because of arthritis. After watching his grandson pitch, Coffey Jr. called to offer pitching tips.
When Todd's grandfather pitched in high school, his catcher was Smokey Burgess, who played 18 years in the major leagues. That was before the closer role became a highly paid specialty. With a salary of $339,000, Todd Coffey is not making big money by major league standards, at least not yet. The 34-year-old Wagner, with a decade in the majors, is making nearly $11 million a year.
To be a successful closer, Coffey knows, a pitcher must forget previous games, successful or not. On Wednesday night, Coffey was warming up in the bullpen as Wagner failed to save the game for the Mets, and he had to shake off thoughts he might do the same in the bottom of the ninth. He sprinted in and confronted the heart of the Mets' order, walking Carlos Beltrán, getting Carlos Delgado to fly out and inducing a game-ending double play from David Wright.
"As soon as Wagner gave up the hit, I got jacked up," Coffey said yesterday, referring to the two-run single by Brandon Phillips that gave the Reds a 6-5 lead. "I'm ready to go. Let's go right now. I'm ready to run out there on the field and go after them."
It was a good game for Coffey to file away, for his success and for Wagner's failure. Neither Wagner nor Coffey were called on in yesterday's 6-2 victory by the Mets. Kremchek, back in Cincinnati, suggested that Coffey remembers plenty. When Kremchek visits the clubhouse, Coffey often seeks him out for conversations.
"He looks me in the eye and says: 'I just want to tell you: 'Thanks again. You changed my life.'
"He gives me chills," Kremchek added. "I'm more proud of Todd Coffey than anybody I've ever treated. He makes me feel good about what I do. He just loves the game. He's the genuine article."