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06/14/09 1:00 AM ET
Coffey helps keep reliever antics alive
Hurlers' quirks often about focus, not attention
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers reliever Todd Coffey's act is more mad dash than "Mad Hungarian," but these days he makes Major League Baseball's most entertaining entrance. Coffey's all-out sprint from the bullpen to the mound has made him an instant favorite at Miller Park, where a scoreboard clock tracks "Coffey Time" and the fans jump to their feet when the right-hander appears at an open bullpen door. "As beautiful as this game is, it's starved for color," said Cardinals broadcaster Al Hrabosky, the aforementioned Mad Hungarian, whose mound antics made him a favorite for St. Louis, Kansas City and Atlanta three decades ago. "I always thought you wanted to conserve a little energy, but if that's what makes [Coffey] feel good, then go for it." Coffey certainly isn't the first reliever to enter a game with style. The Brewers' own Trevor Hoffman has trotted in to AC/DC's "Hells Bells" for more than a decade, and the Yankees' Mariano Rivera makes an equally iconic entrance to Metallica's "Enter Sandman." John Rocker, the former Braves closer, had his own all-out sprint from the bullpen, as did former left-handed journeyman Craig Lefferts. The king of bullpen quirks was former Cubs, Mets and Phillies reliever Turk Wendell, whose routine included waving to the center fielder upon entering a game and then waiting for a wave back before he would throw a pitch. Wendell was known for brushing his teeth between innings, leaping over the foul lines on the way to the dugout and then munching on black licorice when he got there. Then there are the relievers who save their show for the mound. Milwaukeeans remember the way Mike Fetters snapped his gaze toward the hitter before each pitch. Today, there's Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez pointing to the sky, the Giants' Brian Wilson crossing his arms after converting a save, the Astros' Jose Valverde dancing and fist-pumping his way through his outings and the Braves' Mike Gonzalez lulling hitters to sleep with gyrations before each pitch. "I think guys do that kind of thing more these days," said Bob Uecker, the Brewers' Hall of Fame radio voice, of the antics. "Back in the old days, those kinds of things were frowned upon, and there were ways of taking care of it." Frowned upon, perhaps. But not unheard of. Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley used to infuriate hitters by pointing at them after a strikeout, as if he were shooting a pistol. But the master of the mound act was Hrabosky, who developed his alter ego during his days in the Cardinals' Minor League chain. The Mad Hungarian was born. Between pitches, he would retreat to the back of the mound for what MLB.com's Dick Kaegel, who has covered both the Cardinals and the Royals, described as a séance. Hrabosky took a deep breath, raised his arms and then pounded the baseball into his mitt as if he was trying to break it into pieces. When he turned to face the hitter, Hrabosky stared him back to the Minors. "He made you upset," said Brewers manager Ken Macha, who singled and grounded out in his only matchups with Hrabosky. "I usually started swinging before he let go of the ball." Kaegel, who covers the Royals today, remembers the Cubs-Cardinals game in which Chicago's Bill Madlock took offense. He waited until Hrabosky was in the middle of his routine before stepping out of the batter's box. When Hrabosky started over, Madlock stepped out again. The umpire finally ordered Madlock back to the box, and when he refused, the ump ordered Hrabosky to pitch anyway. Strike one. That prompted an argument from Cubs manager Jim Marshall and on-deck batter Jose Cardenal. Amid the melee, Hrabosky was instructed to pitch again. "It's the only time I've seen three guys knocked down by one pitch," Kaegel said. Hrabosky insists his act was not about upsetting hitters. "I noticed early in my career that when I got mad at myself, I became useless," Hrabosky said. "I recognized that I had this growing surge that wasn't being challenged, so I tried to get into a 'controlled hate' mood. I got myself worked up to the point I could use it for something positive." It apparently worked. Hrabosky led the National League with 22 saves in 1975 while posting a 1.66 ERA, and he saved 20 games for the Royals in 1978 for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Coffey, whose act is a bit less confrontational, would love to follow the same path. The Brewers plucked him off the waiver wire after his release by the Reds last Sept. 9, his 28th birthday. The move gave a new group of fans the opportunity to cheer Coffey's entertaining entrance. "Some people walk out there, some people trot," Coffey said. "I want those hitters to know that I'm ready to get out there and go after you. When I pitch, I'm not going to guarantee success every time, but I guarantee that you're going to get everything I've got." Coffey, all 6-foot-4 and 241 pounds of him -- at least that's his weight in the media guide -- has been darting into games since 2004. After his Double-A Chattanooga teammates had rallied for a big lead, Coffey was so fired up that he spontaneously sprinted. "I loved the way it made me feel," Coffey said. "You always get that adrenaline spike when you get into a game, but I feel like I burn mine off by running in. By the time I get to the mound, I'm calm and focused." That's not always true of the manager. Macha was startled when he made his first call for Coffey this spring and wondered if he'd have to linger on the mound for a few minutes to let the right-hander catch his breath. Brewers bullpen coach Stan Kyles calls Coffey's sprint, "his jump-start." "Some managers kind of jump back," Coffey said. "They think you're not going to be able to stop." Until he pulls a hamstring, the Brewers intend to let Coffey keep on running. He has been excellent as a co-setup man with Carlos Villanueva to all-time saves leader Hoffman. Fans have been eating it up. "When I hear them yelling and screaming, that makes me run a little bit harder," Coffey said.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.