WASHINGTON D.C., January 14th – There are two relief player stories you probably heard about this week. One was the retirement of all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. The other was the overpriced signing of Rafael Soriano by the New York Yankees. While the temptation to lambast the idea of giving $12 million to a setup man was very tempting, I instead wanted to shed some light on an All-Star reliever who most have not heard of, the late Ryne Duren.
If you’re a Cubs fan, you’ve probably been stuck in a permanent cringing position from watching Carlos Marmol close out games for the past two years. If that was hard, then try watching Duren pitch. He could blow batters away with his 100 mph fastball, but it’s hard to believe that he knew where he was throwing it.
His one pitch did its job, though, scaring the hell out of hitters. His manager, the legendary Casey Stengel quipped that he “would not admire hitting against Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head, you might be in the past tense.”
Duren carefully cultivated his tough guy image, hurdling the bullpen fence upon entering a game, and routinely firing his first warmup pitch 20 or more feet above the catcher’s head. He even intimidated the best of the best. In a 1985 Los Angeles Times interview, Ted Williams recalled a conversation he had with Duren at the 1959 All-Star Game. While both players were watching batting practice, Williams asked Duren how he pitched to Tigers slugger Al Kaline, the hitter in the cage at the time. According to Williams, Duren leaned forward, “looked toward the batting cage, started squinting [through his famous Coke bottle glasses] and said ‘Who is it?’” “All of a sudden”, Williams remembered, “I realized that this guy really couldn’t see…and after that, I was more worried than ever when facing Ryne.”
Duren was a colorful character to the last, a Yankee legend who faded slowly into oblivion. I doubt that baseball will see another player in his league in wildness and intimidation anytime soon.
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