We live in power reliever times, but neither our Kimbrels nor Betancii have hardware. Éric Gagné won the Cy Young Award in the second season of his extraordinary three-year peak, a 2003 campaign in which he had a 1.20 ERA over 82.1 IP with 137Ks and 55 saves against the league’s bulked-up offenses, and did it in style.
The style, of course, was that of the Hanson brothers. French-Canadian Gagné always looked, true to form, like a hockey goalie ready to fight. It was easy to love him when he was great, but when the arm started to give out, he started to look more and more like a goon. Shortly after imploding on the 2007 Red Sox and 2008 Brewers, Gagné knew it, and retired.
Now, Gagne’s back, or “back,” or “potentially back” or “potentially, potentially back.” He’s 41 and allegedly “thinking” about returning to baseball, if anyone would have him, after this spring’s World Baseball Classic, in which he will pitch for Canada. You can understand why he’d be enticed, as the sports has shifted since his retirement to fetishize the player he was 15 years ago, but will baseball return the favor?
It seems unlikely. It is surely possible, especially if he has an effective WBC, and it is also possible that a decade of rest has nurtured his body to the point he can once again pitch. Baseball exists to surprise us, and it would be a great surprise if it was so.
What’s not a surprise is an an old-timer getting the itch to play again come late February. Everyone wants baseball, but all we need to do as fans is watch. Gagné needs to pitch, and not just for a two-month stretch. Attrition comes for even the best ballplayers, and even the live-arm feeling Gagne has after a decade off should cool a bit come April, and what then?
Gagné was always a man out of time and place, first as an effective pitcher in the heavily medicated early aughts (we’ll get to this) and on the 2007 Sox, a team that was an otherwise smoothly operating juggernaut that hummed to the title, a three-games-to-one deficit in the American League Championship Series notwithstanding. The Sox traded Engel Beltre, Kason Gabbard and David Murphy for Gagne at the trade deadline, and he saved his absolute worst for Boston.
In fairness to Boston, Gagné had good counting stats for the Rangers, pitching 33.1 IP with a 2.16 ERA. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average — a stat that, inconveniently enough, wouldn’t exist for nearly a decade — we now know his “true” talent level was in line with his 4.72 DRA.
The Gagné the Sox got was in perfectly in line with that one, as he put up a 4.74 DRA in Boston, but the counting stats were odious: 18.7 IP and a 6.75 ERA. By the end of the season and into the playoffs he was restricted to mop-up duty, but one where the janitor routinely spilled his bucket. Gagné would pitch one last year for Milwaukee, where his ERA would drop by a point but his DRA would rise to a career-high 5.79. He signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers in 2010 but never made the show, and that seemed like that.
And now, dear reader, to the drugs.
In his 2012 book, “Game Over: The Story of Éric Gagné,” he announced that he began taking HGH toward the end of his career, and it nearly destroyed him. "It was sufficient to ruin my health, tarnish my reputation and throw a shadow over the extraordinary performances of my career,” he wrote.
If nothing else, Gagné’s admission provides a honest window through which to view the decisions of players with respect to “performance-enhancing drugs” instead of the cheater/non-cheater discussion: many choose it as a last resort. It is also a reminder that not every drug is a miracle, or even that effective on its own, let alone potentially replacing a stronger, more extraordinary PED, with which no one wanted to be associated.
Nine years later, though, it turns out HGH wasn’t a last resort for Gagné; that real last resort, the drug none of us can quit, is nostalgia. Is there any reason to think Gagné could stick around? The answer is no, but it will be fun to watch him try. In all likelihood, this is Gagné getting that live-arm high and dream of chasing a dragon he’ll never catch again. And even if he does — even if he grabs it by the tail, gets its fire-breathing attention -- well, what then?