/

Dodgers closer Gagne would rather be chasing a hockey puck in NHL

by Rob Smaal

Eric Gagne is a 25-year-old pitcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After three rather unspectacular years as a starting pitcher with the Dodgers, the Montreal native was converted to a closer prior to this past season.

News photoDodgers pitcher Eric Gagne delivers the goods during the
recent MLB-Japan All-Star Series.

The results were beyond anyone’s expectations: His 52 saves were the second-highest total in the majors this year (behind only John Smoltz’s 55) and the fifth highest ever. He also shattered the Dodgers’ single-season mark of 44 set by Todd Worrell in 1996 and posted a miniscule ERA of 1.97. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out 114 in 82 innings and Gagne worked one inning at the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee.

With his thick glasses and Pearl Jam-style chin fuzz, Gagne does not look like your typical baseball player. But despite appearances, the 188-cm, 88-kg Canuck can really bring it. His 152-kph fastballs had the Japanese fans “oohing and aahing” during the recent MLB-Japan All-Star Series, in which Gagne was named MVP of Game 6 last Saturday at the Tokyo Dome after striking out feared sluggers Norihiro Nakamura and Alex Cabrera before getting Hideki Matsui to ground out late in a tight contest.

I had a chance to talk to the affable French-Canadian prior to Game 5 at the Tokyo Dome.

Japan Times: Recently there have been some very good young pitchers coming out of Canada. Two of the top draft picks last year were pitchers from north of the border. What’s up with that?

Eric Gagne: I think they realize that there’s a lot of raw talent up there, a lot of good arms over there in Canada. It started with Ryan Dempster (of the Florida Marlins), I think. He was an All-Star and everyone opened their eyes (after his success.)

JT: As a kid in Montreal, was your hero hockey star Guy Lafleur or a baseball player, like maybe Fergie Jenkins?

Gagne: Probably everybody (laughing). I liked Claude Raymond (who pitched in the majors from 1959-71) a lot, he’s French-Canadian, and Gary Carter as baseball players. With hockey players, I liked Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, basically every hockey player.

So, did you grow up dreaming of playing in the NHL or the major leagues?

NHL (laughing). I mean, I’m not a baseball player. You can tell when I’m out there I look weird on the mound. I’m not a baseball player, I just happen to have more talent in baseball. I love the game, but you always dream about being a hockey player, I still dream about it.

I heard that your Japanese teammates in L.A., Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii, were showing you around while you’re here in Japan.

Yeah, we went out with Nomo and Ishii to Jojo-en, or something like that. It’s a great restaurant, a Korean barbecue. It’s an unbelievable place in downtown Tokyo, I had a great time. I love this city, it’s a great city. Tonight we’re going out with Ishii again for some more good food. I really enjoy it and my wife’s here and she likes it too. We’re actually on our honeymoon right now.

What will stick out the most about Japan when you get back home and tell your friends and family about it?

Food. The food’s amazing, I love the Japanese food. There’s also a lot of different stuff, like how there’s no space. There’s people everywhere (laughs). And how the people are so nice to us. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s us or they’re just that nice, because everybody’s been so nice to us and it’s been first-class all the way. And the crowds are tremendous. They love the game, and they know the game.

You had a little snow in Sapporo yesterday. Did it make you feel at home?

Yeah, finally I get some good weather. I love it. I woke up this morning and there was snow everywhere in Sapporo. It’s been a good experience so far.

So, does all that sunshine in Los Angeles start to get you down after a while?

Not really (laughs). You can’t get down that much. I love everything about L.A. The weather’s great, we have a great team, great friends over there. But for me, I always have to go back to my roots, I always have to go back to Montreal, and yesterday made me feel like home.