Like many relievers, Rod Beck is a high-wire act. With his Al Hrabosky-ish Fu Man Chu mustache, Mickey Lolich waistline, and long stringy hair sticking out the back of his cap, the rubber-armed Beck compiled 260 saves in the 1990s and is the Giants all-time leader in that category.
Beck grew up in Southern California and made many trips to Dodger Stadium as a youth. But he’d never visited Anaheim Stadium until he pitched there. “If there’s an American League game on TV, I’ll turn it on mute and play pool,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1999. “I didn’t like the American League going to the designated hitter. I always wanted to be a pitcher, but I wanted to hit, too.”
Indeed, Beck’s first major-league appearance was auspicious — not for his arm, but for his bat. His first hit came in his first at-bat, a single off John Smoltz in 1991. The following year, he replaced Dave Righetti and Jeff Brantley as the Giants’ closer. He did not allow a run in 17 innings over eight outings during April, yielded just one earned run in just one of his first 17 appearances, and was successful in his first eight save opportunities through July 8. He then finished the year by allowing just one earned run in 28.1 innings pitched over his last 22 appearances.
Beck had his best season in 1993 when he recorded 48 saves, including a record 24 straight. The total established a new Giants club single-season record, and ranked second in the majors to the Cubs’ Randy Myers, who recorded a National League-record 53. In 1994, he broke his own consecutive-saves record by converting all 28 of his opportunities (stopped only by the strike) and won the Rolaids Relief award. In 1995, he converted his first 13 for a total of 41, a multiple-season streak that hadn’t even been kept as a record previously.
In 1996, Beck’s appearances started to get hairier in more ways than one. Despite his 35 saves, he blew seven and went 0-9. But even though Beck was no longer automatic, he was still reliable, saving another 37 games for the Giants in 1997.
Beck moved to the Chicago Cubs as a free agent in 1998. His first save with the Cubs was the 200th of his career, and he endeared himself to Wrigley Field fans with 50 more. Only four other closers in history had recorded fifty-save seasons — including the Padres’ Trevor Hoffman, who topped Beck with 53 that same year.
In 1999, Beck’s fastball lost its bite. After an ineffective start, he was finally diagnosed with bone chips in his shoulder and spent two months on the DL after undergoing surgery in May. “Got a new arm,” he said to reporters, adding, “I’d love a new body.”
Beck returned to the Cubs on July 21, earlier than expected, and would eventually admit that he’d come back too soon. Beck had lost his job to the newly-acquired Rick Aguilera, and never regained the form he’d shown in 1998. On August 31, he was sent to Boston in exchange for lefty reliever Mark Guthrie and third baseman Cole Liniak — arriving at Fenway Park in the third inning of a game in which he would eventually register his first American League save.
He saved another two games for the Red Sox over the final month of the season, but gave up a game-winning, tenth-inning homer to Bernie Williams in the first game of the ALCS and another to Ricky Ledee in the ninth inning of Game Four.
Beck’s subpar 1999 season convinced the reliever that it was time to make an adjustment if he wanted to continue competing in the major leagues. After perfecting a slider and mastering the art of changing speeds on his declining fastball, Beck rebounded in a new role for the Red Sox in 2000 and became a middle reliever par excellence. His K-to-innings pitched ratios climbed back nearly to the levels he attained at his flame-throwing best. In 2001, Beck finished among the American League leaders in holds with 15. Arm problems–brought on, perhaps, by overuse in 2001–cost him the entire 2002. However in 2003, Beck came back with the San Diego Padres to record one of his finest performances, Pitching for a .488 team, Beck filled in for injured closer Trevor Hoffman and saved 20 games while posting a 1.78 e.r.a.. It was his last taste of major league success. Beck’s arm gave out the following year and he left major league baseball for good at the end of the 2004 season. He died at age 38 on June 24, 2007.