07/14/2003 9:39 PM ET
Dodgers unassuming All-Stars
CHICAGO -- A year ago, Eric Gagne was wide-eyed, completely taken aback by the fact that he was sharing a clubhouse with National League All-Stars.
"When I walked in that clubhouse last year, I felt so small," said Gagne, who at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds definitely does not qualify as small. "Everybody in there looked so big. They're all superstars, the guys who used to be my heroes. It was pretty amazing, pretty special."
This time around, it's not exactly old hat, but the Dodgers closer is feeling better, and maybe a little bigger, his second time around at the All-Star Game.
"I know the people a lot more, I know what to do, I know where to go, I'm not worried about being late anywhere," Gagne said. "I'm not that nervous."
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Perhaps he can pass along some of his wisdom to Paul Lo Duca, the Dodgers catcher who is making his first appearance in the Midsummer Classic. The Dodgers actually had three players selected for the game, but pitcher Kevin Brown had to be scratched with a lower abdominal strain.
Lo Duca knows the feeling Gagne was going through last year.
"I'm a little in awe," Lo Duca said. "Being in the same room with all these guys, it's so flattering. I'm having so much fun, just seeing all the activity around everything. My mind's going in 80 different directions. I don't know where to go, what to do."
Well, at least he has a teammate around to show him.
For Gagne, a second straight All-Star nod means another chance to spend time in the same bullpen with Atlanta closer John Smoltz, along with premier closers Billy Wagner of Houston and Mike Williams of Pittsburgh. Both Smoltz and Gagne are converted starters, though Smoltz's move had to do with returning from arm problems and Gagne's had more to do with saving his career -- he had pretty much washed out as a starter.
Gagne's not quite ready to put himself in the same class as Smoltz, however.
"I never want to put my name in the same sentence as John Smoltz," said Gagne, currently second in the Majors in saves with 31, behind Smoltz's 34. "He's been doing this for 10 or 15 years. I've only been doing this for a year, and there's a lot for me to prove. I feel like I learn something every time I step on the mound, and I gain confidence. But he's been doing this for a long time."
Smoltz respectfully disagrees.
The Braves closer definitely counts Gagne among his peers. Considering the two locked horns in the most high-stakes saves race in baseball history last year and are well on their way to another one, Smoltz has reason to keep an admiring eye on Gagne.
"He's been unbelievable," said Smoltz. "He's kind of the picture of a closer: He's intimidating on the mound, he's got the goggle. He looks like a closer. I still have my starter's mentality and go out and pitch. He does, too, but he's got that intimidation going for him."
Smoltz said last year's neck-and-neck race for the NL saves title into September definitely got his attention. Smoltz wound up with an NL-record 55 saves, barely outdistancing Gagne's 52.
"He's the future of closers, as far as I'm concerned," Smoltz said.
Gagne might not want to put himself in that class just yet, but there's no question there's a closer from the past who had an influence on him.
His favorite player while growing up in Montreal: Expos closer John Wetteland, who finished his career with 330 saves, good for eighth on the all-time list.
"When he was with the Expos, I used to be a huge fan of him," Gagne said. "I never thought I was going to be a closer in the Majors or even be in the Major Leagues, so it's kind of ironic that I'm a closer in the big leagues."
Not only "a" closer. An All-Star closer.
But don't look too deeply for All-Star memories from Gagne's childhood. He was only 6 years old when the game was played in Montreal in 1982, and doesn't even remember the game itself.
"I was too much into hockey at the time," Gagne said.
Good thing for the Dodgers he found baseball -- and found himself as an All-Star closer.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.