Fingers, Roland Glen ("Rollie")

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FINGERS, Roland Glen ("Rollie")

(b. 25 August 1946 in Steubenville, Ohio), Cy Young Award–winning relief pitcher who dominated batters in both major leagues in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fingers was raised in Upland, California, one of three children. His mother, Edna Pearl Stafford, was a third-grade teacher; his father, George Michael Fingers, a former minor league pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, worked for the California state government. Fingers excelled in golf and baseball as a young man and attended Upland High School from 1957 to 1961 and Chaffee Junior College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, from 1961 to 1963.

Fingers was signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Athletics on 24 December 1964 and began pitching in their minor league system in 1965. He was called up to the major league team in 1968 but only pitched in one game. The following spring, in 1969, he made it back to the major league club and pitched his first full year, entering sixty games and posting a 6–7 record, with a 3.71 earned-run average. For the next three years, Fingers bounced between duties as a starting pitcher and reliever. Finally, in 1971 Athletics manager Dick Williams made Fingers strictly a reliever. That year the Athletics won the first of their five consecutive American League West titles.

The year 1972 was a defining one for Fingers. When outfielder Reggie Jackson showed up for spring training wearing a beard, several of his teammates, including Fingers, also grew facial hair. Thus was born Fingers's handlebar mustache, his trademark for the rest of his career. More important, in his first full year in the bullpen, Fingers had his best year to date, posting an 11–9 record with 21 saves and a 2.51 earned-run average.

Fingers soon developed into one of the most dominant closers in the game. Over the three-year period from 1972 to 1974, he averaged 201/ 3 saves and a 2.36 earned-run average in an average sixty-seven appearances per year. The Athletics also dominated the major leagues, winning the World Series in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

In 1975 the Athletics (who had since moved to Oakland) won the Western Division title in the American League, but the loss of key players quickly eroded the once-dominant franchise. Fingers played out the option year of his contract in 1976 and was granted free agency that November. He signed with the San Diego Padres on 14 December 1976. The Padres had been gathering top free agents to bolster their chances in the National League, and Fingers was a key addition.

Moving into the National League did not seem to challenge Fingers's dominance on the mound, however. In his first year with the Padres, he led the league with seventy-eight appearances, finishing with an 8–9 record and a 3.00 earned-run average. He also led the league with thirty-five saves and was named the National League Fireman of the Year as best reliever by the Sporting News. He was equally dominant in 1978, again leading the league in saves and capturing the Fireman of the Year title. Teammate Gaylord Perry, who won the National League Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league, said, "Never in my sixteen seasons have I had the good fortune of having a pitcher like Fingers in my bullpen."

Fingers pitched for the Padres from 1977 to 1980, and although he remained one of the top relief pitchers in baseball, the Padres never finished higher than fourth place and eleven games out of first place. Finger was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on 8 December 1980; four days later he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Back in the American League, Fingers was more dominant than he had ever been before. A labor strike broke up the 1981 baseball season, but it had no affect on Fingers. He finished the strike-shortened season with a 6–3 record, 28 saves, and a 1.04 earned-run average, while figuring in 55 percent of his team's victories. Although the Brewers made it into the postseason that year, they were knocked out in the first round. Fingers, however, made history when he became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award in the same year. Fingers returned to pitch in 1982, but endured pain in his arm for most of the season and was forced to sit out the World Series when the Brewers played the Cardinals. He attempted to return in 1983, but the pain returned, too; he ultimately underwent surgery and missed the entire season. Fingers contributed sparingly to the team over the next two years. When the Brewers released him on 14 November 1985, he retired. During his seventeen-year major league career, he had saved 341 games, more than anyone in history up until then.

Fingers maintained his San Diego residence for many years after his baseball career ended, but moved in 1998 with his wife, Lori, to Las Vegas, Nevada, to pursue business interests. He has three children from previous marriages.

Fingers was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, only the second relief pitcher ever to be afforded the honor. During his career, he pitched in sixteen World Series games, finishing with a 2–2 record and a 1.35 earned-run average. He led the league in saves three times, twice led the league in games finished in relief, and was named Fireman of the Year by The Sporting News four times. Although his single-season and career-save totals have been topped since his retirement, it should be noted that by the late 1990s relief pitchers typically earned saves by pitching no more than one inning in an outing—as middle relievers, set-up pitchers, and closers—so Fingers, who averaged nearly two innings per outing, essentially did the work of two or three pitchers of recent years.

For information regarding Fingers's final statistics, awards, and career movements, post-1985 copies of The Baseball Encyclopedia are very useful. Stephen Hanks, The Twentieth-Century Baseball Chronicle (1991), presents a good chronological history of Fingers's influence in conjunction with the rest of major league baseball. The Ken Burns series, Baseball (1994), in video and book format, provides particularly interesting information on Fingers's years in Oakland and the personalities that made up the Athletics. Fingers's arm problems in Milwaukee are covered in an article by Steve Wulf, "Taking a Ride on the Handlebars," Sports Illustrated (June 1984).

Todd Tobias