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The save's the thing

Sixty saves, maybe even more, are not out of the question. Then again, if he winds up with, say, 45 or so next season, Bobby Thigpen won't be at all disappointed. "I should have had 60 this year. I could have easily had 60," Thigpen said the other day, reflecting on the major-league record 57 saves he racked up during the Chicago White Sox's surprisingly successful season. "Look at my blown saves. I guarantee you five of the eight came when we led by two or more runs. People were already filing out of the stadium and boom! Sometimes you can blow a game no matter what."

It takes a lot of circumstances for a pitcher to amass as many saves as Thigpen did.

For one thing, he's almost certainly got to be an American League pitcher. The AL is rife with teams that rely on one closer _ like the White Sox (Thigpen), Athletics (Dennis Eckersley), Indians (Doug Jones), Orioles (Gregg Olson) and Yankees (Dave Righetti). All of them had more saves than the Mets' John Franco, who led the National League with 34.

The NL, with pitchers hitting because of the absence of the designated hitter, is more prone to have two or more closers, lefty-righty combinations. Cincinnati's Nasty Boys (Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton) are the most obvious example. "They might bring in Myers in the eighth, then bat for him and they've still got Dibble," Thigpen said.

It also takes a lot of close games. Eighty-four of Chicago's 94 wins were by one or two runs. And it takes a rubber-armed pitcher. Thigpen pitched in three consecutive games six times, and four in a row twice.

And if it doesn't happen again next year, if his number of saves falls from the stratosphere, he won't be overly concerned, even if some fans think he's not the pitcher he was this year.

"I can't say (57 saves) won't be done again," Thigpen said. "If I do what Eck(ersly) did this year, hey, that's great. To me, it doesn't matter how many saves you actually build up. It's the percentage of blown ones. He had 48 (saves) of 50 (opportunities). That's outstanding. If I get 43 of 45 or something, that's a great year. That's how I go by it."

Robert Thomas Thigpen relaxed at home last week with Keri and their 10-month old son, Robert Allen Thigpen. "He's not a "junior,' " his father said. "We call him Robby."

Even after having had such a great year, one would think that the last thing Bobby Thigpen would want to do this year is pitch some more.

Yet that's just what he's doing. He is among a group of major-league all-stars playing an eight-game exhibition series next month in Japan where the weather _ in the 50s during the day and the 40s at night _ is decidedly more Windy City than Suncoast.

"He's going because of me," Keri giggled.

The White Sox were in Cleveland late in the season when the phone in Thigpen's hotel room rang. It was Mark Belanger of the players' union. He had asked Thigpen two weeks earlier if he wanted to play the exhibitions in Japan. Now he needed an answer. "No," Thigpen said. "I want to relax, be with my family. It's been a long year."

The next morning, back in their apartment in Chicago, Keri asked off-handedly, "What are you doing about Japan?" Bobby said he'd turned it down.

"It got real cold in the room all of a sudden," he said. "I didn't realize how much she wanted to go. She'd been taking care of Robby all by herself all those months. She thought it'd be a great vacation for the two of us (Robby would stay with his grandparents). A little while later she had to go to the store. When she left, I called Belanger and told him we wanted to go."

And when she got back from the store, Thigpen said, "I told her we were going, that I'd just tried to get a rise out of her. She smelled that out right away."

The first time he has to save a game against a Japanese team made up of Lions and Swallows and Dragons and Carp, Thigpen will no doubt have butterflies. He's always had 'em.

"Some guys say they're never nervous," he said of the fraternity of relievers. "I can't believe that. The way I see it, I might as well be nervous before I get out there (on the mound). That way I'm ready for anything. If I say to myself, "I'm not nervous' and then walk a guy or give up a hit, then all of a sudden I might get real nervous. That can bury you.

"I don't try to get nervous. It's just the feeling I have in the pit of my stomach when I'm warming up. If it's a close game and we're ahead in the eighth (inning), I know if the phone rings (in the bullpen) it's going to get me up and throwing, or if I'm already throwing, it's going to be to see if I'm ready."

When he pitched in the majors the first time, Aug. 6, 1986, against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, "I was so nervous I figured everyone in the stands could see my knees shaking," Thigpen said. "Now it's gotten to where I'm still nervous but I can control it and hide it better so nobody knows it. I can channel it. I don't think I could pitch if I didn't get worked up."

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