Willie and the righty

BOB ELLIOTT -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Richard (Goose) Gossage thrilled millions in person, or on TV, collecting 310 saves in his 22-year baseball career.

One person, however, who never saw Gossage record a save was Willie Nelson's bus driver.

Nowadays, the bullpen door opens and New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera enters to Metallica's Enter Sandman.

San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman comes into the game accompanied by AC/DC's Hell's Bells.

When the most intimidating closer we ever saw -- Goose Gossage -- came on to pitch and singer Willie Nelson was in the crowd, Nelson leaned over to his driver and uttered four words: "Warm up the bus."

As in, this one is over.

Hold the elevators.

Put away the bats.

Pack up the helmets.

And light up the victory stogies.

Gossage will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with his former Padres manager, Dick Williams.

How an outdoorsman such as Gossage, from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Willie Hugh Nelson, of Abbott, Tex., became pals was accidental.

In the strike-marred 1981 season, the New York Times asked each Yankee what he planned to do during the work stoppage.

Gossage answered he would listen to Nelson music, although he had not heard all of his works.

A week later, a postman arrived with a giant box from Columbia Records with tapes of every album Nelson ever recorded.

When Nelson's tour coincided with the Yankees schedule, Gossage would leave him tickets.

The two became good friends. Nelson came to watch Gossage close games. Gossage went to watch Nelson close concerts.

Nelson staged his yearly Fourth of July picnics -- concerts all four nights of the holiday weekend, each in a different city.

Gossage left Yankee Stadium after a 7-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox in 1983, arriving at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. around 7 p.m., for one of Willie's shows.

Upon his arrival, he bumped into a friend of Nelson's, who invited him into a backstage trailer.

"I was just going to watch the concert, an all-day event with lots of acts, but the guy said I should go see Willie," Gossage was recalling a few years later, as a member of the Padres, while sitting on a chair in the visiting clubhouse at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

"I get into the trailer and there are Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., and Willie sitting around talking," Gossage says.

Haggard and Nelson had a No. 1 hit at the time -- Pancho and Lefty.

"The song was out and was big, but they had yet to perform it together live," Gossage says, getting excited. "Merle says to Willie: 'Think we should do this once we go on?'"

Now, Gossage's eyes are bulging wide as if he were staring at an ump in disbelief on a checked swing ruled a ball.

"They play the song 12 straight times," Gossage says. "Just the two of them, again and again. It was amazing."

The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder was wearing a cutoff t-shirt as he spoke and you could see the hair on his burly arms standing up.

"They changed things, tinkered a bit here and there, they teased each other," Gossage said. "And there was just Hank Jr. and me sitting there.

"Man, what a rush!"

We've never seen a player so excited three hours before a game's first pitch.

"The best part was when they invited me on stage to sing the chorus of Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys for the encore," Gossage says.

"That was more exciting than being on the mound in the World Series."

As conversations go, it was like none we've ever had with a major-leaguer. Musicians want to be athletes and athletes want to hear the roar of the crowd at a concert.

We'd often bump into Gossage. He would talk about hunting trips with former Blue Jays pitching coach Galen Cisco in Colorado, or working with Bus Campbell, the pitching guru, who worked with Roy Halladay.

And every once in a while, we'd ask again about Willie Nelson.

It was a story that never lost it's oomph.

One night -- Aug. 30, 1993 -- Goose and I walked together from the clubhouse down the stairs to the Oakland Coliseum, turned left and headed toward the A's dugout. We reached the end of the green fence and shook hands. I headed left, Gossage headed right and went down as if he had just been shot.

Someone had left a ball bag and Gossage tumbled. He said he was okay but, in the second inning, an announcement was made in the press box: "The A's have placed Goose Gossage on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured right wrist."

I had to go for a walk after that. We haven't been this worried since inadvertently stepping on the ankle of Montreal Expos relief ace Elias Sosa in 1979, and going to bed thinking of an expected headline in Le Journal de Montreal: "English writer ruins Expos season, closer on DL."

The last time Gossage told the Pancho and Lefty story, a few years ago in spring training at Tampa, he told us that manager Billy Martin, Don Baylor and Dave Righetti were there too. Righetti, apparently, pitched a no-hitter the next afternoon against the Red Sox.

The music was way ahead of the baseball.

Billy Southworth, ex-St. Louis Cardinals manager, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn and owners Walter O'Malley (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Barney Dreyfuss (Pittsburgh Pirates) also will be inducted.

The late Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe is the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink award while the voice of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Neihaus, is the Ford C. Frick Award winner for broadcasting.

Of Gossage's 310 career saves, on 52 occasions he recorded seven or more outs. That is how dominant he could be. Whether fans followed the Chicago White Sox, the Pirates, Yankees, Padres, the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco Giants, the New York Mets, the Texas Rangers, A's or the Mariners, watching Gossage certainly was exciting.

For everyone, it seems, except Willie Nelson's bus driver.


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