Kissing the Rolaids Relief Award goodbye

John Axford finally receives his 2011 Rolaids Relief Award.

It came in with a whisper, and went out when hardly anybody was looking. In between, though, the Rolaids Relief Man Award stocked literally hundreds of rumpus rooms and trophy cases. Thanks to a very special delivery in Cleveland Tuesday morning, we can finally wish the gold-plated fireman’s helmet a fond and well-deserved farewell …

Contrary to popular opinion, Tony La Russa didn’t invent relief pitching. That great honor belongs to Hall of Fame manager John McGraw, who came up with a relief ace more than a century ago. Later, the dynastic Yankees would feature world-famous reliefers in the 1920s (Wilcy Moore), the 1930s (Johnny “Grandma” Murphy) and 1940s (Joe Page). In 1950, the Phillies’ Jim Konstanty made 74 relief appearances, went 16-7 with 22 saves, and became the first fireman to garner league Most Valuable Player honors. Just two years later, Brooklyn’s Joe Black went 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA and finished third in MVP balloting.

But that was about as good as things would get. The Cy Young Award was introduced in 1956. In that award’s first four years, 11 pitchers garnered at least some support, but none were pure relievers. So in 1960, The Sporting News created a Fireman of the Year award, based purely on statistics. And the simplest statistics; the scoring system was simply wins plus saves (the latter an unofficial statistic until 1969). But TSN’s relief awards never caught on, probably because the award simply wasn’t promoted outside the occasional brief mention in the periodical and a page in the next year’s Official Baseball Guide.

So there remained a vacuum, which was finally filled in 1976 by Big Pharma and Big Baseball.

More specifically, that vacuum was filled by Warner-Lambert and the Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation. Baseball was looking to score some promotional dollars, and Warner-Lambert was looking to boost the public profile of its Rolaids antacid tablets. According to Bob Wirz — who worked for MLB for a decade before starting his firm and handling PR duties for the Rolaids Award for more than 20 years — Joe Reichler and Joseph Podesta spearheaded MLB’s efforts. It was probably Reichler and Podesta who devised the statistical criteria used to determine the Relief Man Award winners.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s commercials like this were ubiquitous:

… and that relief-themed campaign lasted into the 21st century. It was a natural. Rolaids and relief pitching went together like hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.

But that doesn’t mean the Rolaids Relief Man Award immediately captured the public imagination. In 1976, Cincinnati’s Rawly Eastwick and Minnesota’s Bill Campbell won the first two awards; the next year, Rollie Fingers won in the National League, while Campbell — now pitching for the Red Sox — repeated in the American. It’s not clear that anyone was paying much attention, though. My Google searches in those years have been fruitless, and it doesn’t seem the award gained much currency until 1978, when regular updates — in the form of paid advertisements — began to appear in every in-season issue of, ironically enough, The Sporting News.

If you grew up in Kansas City in the 1980s, as I did, the Rolaids Award was a big deal … because while the Cy Young voters never appreciated Dan Quisenberry’s artistry, the objective nature of the Relief Man Award didn’t care how if Quiz couldn’t break 85 on his best day. The only thing that mattered was pitching brilliantly, and so Quiz won five Rolaids Awards in six years, a run of success that nobody’s come remotely close to matching. Yes, Mariano Rivera also won five Rolaids Awards. It took him 11 years. Bruce Sutter won four in six years.

So in Kansas City, at least, we spelled relief R-O-L-A-I-D-S and Q-U-I-S-E-N-B-E-R-R-Y. And we ate up commercials like this one:

Granted, the Relief Man Award might not have seemed so important if your favorite relief pitcher wasn’t winning it every year. The Rolaids people were generous with their hardware, though. For a number of years, there was an overall minor-league winner, who would receive the fireman’s-helmet trophy at the Winter Meetings. For some years, the points leader in every minor league was given a Rolaids Relief Man plaque, and in the majors there were winners with every team, plus an overall team winner in each league. Most baseball players like trophies, and for some decades Rolaids was in the trophy business.

In 2006, though, the Rolaids brand was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, which deemphasized the promotion. There wouldn’t be any more annual media guides — which, under the aegis of Wirz, had been chock full of information — and it doesn’t seem the minor-league and team awards continued, either. Still, the individual major-league awards sputtered along for a few more years … until 2010, when Rolaids were recalled, “following an investigation of consumer reports of an unusual moldy, musty, or mildewlike odor that, in a small number of cases, was associated with temporary and non-serious gastrointestinal events. These events included nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.”

Sorry about that. At least I spared you the obvious “How do you spell diarrhea?” joke. There was another recall later in 2010, after several customers complained about “foreign bodies.”

In 2009, Rivera won his fifth Relief Man Award; over in the NL, Heath Bell won his first. But this time, those semi-famous fireman’s-helmet trophies didn’t show up. "I remembered J.J. Putz winning one," Bell told me this week. "So after I won in 2009 and didn’t get a trophy, in ’10 I asked about it and they said, ‘No, they’re not doing that any more.’ I didn’t really push it, but at the end of that year I got the trophy."

And by then he’d won a second straight Relief Man Award. What he couldn’t have guessed is that it would be more than three years before he finally got his second trophy.

After those two recalls, Johnson & Johnson drastically reduced its distribution of Rolaids-brand products, and the attendant promotion of those products. Without Rolaids on store shelves, there was obviously little incentive to spend any money at all on those nifty trophies … and so none was spent, at all. Bell and Rafael Soriano, the winners in 2010, didn’t get their trophies. José Valverde and John Axford, the winners in 2011, didn’t get theirs, either.

Well, not exactly. Axford was lucky enough to pitch for the Brewers. “At the start of the 2012 season,” he told me, “the Brewers awarded me a specially made fireman’s helmet.” Ever since, Axford’s avatar on his Instagram account has shown him wearing that substitute Relief Man trophy.

The real thing, though? After two years, Axford had given up. Those fireman helmets for 2010 and ’11 hadn’t been forgotten, though. The way the Players Association saw it, the Rolaids Relief Man Award was still being promoted on a corporate website in 2010 and ’11, so somebody owed four pitchers their trophies from those seasons. Gene Orza was still with the union then. “Gene said we should check it out,” MLBPA director of communications Greg Bouris told me. “So I tried to find out what happened, and eventually I did get in touch with someone. And then a few months ago, out of nowhere these big boxes appeared in my office.”

AROUND THE HORN

Four big boxes. Four gold-plated fireman’s helmets.

Bell had just about given up. “There was an ownership change with the Padres, and then I had a bad season in 2012, and a bad season in ’13, so this time I didn’t say much about the award.

“But in 2012 my wife made a baseball room in our house. My kids call it the Dugout. So last winter, I said to my wife, ‘I want to get another Relief Man Award for the Dugout.’ Just after New Year’s, I went to a trophy shop, showed them my 2009 award and said, ‘I want something like this, but with 2010 on it.’

“Well, a couple of weeks later, a big, heavy box showed up and I said to my wife, ‘What did you buy?’ I opened the box, and it was the 2010 award.”

Meanwhile, Axford waited.

“A few months ago,” he told me recently, “I got a message that the union has it.”

But rather than worry about mailing a big box to Canada, where Axford lives in the offseason, the union held it. Last week, I was actually on the phone with Bouris when Axford’s fireman helmet headed out the door. And Tuesday morning in Cleveland, Axford became the last known recipient of the Rolaids Relief Man Award.

And so the story of the gold-plated fireman’s helmet apparently ends here. While Jim Johnson did receive a bonus for finishing atop the (unofficial) Relief Man standings in 2012, neither he nor NL winner Craig Kimbrel received the hardware, nor are they likely to. The owners of the Rolaids brand didn’t maintain the Relief Man standings that year, and Major League Baseball promotes its own official Delivery Man Award. There’s nothing really wrong with the Delivery Man Award … except that nobody knows about it, and for some reason there’s no actual trophy.

Which is exceptionally strange. There’s hardware for everything these days. But somehow, nothing for the game’s best relief pitchers.

Who cares? The pitchers care.

As Johnson told me last month, “I want my fireman’s helmet.”

John Axford finally receives his Rolaids Relief Award hardware.

“It’s in my study,” 1993 AL winner Jeff Montgomery told me. “I’ve had it displayed prominently ever since I received it.

“I was very aware of it,” Montgomery says. “When I won in ’93, my pitching coach was Guy Hansen. He was as much a cheerleader for me as anybody, and he took it personally, was pulling for me to win. On the last day of the season, Duane Ward was still in the running for the award. We were in Texas, and I got Juan Gonzalez to ground out to shortstop. That was the last pitch ever in Arlington Stadium, and locked up the award for me.”

It means a lot to John Smoltz, too. “It’s a really cool trophy,” he told me by e-mail, “and I wanted to put it somewhere it can be seen. Because of what I went through to make the transition to closing, winning that award was one of my greatest accomplishments, and that was my most rewarding year in baseball.”

Bell’s glad to have his two trophies, but he’s not glad about the award’s demise. “My whole thing,” he says, “is how about we don’t give anything for Gold Gloves, either? Or Silver Sluggers, or MVPs?”

Good point. I agree with Jayson Stark: It’s time — actually well past time — for the BBWAA to introduce an award for relief pitchers. I wouldn’t call it the Jerome Holtzman Award, as Jayson would. It’s not a bad suggestion. I just think naming an award after a writer isn’t a great idea. I’ll suggest instead the Mariano Rivera Award for the American League, and the Trevor Hoffman Award for the National League.

Alas, the BBWAA has shown approximately zero interest in creating such an award. So for now, the last words on this subject are Axford’s, straight from the Cleveland Indians’ home clubhouse:

It’s here … I’m so excited! Who’s got a knife to open this box?

POSTSCRIPT: Major League Baseball must have a spy somewhere. Before the above was published but after I submitted it, MLB announced two new awards for relief pitchers, named after … Rivera and Hoffman. It won’t be administered by the BBWAA; that group’s window of opportunity has now disappeared. Instead of statistical criteria, the awards will be voted on by "a panel of nine great bullpenners" from the past. No word on the hardware yet, but we may assume there will be something. Somewhere — actually, Kansas City — Heath Bell should be smiling.