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Torres' odyssey lands him in Pirates' closer role

There are those who know Salomon Torres only as the 21-year-old kid who got clobbered by the Dodgers on the last day of the 1993 season, costing the 103-win Giants a spot in the playoffs. He was the baby-faced right-hander whom Giants manager Dusty Baker took out for Spanish food the night before that enormous start to help convince him that he was ready, though some of the Giants players had begged Baker to start veteran Dave Burba.

It's a shame that anyone remembers Torres for that day. There is so much more to know about him, now the closer for the Pirates. Torres owns and operates two baseball academies in his home country of the Dominican Republic, he retired for five years at age 25 to become a coach, he is deeply religious, and he is -- says Pirates pitching coach Jim Colborn -- "a Renaissance man; he's erudite," which might be the only time any baseball player has ever been described as either. He is a rubber-armed righty who throws six pitches for strikes, including a sinker and a devastating split, and has saved all four Pirates wins.

"I like to be unpredictable," laughs Torres, who's blown a save and suffered a loss in his last two outings. "Next, I'm going to learn the gyroball."

There has been nothing predictable about Torres' career. After that unfortunate start at Dodger Stadium in '93, Torres had very little success in San Francisco, Seattle or Montreal. When the Expos sent him to the minor leagues in 1997, he decided he didn't want to play baseball anymore.

"Too much politics in baseball," he said. "I didn't understand the business side of the game."

After nearly five years of coaching in the Expos' system, Torres sat in a coaches' meeting toward the end of spring training when the final rosters were set.

"That's when it hit me -- 'Oh, that's how it works,'" Torres said. "It's not personal. The team loved two guys, but they could only keep one. I understood the business side of the game. Things happen that aren't fair."

In 2001, Torres decided to make a comeback, pitched for the Samsung team in Korea. After throwing only 5 1/3 innings that summer, he played winter ball.

"Everything was there: the fastball, the hunger, the desire, the sinker," he said. "I did not want to be 40 or 50 years old, sitting around -- a bitter man -- knowing that I could have done something more."

So he had his agent send a letter to 28 teams -- all but Montreal and San Francisco.

"I wasn't going back to either of those places," he said.

Six teams were interested. Pirates GM Dave Littlefield called "at 1 o'clock in the morning," Torres said. "He lied. He said I had a chance to make the team. I had no chance. But after some time at Triple-A, I made it back. And the same people who criticized me, who said I was crazy, who said I was out of my mind for retiring at age 25, told me I was crazy and out of my mind for coming back."

He has been an excellent pitcher for the Pirates for five-plus years. In 2003, he added the splitter to go with his hard sinker.

"The first time I threw the split in a game was 2003," Torres said. "I could always throw one; I just never told anyone. Our catcher, Craig Wilson, came to the mound during an at-bat against [Florida's] Luis Castillo, and I told him, 'I'm going to throw a split.' He said, 'But you don't throw one.' I said, 'Yes, I do.' So I struck Castillo out, and came back to the bench and [manager] Lloyd McClendon said, 'What was that?! Where did you get that?!' After seeing it, he told me to keep throwing it."

Over the last three years, Torres has thrown it repeatedly, as well as his other pitches, on the way to 256 appearances -- most in the major leagues in that time. Last year, he appeared in a majors-best 94 games, the most appearances by a pitcher since another Pirate, Kent Tekulve, had 94 in 1979.

"He could pitch every game. He'll never say he can't. He's the only guy I know who could pitch 162 games," said Tigers first baseman Sean Casey, a former Pirate. "He has amazing flexibility. He can stand in front of you, jump up and kick the ceiling."

Torres was given a chance to close the last two months of last season. He did so well (12 saves), the Pirates decided they could trade primary closer Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has given the Pirates what they need: a left-handed power hitter who can really play defense.

With each appearance and each promotion, Torres has become more comfortable in Pittsburgh, and in the clubhouse. He has used his money to build two baseball complexes in San Pedro de Macoris. He rents one to the Texas Rangers and will rent the second one to the Atlanta Braves. Part of the agreement is that Dominican kids are free to use the facilities every day. Every year Torres arranges an all-star game so major league scouts can see the best of the kids.

"It's my way to help," Torres said. "It gives them a chance to make it. It might be their only chance."

For the last three years, Torres has taken his Pirates teammates' used hats, gloves, shirts and other items, boxed them up, and sent them to kids in the Dominican. Last year he mailed 140 boxes.

"The difference between a kid being on the streets, and a kid being in the big leagues, might be a pair of spikes," Torres said. "I saw kids wearing No. 2 wristbands that belonged to [Pirates shortstop] Jack Wilson. When a kid receives a pair of batting gloves, no one is going to touch that kid's gloves. I'm in way over my head with this now. I don't know how to stop the train. But I don't want to. I want to extend the power all over the island."

That is Torres: always thinking, always trying to find ways to make things better.

"He came up with a plan for a new playoff system in baseball," Colborn said. "Sixteen teams make it. The season is shortened. It's fascinating. He's fascinating."

And as the cold weather affected play across the major leagues the first two weeks of the season, Torres said, "It's all in the Bible. I have read it all. We are ruining the earth."

But the one thing Torres doesn't think about anymore is that start in Los Angeles 15 years ago. "I was just a kid; there was a lot of pressure on me, " he said. "It wasn't the best. That stayed with me for a while."

But now he's 35, he's a closer for a major league team and he has starter's stuff, which is good.

"I can push myself to the limit," he said. "I have the power of the mind. When you have that, you can accomplish so much. There were many times last year that my arm was dragging because I'd pitched four days in a row, but I won't let them know that. My mind was strong enough."

Now his mind is always strong, even after a blown save such as Tuesday night against the Cardinals. He is no longer the kid who lost that game in 1993.

"I'm the oldest guy on our team," Torres said. "But no one feels younger than me."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to The Magazine.