The truth is, Jason Isringhausen never intended to be a pitcher. In fact, he was a center fielder when he headed off to junior college.
“Some scouts started coming around after seeing my arm, and I went to a couple of tryout camps, where they asked me if I ever pitched,” Isringhausen said. “I just told them I was never really a pitcher before. I’d just rear back and throw it.”
And yet from his right arm came a 16-year career in the big leagues – including a stretch in which Isringhausen rocked-and-fired his way to becoming the all-time saves leader in St. Louis Cardinals history.
Thus, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Isringhausen with the Class of 2016. The ceremony is part of the Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, set for 11 a.m. May 18 at the University Plaza Convention Center in Springfield. (Ticket information below.)
Of his 300 career saves, a team-record 217 came while pitching for St. Louis between 2002 to 2008 – an era marked both by “Izzy” entering from the bullpen to the rock song “Black Betty” and by the Cardinals becoming playoff regulars.
Isringhausen compiled 173 saves between 2002 and 2006 alone, a period when the Redbirds reached the National League Championship Series four times. They won two pennants (2004, 2006) and the 2006 World Series.
He secured three saves in the NLCS in 2004 as the club won its first pennant since 1987. That season, Isringhausen led the NL in both saves (47) and games finished (66), with St. Louis winning 105 regular-season games.
Two years earlier, he had arrived from the Oakland Athletics, signed to anchor a bullpen full of veteran arms, including several that manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan could deploy in the ninth.
“All of the older guys helped me and prepared me,” Isringhausen said of his arrival in 2002. “I knew if I screwed up, I wouldn’t have my job very long and would need to concentrate.”
Pitching for the Cardinals was a dream come true for Isringhausen, who grew up about an hour north of St. Louis. However, as he graduated from Southwestern High School in Brighton, Illinois and went on to nearby Lewis and Clark Community College, outfield and hitting – not pitching — was his college meal ticket.
That was, until the velocity on his throws piqued the interest of scouts.
Not that he was an overnight sensation. The New York Mets selected Isringhausen as late as the 44th round in 1991 but tagged him as a “draft-and-follow.” In other words, they preferred to wait almost a full year and eye his sophomore season before offering a contract.
Once signed, he moved to pitching full-time and, in 1995, rose to No. 37 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list.
Isringhausen pitched in the big leagues from 1995 to 2012, moving to the bullpen full-time in 1999. He pitched for the Mets (1995-1999, 2011), the Athletics (1999-2001) and, after St. Louis, for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Angels. He also overcame 11 surgeries.
The encouragement of his parents, Charles and Georgene of Brighton, made all the difference.
“Both taught me the meaning of hard work and to never quit,” Isringhausen said. “After 11 surgeries, the lessons they taught me kept me going.”
In St. Louis, Isringhausen struck out 373 in 408 innings, earning 17 wins and a 2.98 earned run average.
“The relationships I made with people, getting to play with Tony and ‘Dunc,’ it was a pretty amazing experience,” Isringhausen said. “It was just a great group of guys.”
Among those who enhanced his transition years earlier was then-Mets coach Randy Niemann.
“When I got a little full of myself at times, he’d help bring me back down to earth,” Isringhausen said. “But he really helped me with my routine as a closer. And Doug Jones helped me in Oakland.”
Isringhausen saved 67 games combined on Oakland’s 2000 and 2001 playoff teams and became a two-time All-Star (2000 AL, 2005 NL).
These days, Isringhausen is a roving instructor in the Cardinals farm system and is a Dad Taxi. He and his wife, Lorrie, have two daughters, Madolyn and Emerson.
However, with 217 career saves in Cardinals history – more than Lee Smith, more than Todd Worrell and Bruce Sutter – you won’t catch him thinking of his place in that history. Instead, he prefers to reminisce about old times, old coaches and old teammates.
“I didn’t make much of it,” Isringhausen said. “I felt like I just did my job to the best of my ability. None of us do it for the records. We do it for the guys next to us.”
Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 18
Where: University Plaza Convention Center, Springfield
Honorees: Missouri State University baseball coach/athletic director Bill Rowe to be named a Missouri Sports Legend; Inductions of St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper George Toma, and Mansfield High School baseball coach Doug Jones
Diamond 9 awards: Marin Whorton Cooney (Ozark High School/Missouri Southern), Sophia Alexander Denning (Strafford High School/Drury); Bob Detherage (Hillcrest High School/Kansas City Royals); Bill Helfrecht (Glendale High School/Missouri State), Brent Maggard (Sparta High School/Crowder/Southern Arkansas), Kristen Marshall (Glendale High School/William Jewell), Troy McMain (Willard High School), Christian Overstreet (Nixa High School/Missouri State), and Tom Wilson (Bolivar High School/Detroit Tigers).
Tickets: Individual ticket is $40. Head table ticket is $100. A table of eight is $400 and includes an autographed print along with associate sponsor recognition in the printed program. Congratulatory ads and other sponsorships are available. Call the Hall of Fame at 417-889-3100.