Observations, insinuations, ruminations and unvarnished opinions.

YOU'RE A major league closer. You warm up hard and fast for one inning of work. You are facing hungry hitters who have had three or four at-bats by the time the ninth inning rolls around.

Most games, you are called on to protect a narrow lead. Most games, you will succeed or fail in 20 pitches or less.

You are the Red Adair of sports, paid handsomely to walk through hell as many as five times a week while wearing a gasoline suit.

Warm up quickly and hard . . . Throw 15 to 20 pitches or so - most closers rely on a fastball and a killer specialty pitch. Mariano Rivera, the surest closer this side of death, combines both in one celebrated pitch - a fastball that sits in the low 90s most nights and cuts late, causing lefthanded hitters to jam themselves, righthanded hitters to deal with a pitch he can place on or near the outside corner with smart-bomb precision. But he also can backdoor a lefty or jam a righty. Rivera can go a week without throwing a pitch down the middle. When he does, the hitter is often too startled to make solid contact.

Closing is no country for old men, as Charlie Manuel and Jose Contreras learned the other day, as Brad Lidge began to painfully discover several years ago. Forget calendar age. Think arm age, the way an alcoholic or chain smoker wears the whips and scorns of time by lifestyle rather than DOB. How many pitches have come out of the right arm of Fidel Castro's former favorite pitcher? All those winter seasons pitching for the Pinar del Rio Vaqueros. Then the best of the best from that intense competition would play the rest of the year for a national team that didn't lose an international tournament until the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Jose defected in 2002.

To those who insist Contreras is older than his listed 39, Cuba has the most organized infrastructure in the Caribbean rim, despite the embargo-induced poverty. We should look at its national health and hurricane evacuation plans. Better yet, just look at Contreras' still-spry mom, who visited Philly last postseason.

Anyway, a new Phillies bullpen order is coming, sooner than later. In pressure situations, Antonio Bastardo has been incandescent. Michael Stutes has real-deal potential if his mechanics don't betray him. Ryan Madson has closed games without a 1,000-yard stare. Lidge may be back by the All-Star break, but he will not be the power arm of 2008.

Manuel of arms

Know what Charlie sounded like during his "I am the manager" manifesto in Arizona? He sounded like a guy who has 2 more years after this one and a contract with more zeroes in it than he used to have in his major league box scores (76-for-384, .198). It's the first time he has had a bully pulpit to call his own and it sounds like he enjoys it . . .

Got a kick out of watching fans of Chuck's old team, the Minnesota Twins, sitting in the snow squalls Wednesday night, pretending it was more fun out there than in the Homer Dome. Indoor R-r-r-ays flogged the battered T-t-t-twins anyway.

Another good guy gone

A genial but firm man named Gene Kirby was producer of the Phillies' telecasts when Harry Kalas became the controversial replacement in 1971 for popular Bill Campbell.

Kirby reached out to Harry with sage advice that ignited that special spark emitted by the soon-to-be-famous Kalas-Ashburn duo.

"I want you to work Richie in as much as possible," Kirby is quoted in Randy Miller's "Harry the K."

"Get his inside baseball knowledge, get his expertise."

Kirby died earlier this week in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a long illness. Kirby was the baseball expert Hollywood hired to make sure the screen adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" was true to the way the game was played in the 1930s. Due to an editing glitch, Gene's name never appeared in the credits. Good thing. Despite Kirby's objections, you didn't have to be Bobby Cox to notice: Robert Redford showing up at the ballpark unannounced, carrying Wonder Boy in a banjo case; Redford as Roy Hobbs ambling in from rightfield to have a mound conference with a pitcher in a jam; with runners on base, the pitchers both winding up and working from the stretch.

"The film editor couldn't have been much of a baseball fan," Kirby said.

For a number of spring trainings, Gene and Whitey played a weekly, low-stakes gin-rummy game at the Ashburn condo. The kibbitzing was world class and produced a laugh a minute. I can hear Kirby now, cackling up above as Ashburn bellows an obscenity.

Dom the bomb

Before formally starting a rehab assignment with the Clearwater Threshers, Domonic Brown was getting at least six ABs a game for more than a week of games with an extended spring training squad. Two homers Tuesday afternoon got him out of the complex.

Trivia time

Thanks to Fred McKie for last week's question. I stopped counting the number of correct Diego Segui answers as the only man on the roster of the first games played by both the Seattle Pilots and Mariners. It was well over 100. Good guessing and Googling. Let's see if we can make this week a little tougher:

Name the player who was a rookie during Babe Ruth's final season and who played his final season when Hank Aaron was a rookie.

Send email to bill1chair@aol.com.

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