I know what you’re thinking. This is a Mets website. Why do I have to read about a %$#@*^# Yankee? Yes, we are all Mets fans. And yes, we all despise the Yankees and everything they represent. But ask yourself this: Next time you drive north to Cooperstown, will you look at Tom Seaver’s plaque and then go home? Probably not. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a place where the most talented ballplayers are forever enshrined in immortality. And now the curtain is coming down on Mariano Rivera, the best closer the game has ever known.
My friend and fellow MMO blogger, Satish Ram, pointed out something that shows Rivera’s greatness: 12 men have walked on the surface of the moon. Only 11 men have scored against Rivera in the post-season.
In the 17 years from 1996 to 2012, the Evil Empire made the post-season every year but one. They captured 13 division titles, 7 pennants and 5 World Championships. There’ve been lots of talented players in the Bronx over these years. Jason Giambi, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Roger Clemens and of course, Derek Jeter. However, at the risk of going out on a limb, I’ll state that the main reason for the Yankees success over this time is due to Mo.
Simply put, Mariano Rivera changed the very nature of the game. He didn’t do it in the way Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson did, however, he did alter each individual game just by his presence. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s teams did whatever was necessary to avoid facing Barry Bonds with runners on base. Even so, that did not work. As Bonds shattered records, opposing managers would intentionally walk him. Often the free pass would even put a runner into scoring position. Rickey Henderson was another. His speed alone changed the complexity of the game. Pitchers did whatever they could to keep him off the basepaths. Once Rickey was on, they KNEW he’d go…and they still couldn’t stop him. Rivera is in that same class. The game of baseball is designed so that each team has 27 outs. But with #42 poised and ready, Yankee opponents had only 24 outs. If you were losing to the Yankees after eight innings, your fate was sealed.
Considered a “fringe prospect at best,” Rivera debuted on May 23, 1995 as a starter. He got his butt kicked, allowing 5 ER in 3.1 innings. After four more starts, his ERA stood at 10.20. He spent much time being shuffled back and forth between the Bronx and Columbus.
At this same time the Yankees had a kid named Derek Jeter in the minors. The team was less than warm to him at first. He had a good glove, but they questioned his hitting. Scout Clyde King advised that Jeter was “nowhere near ready.” Yankee manager Joe Torre said he was hopeful Jeter could at least hit .250, good enough to stay in the majors.
Owner George Steinbrenner, however, was restless. Determined to bring a pennant to The Bronx, he approved a trade sending struggling starter Mariano Rivera to Seattle in exchange for shortstop Felix Fermin. However, GM Gene Michael and assistant GM Brian Cashman convinced ‘The Boss’ to give Jeter a chance. Steinbrenner relented and elected to hang on to both Jeter and Rivera — at least for the short term to see how things went.
In 1996, Rivera served as the set-up to John Wetteland. That season the Yankees were 70-3 when leading after six innings. Amazing.
There are ballplayers we dislike. Names like Clemens, A-Rod and Swisher come to mind. Then, there are others who, while we dislike them, you still gotta love ‘em. Manny Ramirez for example. Growing up and watching the Yankees win pennant after pennant while the Mets floundered in the NL East basement, I hated Reggie Jackson. But ya still had to love Reggie. Say what you will about Barry Bonds, but as he walked toward home plate, did you ever get up to get something to drink from the kitchen?
Sure, Rivera is a Yankee. And we therefore have it in our genes to detest anyone in pinstripes. However, like Jeter, Rivera is and has always been a class act, the consummate professional. He’s not an in-your-face closer like a Jose Valverde or Jonathan Papelbon. Rivera never shows up an opponent. He comes in, does his job and walks off the mound.
He recorded 25 saves or more 15 consecutive seasons—a major league record. His ERA has been under 2.00 11 times, tying him with Walter Johnson. His career ERA of 2.21 and WHIP of 1.00 is the lowest of any pitcher in the live ball era. He has the lowest ERA (0.70) and most saves (42) in post-season history. He is baseball’s All-Time save leader with roughly 10% more than the man in second, Trevor Hoffman.
What made Rivera great is not just how effective he was but his durability. There have been plenty of great closers over the last few decades. Most, however, have a few solid seasons and then fade away. Francisco Rodriguez set the record for the most saves in a season with 62. Then never again came close to that mark. In 1990, Bobby Thigpen set the mark K-Rod would break. Thigpen’s 57 saves was unheard of at the time. However, he recorded only 31 more before injuries and ineffectiveness cut short his career at 31 years old. Dodgers’ closer Eric Gagne notched 152 saves over 3 seasons. Burned out, he then recorded just 35 more over 5 years.
As these and many others came and went, Rivera has remained the game’s predominant closer.
Some can argue that Rivera has it easier nowadays. Goose Gossage praises him but also points out that in today’s game closers traditionally work just one inning. In his entire career, Rivera recorded just one 7-out save. By comparison, Gossage notched 53. Closers, or “Firemen” as they were sometimes called, like Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Tug McGraw frequently tossed well over 100 IP, an exorbitant amount by today’s standards. There is some validity to Gossage’s claim.
To offset that, however, Rivera pitched the bulk of his career during the steroids era and in smaller hitter friendly parks. The Yankees string of post-seasons as well as extra round of playoffs also meant that Rivera logged more innings in pressure situations. Yet, his durability was never affected. (Mitch Williams anyone?)
Mo is linked to one of Baseball’s Greatest Moments. But not in a good way. The 2001 World Series saw the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks defeat the heavily favored Yankees in a seven game thriller. Arizona rallied for 2 in the bottom of the ninth game seven to defeat the Yankees. It was an iconic moment in Series history. It was a shock that the D-Backs won. It was more of a shock that they upset the Yankees. However, the key to this extraordinary incident is not the fact that Luis Gonzalez knocked a bloop hit over the drawn-in infield but rather that it came off Mariano Rivera. Rallying for 2 in the bottom of the ninth off any team would be historical. The fact that it was against the best closer in history is what elevated this moment.
There are two teams I root for in Baseball: The Mets and whoever is playing the Yankees. When Jay Bell scored from third and ended the Yankees 2001 season I jumped off my sofa cheering as if Jesse Orosco had just fanned Marty Barrett all over again. If we can’t win, I don’t want to see the Yankees win either. It was sweet revenge for the 2000 World Series. For years I used Luis Gonzalez’ nickname, Gonzo. Anyone who knocks the Yankees out is okay in my book. Seeing Rivera and his teammates wander off the field in stunned shock was a beautiful thing. I have rooted against the Yankees my whole life and will continue to do so. However, while I loathe the team, I still can’t help but respect Rivera for what he meant to the game itself and to the post-season. Tom Verducci once stated, “Basketball has Michael Jordan, Hockey has Wayne Gretsky and Baseball has Mariano Rivera.”
Once asked to describe his job, Rivera stated, “I get the ball, I throw the ball and then I take a shower.”
If I ever get back to Cooperstown again, I’ll spend a lot of time admiring the plaques of Tom Seaver and The Kid, Gary Carter (despite the fact Gary’s has that ridiculous M instead of the more appropriate NY). But I will also spend a few extra moments checking out Rivera’s plaque. I didn’t cheer for him, never rooted for him. But I did experience his greatness and that is what makes Baseball a beautiful game.