By David Keltz |
Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer and one of the greatest pitchers ever, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Sunday, July 21. Rivera also had the distinction of becoming the first player unanimously voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association.
It is not difficult to quantify just how great Rivera was. The numbers speak for themselves. 13 All-Star appearances, five World Series Champions, a career ERA of 2.21. 652 saves, the most all time. Nine seasons with 40 plus saves. 42 post season saves, also the most all time. A remarkable World Series ERA of 0.99 including 11 saves. The 1999 World Series MVP, and 2003 ALCS MVP.
It is also not difficult to speculate whether the Yankees would have won four World Championships from 1996 to 2000, and a fifth in 2009, without Mariano Rivera entering the game in the ninth inning, or earlier. The answer is unequivocally, no.
Rivera a native of Panama, was signed by the Yankees in 1990 as a shortstop, before becoming a starting pitcher in 1995 and then ultimately a relief pitcher in 1996. He repeatedly flummoxed the greatest hitters in the game with a devasting cut finger fastball that went in on the hands against left handed hitters (often shattering their bat) and darted away from right handed hitters. Of the 993 different hitters with at least one at bat against Rivera, nearly half were hitless.
“I can’t think of anybody that would have more of an impact in the game. Teams adjusting their lineup, pinch hitting against him. He really made people get away from their comfort zone, and do crazy things because he was pitching,” said Bernie Williams, a teammate of Rivera’s from 1995 to 2006.
The Yankees dynasty of the late 90’s and early 2000’s was full of talented players, including an offense that boasted the likes of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, and a pitching staff consisting of Andy Pettitte, David Wells, David Cone, Roger Clemens and Orlando Hernandez. Each of those players contributed mightily to the success of the Yankees. Yet, it is unlikely that removing any of them from the Yankees roster would have hurt them as much as a bullpen that did not include Rivera.
Former Yankee manager Joe Torre, who coached Rivera from 1996 through 2007 recalled a time in which he managed the American League All-Star team in 2000 and told his team that they needed to score more runs as they were only up one run and he intended to use every player. One of Torre’s players, Darin Erstad tapped on Torre’s shoulder and asked who was pitching the ninth inning. Torre turned around and looked at him quizzically before replying, “Mariano Rivera.” To that Erstad retorted, “You don’t need any more runs.”
“He was as good a security blanket as a manager could possibly have,” Torre said.
When it mattered most, no one, including Derek Jeter had a greater impact in the playoffs than Rivera. From 1995 through 2011 Rivera had an otherworldly ERA of 0.70 in 141 post season innings pitched. In a sixteen-year period, against the best offensive lineups in baseball, only 11 players scored a run off Rivera in the playoffs. To put that in perspective, more humans have stepped foot on the moon (12), than have scored on Rivera in the playoffs.
Rivera has received no shortage of praise from his teammates. After he threw his final signature cutter on September 30th, 2013, Jeter said of Rivera, “He’s one of the best to ever play the game. He’s up there with any player that you can name. What he’s been able to do year in and year out. Not only in the regular season, the postseason.” Jorge Posada, who caught more than half of Rivera’s saves, described what working with Rivera was like. “He made my job easier. He really did. The location of his pitches was unbelievable. He’s a guy who doesn’t lose the side of his control, he doesn’t get rattled.”
While Rivera never did get rattled, perhaps one of his lowest moments occurred during game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when he gave up the game winning hit to Luis Gonzalez. Ironically, even in defeat Rivera did exactly what he was supposed to do. His cutter came in on the hands, jamming the lefty Gonzalez, but he was able to dunk it softly into shallow left field out of the reach of Jeter who had been drawn in with the bases loaded.
Still when Rivera spoke on Sunday, he was grateful for what the sport provided him and for the love and support of his family. A deeply religious Christian, he thanked God for giving him the greatest pitch. He thanked his parents for raising him and his wife for looking after his kids throughout the years. He apologized for missing their birthdays in February during Spring Training and October when he was usually pitching in the post season. He recalled crying in bed, unable to communicate with his teammates, before asking them to help teach him English. He spoke about being humbled when he and teammate Derek Jeter were sent down to the minor leagues in 1995.
He thanked the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, and Joe Torre whom he called a father. He thanked the fans for pulling for him on every pitch. Finally, he spoke of the privilege of wearing the pinstripes every day and how he tried to embody the Yankee tradition. “I did it with dignity, with honor and pride. I tried to carry the pinstripes the best that I could. I think I did alright with that.” He was more than alright. Surely the Baseball Writers’ Association agreed.
David Keltz is a graduate of New York University with a master’s degree in Public Relations and corporate communications. He is a long time USTA member and was a varsity tennis player at Ithaca College for three seasons, as well as a sportswriter for the Ithacan newspaper.