As a less than optimal season for the New York Yankees comes to a close, it saddens me to think, next year, there will be no Mo. For 19 seasons Mariano Rivera was money. Actually, that’s not 100% accurate. Mariano was not a lock from day one. He spent 5 years in the minors before being called up as a starter. His first start in 1995 was abysmal. Seven runs on 7 hits before he got the hook. His shift to the bullpen later that year, as the set up man for John Wetteland, proved to be the turning point in his career. He was a huge contributor to the 96 Yankees World Championship team in the set up role. The next year, Wetteland left the Bronx as a free agent and Mo took over as the closer. The rest as they say is history.
Mariano’s incredible statistics are well chronicled. For me, it’s not as much what he did as the way he did it. In today’s sports world, where ego and self promotion is the rule, Mariano was the exception. The son of a fisherman, born and raised in Panama, Mariano is a man of faith and personal values. He said very little especially in the early years. He just went about his business and let his cutter do the talking. It’s interesting how this approach resulted in him becoming one of the most well respected individuals ever to play professional sports. Yes I said “ever” and I mean “all” professional sports.
How fitting that he was given the number 42 the year before Major League Baseball retired that number in honor of the late, great Jackie Robinson. I’m not sure Robinson himself could have hand picked a better representative to carry the torch he lit when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. True to form, Mariano actually felt the responsibility to carry himself in a way that would make “Mr. Jackie” proud. Over his nineteen years he never shirked that responsibility.
For Mariano it was all about helping his team win and never about individual stats. That’s who he is. They say closers today have to relish the limelight. That they have to showboat and jump around pumping their fists after a key strikeout. They have to look intimating growing their hair and beards and getting all “tatted-up”. It’s like the freakier you look the better your chances for success as a closer. Mo just stuck with what he knew; the values he learned from working with his father on the fishing boats. Work hard, be humble. During the 19 years and the hundreds of times I watched The Sandman pitch I never, not once, saw him get flustered. He won with class and he lost with class.
As hard as it is to mention, we all remember the 2001 Fall Classic. New York and the rest of the country was still reeling in the wake of September 11th. Baseball, the Yankees and the Mets had received a lot of credit for their efforts to be there for the victims’ families, the firemen and the police whose hearts had been shattered. Resuming the baseball schedule was part of bringing some much needed normalcy back to the city. It was a dramatic World Series where the Yanks came back to win two in New York to force the series back to Arizona. It seemed like the Yankees were destined to win for the people of New York. In the final game the Yanks were clinging to a one run lead. Things were going according to the script. It was the bottom of the ninth – Enter The Sandman.
We’d seen this act over and over again. It was like going to a movie for the umpteenth time. You know the ending by heart. Yanks go ahead in the late innings in a tight game, #42 trots in from the bullpen, and the opposing team goes down in order. It would include a strike out or two and a broken bat grounder or soft pop up. They didn’t nickname him the Sandman for nothing. On that November night there wasn’t a reason to expect anything different. We all know what happened.
The Diamondbacks got three base hits – all broken bat bloopers. The final one coming off the bat of Luis Gonzales over a drawn-in infield, barely out of the reach of Jeter’s glove. It was devastating. I stood there in disbelief. For me it was the cruelest joke the baseball Gods could play on Mariano, the Yankees and the people of New York. Another closer might have made excuses or said the other team got lucky. Not Mo.
Mariano walked off the field with his head held high knowing that he had given it his best. He was the model of consistency. He never showed his hand. There’s no doubt he was dying inside more for his teammates and the city of New York than for himself. As he had done in so many situations before he handled even the worst situation with dignity and class.
There will never be another Mo. The fact that he pitched 141 innings in post season play, giving up only 11 runs resulting in a miniscule .70 ERA is one thing. Could that record ever be broken? Maybe. However, I’m convinced nobody will ever do it with the style and grace of Rivera.
Thank you Mariano. Thank you for being a role model for a game that has not been well represented in that department lately. It’s been a privilege to watch you perform at a level I don’t believe will ever be matched. Thank God you were, and always will be, a New York Yankee!