“And then? And then, when I walked down the street, people would’ve looked, and they would’ve said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.'” – The Natural
Exceedingly rare in sports is the career in which a player maintains a world-class level of dominance through a retirement on his or her own terms. Only a handful of players can even lay any valid claim to that. Wayne Gretzky scored 90 points in his second-to-last NHL season only to fall down to 62, a perfectly formidable number for a 38-year-old center in professional hockey, in his final season, 1998-’99. In the same sport, legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak retired at the age of 32 in 1984 after accumulating dozens of accolades and medals with the Soviet national team and CSKA Moscow and also without ever playing a minute in the NHL. Michael Jordan managed to average 20 points per game in the 2002-’03 season during his second and final comeback, with the Washington Wizards. He even scored 43 points as a 40-year-old, a task suburban dads in driveways everywhere wish to check off the Saturday morning to-do list. Depending on how the next half-decade or so shakes out, Kobe Bryant could be there too. John Elway finished his career at the very peak of the mountain, with two straight Super Bowl victories in 1998 and ’99. A few European footballers, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Xavi Hernandez among them, also had or are having satisfyingly lengthy careers in which they maintain high competitive levels.
Rarer still are the careers in which a player spends the entirety of his career with one team or club. Gretzky and Jordan, the unparalleled selections for the best to ever play their respective sports, each found new homes toward the end. Elway, Bryant and the soccer players are the best examples of a dying breed in sport, and while they are or were supremely dominant in their fields, none, with the possible exception of Xavi, is universally acclaimed and undisputed as the single best to ever do what he did.
At 43 years old, Mariano Rivera has thrown his final pitch inside of Yankee Stadium, his home ballpark (through two incarnations) since 1995. In the history of Major League Baseball, and indeed in the history of competitive team sports, it is virtually impossible to name someone who did his job better than Rivera did as a reliever. Here are some of the key facts and statistics from Rivera’s 19-year Major League career, all spent with the New York Yankees:
- Most career saves: 652
- Most career postseason saves: 42
- 5-time World Series champion (1996, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’09)
- Lowest career earned-run average, minimum 30 innings pitched: 0.70
- Most career All-Star Game saves: 4
- Most career All-Star Game selections as a reliever: 13
- Most career interleague saves: 75
- 1999 World Series MVP
- 2003 ALCS MVP
- More people have walked on the moon (12) than have scored against Mariano Rivera in the postseason (11)
- The last active Major League Baseball player to wear the number 42 after MLB retired it in honor of Jackie Robinson
Once the Yankees switched him from starting to coming out of the bullpen, Rivera came into his own. He finished third in the 1996 Cy Young Award voting as a setup man. He essentially based his entire career on a single pitch, a cut fastball he crafted in 1997 and has leaned on heavily ever since. The best sluggers in the game, many of them enhanced through steroids at the turn of the millennium, found the pitch unhittable. From mid-1999 through this season, the most frightening sound a hitter could hear in Yankee Stadium was Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which the music stadium engineers played when the bullpen doors opened to reveal the familiar gaunt figure in pinstripes. Far more often than not, it signaled the end of the game, with only a few strikeouts and broken bats acting as the props to a play with a written conclusion. Everything in between the doors opening and the final out was a formality.
On the night of September 26, 2013, I was lucky enough to receive a friend’s invitation to go to Yankee Stadium for the historic occasion of Mariano Rivera’s final game in pinstripes. We skipped a night class to attend, recognizing that history can be a better teacher than the classroom. The Yankees had been mathematically eliminated the night before, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi had guaranteed that Rivera would pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays as a result. There was some talk of Girardi putting Rivera in centerfield for an inning or two, something which had always been one of Rivera’s dreams. As the Rays were still in the playoff hunt, however, Girardi thankfully decided not to let Rivera play in the field in the spirit of the game.
Stealing into Monument Park for the first time since I had been at the original Yankee Stadium, I caught a glimpse of the plaque in honor of Rivera, whose number had been retired by the Yankees during a tremendous ceremony the previous Sunday, one that was very un-Rivera-like in its necessary scale and extravagance. The plaque is very straightforward and states only the necessities:
“Mo” is considered the greatest closer in baseball history. He spent his entire career in pinstripes from 1995-2013 and became the franchise leader in games pitched. Thriving under pressure, he amassed the most saves in postseason history. A 13-time All-Star, he retired as baseball’s all-time saves leader.
Simple and to-the-point, just like each of Rivera’s appearances. I wondered what it was like for a player, particularly a noted introvert of extraordinarily high class and a humble nature like Rivera, to have praise thrown upon him for the entirety of his final season. It is a rare and strange privilege to play on a field bearing your number, wearing uniforms bearing a badge in your honor. Then again, it is a rare and strange privilege to have a player of Rivera’s caliber on a roster at all, let alone one who stays there with the level of success that he has for the time that he has.
The game itself was totally forgettable; as my friend pointed out, the only reason the crowd stayed as long as it did was to see Rivera. Ivan Nova started for the Yankees, and though he pitched a fine game (8 hits, 1 earned run in seven innings of work), Alex Cobb’s performance held the Yankees to only one hit for most of his seven innings on the mound. After Dellin Betances gave up two earned runs in the course of 1/3 of an inning, skyrocketing his season ERA to 20.25, it was time for Rivera’s entrance:
Aside: I was at the final LCD Soundsystem concert ever on April 2, 2011, at Madison Square Garden. There is a line in the song “All My Friends” which goes, “And to tell the truth, this could be the last time/So here we go, like a sail’s force into the night.” In the Garden on that night, when James Murphy sang that line, the crowd lost itself totally because it knew this would be the last time. The same feeling which fell on that concert in that moment shook me when I watched the bullpen door open for Mariano Rivera. This was it, and everyone knew it. The Tampa Bay Rays gave him a standing ovation, along with everyone else in the stadium.
One of the most iconic images in sports is that of a tall, slender, pinstriped Panamanian trotting to the mound to rescue his team. With the number of flashes that went off in the crowd during his warmup and the ensuing 1.1 innings he pitched, you would’ve thought it was Game 7 of a tightly contested playoff series rather than the fourth-to-last game of a lost season. And why not? We had seen the same situation so many times before, it just felt right.
Rivera’s omnipresent stern countenance reminded everyone, as if we needed it, of his strict professionalism and competitive edge. The greatest closer of all-time induced a fly ball and a grounder to end the inning, then returned to start the ninth. Frustrating hitters at 43 just the same as he did at 25, Rivera coaxed two quick outs from the Rays, giving up no hits or walks, before another moment sure to enter the already extensive lexicon of Yankee lure occurred:
Watch Rivera’s face as Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte approach the mound. Until he realizes what is happening, his focus is unrelenting. That is quintessential Mariano Rivera. If you knew nothing of the game of baseball or of Rivera’s career, that might be the single image to watch. It is interesting to note that it was also Pettitte’s final game at Yankee Stadium, although his last start had taken place the previous Sunday, and that Rivera’s first career save came on May 17, 1996, in a game which Pettitte had started and won. Jeter helped turn the double-play that ended the game. Manager Joe Girardi was playing at catcher for that game.
These three, along with retired catcher Jorge Posada, formed the so-called “Core Four” of New York Yankees players who helped the team win several World Series in the late 1990s and in 2009. Their combined longevity and excellence will spill the ink of so many journalists and writers over the course of this week, and perhaps even more when Jeter retires, that it is unnecessary and maybe irresponsible to run through their accomplishments here. They were good for the Yankees, for baseball and for sports, and fans owe them an eternal debt of gratitude for their passion and sportsmanship.
Once Robinson Cano flied out to end the game on the day in which it was reported that he asked for a 10-year, $305 million contract, Rivera sat alone in the dugout. “New York, New York” blared over the stadium speakers, as it always does after Yankees home games. In a moment which is sure to be written about much more extensively and eloquently than I can relate it, the greatest closer of all-time walked to the mound, dug his feet into it several times and scooped some of its sand into his prolific hands, a memento of all the glory he had accumulated on behalf of his team.
Everyone who has watched baseball in the past two decades has memories of Mariano Rivera. As a Yankees fan, mine are multitudinous, and usually set to the soundtrack of Metallica in the autumn. While some are not particularly pleasant (even this man is human), the overwhelming majority are fond, and never did the inclination hit me that Rivera was too old, or that he was out of firepower, or that we should trade him.
One night especially sticks out: on October 16, 2003, in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Mariano Rivera came in during the ninth inning to preserve a tied ballgame against the Boston Red Sox, who had just let us crawl back into contention via Grady Little and an overworked Pedro Martinez. For three innings, Rivera was dominant, holding the Red Sox to two hits and no runs and allowing for one of the greatest moments in the history of the rivalry: Aaron F***ING Boone. I was watching the game with my dad and my older brother, and several times I thought for sure we were finished. When Boone hit the home run, Rivera came out and collapsed on the pitcher’s mound, the weight of the world falling with him. I ran upstairs to tell my mom, who had gone to bed, that we were going to the World Series. Moments like that keep me going as a sports fan. That is what keeps you coming back amid all of the losses and disappointment.
Rivera returned to baseball following an injury in early 2012 which had ended his season. The consummate competitor, he was not about to let the game of baseball close him out. He would do it on his own terms, much as he did to so many teams over nineteen seasons. Doing this his way would be the only acceptable, dignified course of action for a man who knew his way around strategy.
It was a final outing for the books, certainly, in a season filled with incredible tributes wherever the Yankees went. I acknowledge and concede that the New York Yankees are the most hated baseball team in America and one of the most hated franchises in professional sports, but even the most die-hard Red Sox fans recognize the greatness and class of Mariano Rivera. Really, they know it the best.
He is more than a once-in-a-lifetime player; he is a once-only-period player, the kind of guy you create in a video game to the delight of your wildest dreams of a relief pitcher. This one only needed one button for most of his career. Rivera carries himself with a serenity, and he walks like he is shouldering the burdens of every Yankee before him. Attention is not his goal. He only wanted to do what was best for his team and to help the Yankees win. He earned universal respect and admiration for simply doing what he was asked, much in the same way Cal Ripken, Jr. did once upon a time. Mariano Rivera’s playing career is over, but his legacy is infinite because he transcended baseball. He is, as Michael Kay puts it in the clip above, “very simply, the greatest who has ever done this job.”
Even at the age of 43, Rivera is effective. He could feasibly perform at this level for another two or three years, but he is choosing not to do so. It is time for him to move to the next stage of his life. When I graduate from Fordham in May, I will be doing the same. The consistencies of school and Mariano Rivera will not be in my life anymore next spring, and there is as much fear as there is hope in that statement, for both myself and for the New York Yankees. One thing is certain, an apocalyptic cliché: nothing will be the same, but we will carry the lessons learned and everything previous with us forward.
Thank you, Mariano Rivera, for all you have done, ad majorem Dei gloriam. May you live the deserved life of a king, and may the many nations of relief pitchers you have inspired be as numerous as the stars in the sky.