Sunday, May 6, 2012

A giant leaves the big stage

First of all, apologies for not posting yesterday, but I was out of town on a book promotion visit to Genrecon in Sarnia. An added benefit was that I got to see one of our faithful readers, Ellen Dark – and of course, we talked some baseball. Always great to see you, Ellen!

On Thursday, one of the giants of the current game (as opposed to one of the Giants) suffered what might be a career-ending injury. I’m sure you know I’m referring to Mariano Rivera, closer par excellence of the New York Yankees, the all-time saves leader (608), known affectionately – or unaffectionately – in some circles as The Sandman. You don’t have a fifteen-year career as a closer for one of baseball’s elite teams if you aren’t something incredibly special. Usually, when Mo came into a game it was all over for the opposing team. With a lifetime ERA of 2.21 and WHIP of 0.998 for his 18 seasons in the majors, you can see why everyone thought it was lights out. He also recorded the lowest ERA ever (0.70) and the most saves in one season (42).

The astonishing thing is that the Panamanian Rivera was able to accumulate this stunning resumé with basically just one pitch: a cutter unlike anyone has ever thrown. Still able pump it in in the mid-90s, every batter to face him knew what we coming and yet still they could seldom get much out of him. When someone beat Rivera it was big news and he kept it up season after season. It could be argued that Mo’s cutter is the most famous pitch since Satchel Paige’s ne plus ultra fastball, Long Tom.

While all of these stats are pretty amazing, I’d like to focus on is this extraordinary athlete’s less-obvious qualities. In a position that has more than its share of showboaters (I’m talking about you, Jonathan Papelbon, but there have been others), Rivera always conducted himself with class and dignity. If you want a current absolutely certain inductee to Cooperstown, Mariano Rivera is that man. Everyone respects him, and I’ll bet nearly every ballplayer who ever played with him or stood in the box against him admires the way he always conducted his business: calmly, methodically and with dignity. And that’s a fine legacy. No one will ever say about Rivera, “Sure, he was the greatest closer, but boy, was he an ‘a-hole’”.

One thing Mo loved doing and considered part of his training was to shag fly balls during patting practice. He was doing just that on Thursday before a game against the Royals. Always grinning while he joshed with teammates and anyone around, it was easy to see that he just loved being on the field, doing something that every kid in every sandlot on the planet enjoys doing. Drifting back to snag a just another fly ball, he caught a cleat on the edge of the warning track. You can tell from the video that it must have been incredibly painful. This is not a man who is outwardly demonstrative, even in the thick of battle. Everyone present knew his season certainly and possibly his career is done. Rivera has said he doesn’t want to end like this and that he will be back, and I would not count him out, but the fact of the matter is that he was already seriously thinking of retirement and his age is 42. An injury this large could well pull the plug on him, regardless of his determination.

I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that not since the death of Thurman Munson have the Yankees suffered such a catastrophic loss. They may well not miss a beat getting someone to fill in for Rivera (probably David Robertson), but no matter what happens, no one will easily be able to fill this man’s shoes.

Here’s wishing him well, no matter what happens. It will no doubt be a great while before we see his like again.


JohnZ said...

Nice post Rick - well said!

Anonymous said...

hey Rick, great article! Just a moot point, but Mariano doesn't hold the single season save record, he's actually 5th all-time behind Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Thigpen, Eric Gagne, and John Smoltz.

Larry Toman said...

At Anonymous, I was debating posting your comment as well, but on second read, it is a combined stat with ERA. The comment posted by Rick is bang on.

Larry Toman said...

Great tribute Rick and couldn't agree more. Mo has been lights out, as you said, he has done it with his cutter, and most have never been able to figure it out. More amassing is the fact that every hitter knew what pitch was coming.

Will Braund said...

I am following your excellent tribute with another post to Mariano. By the way, Robertson struck out the side in the 9th after his injury.