Last week, the news that Yankees fans had always knew was eventually coming finally happened: Mariano Rivera announced his retirement. His resume is beyond impressive: five World Championships, including a World Series MVP; 12 All-Star Games; 3-time MLB season-saves leader; all-time saves leader (608); and last but not least, a filthy cutter that has give him an astoundingly low 2.21 career ERA in over 1,200 innings. As the retirement tour begins, and Yankees fans prepare to listen to “Enter Sandman” for the last time this season, it may be time to reflect on Rivera’s time as a Yankee, both on and off the field.
It goes without question that Rivera’s on-field accolades are exceptional. His post-season ERA is a disgusting; 0.70 in 141 IP, not exactly a small sample size. He probably should have invested in bat stock at some point during his career, considering his ridiculous cutter has been the downfall of countless of them. It can probably also be argued that without Rivera, the Yankees probably don’t win five championships. Two, possibly. Maybe three.
Having that lock-down, shut-down closer against those National League teams that had clawed their way to a World Series berth- Braves, Padres, Mets, Phillies- elevated the Yankees from very, very good to elite, regardless of the offensive firepower their lineup has historically shown. Without Rivera, the New York Yankees were just another very good team. With him-and with all due respect to the myriad of other terrific players who contributed to all of those World Series runs, particularly in the Joe Torre years- they became an unstoppable force. He was the true definition of a difference maker whenever he took the mound.
However, what cannot be missed when discussing all of Rivera’s incredible successes is his very profound failures, too. It feels like yesterday that Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop walk-off single to center and jumped out of the batter’s box after winning the 2001 World Series in Game 7. What magnified that game, perhaps, was the circumstances under which that game, that series, that post-season was played as the Yankees represented three hours of normalcy for a city that was brought to its knees. It was, perhaps, the most perfect situation for Rivera. He was the only pitcher on the planet who Yankees fans, and maybe baseball fans in general, wanted to be on the hill in that moment- bases loaded, scored tied, 1 out, Game 7. And yet, Rivera failed.
But what was and continues to be the most incredible feat Rivera has ever done, was accept the loss with such grace, standing at his locker and patiently answering every question asked of him during what must have been the most difficult moment of his professional life. Rivera answered every question thoughtfully, his pain evident, but respectful. In that moment, when he had failed on such a grand stage, Rivera showed a classiness about him that speaks more about him as a person than had he won the game and conducted the same post-game debriefing.
But maybe that has always been Rivera all along. What separates him aside from the obvious talent: an understated nature and quietness about him, a poise about him despite his solidification as the greatest player at his position of all time. Think about baseball players- every home run is a spectacle as players watch the ball fly over the fence, every single solicits a over-the-top reaction(looking at you, Nick Swisher), and every walk-off is cause for shaving cream pies to the face and home plate celebrations. With Rivera, every save was a simple fist pump and a shake of the hand to his catcher and team mates, no matter the stage. Every entrance, even as reputation for dominance grew, was the same- a song that has become almost synonymous with his appearance in a game (that was chosen for him), and just a simple jog in from the outfield. A simplicity that was in stark contrast to his unbelievable talent.
There will never be another Mariano Rivera in baseball. There may be some pitcher who has a similar type of success for a brief period of time, but the amount of success and the sustained amount of time that Rivera had it will never be duplicated. He is a truly special player, and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked. But that is not the only legacy that he will leave behind whenever the last man to ever wear Number 42 in Major League Baseball runs in from the bullpen for the last time.
In a sports world where players tend to make fools of themselves- Twitter, scandalous photos, ridiculous celebrations on the field, trash-talking in the media- there is a quiet, refined nature about Mariano Rivera that will be his true legacy. No matter the stage, no matter the result, and most importantly, no matter his level of fame and success- Rivera has always been the same. There are too few athletes like Rivera in sports, and that is a shame. It has been an absolute privilege to have been able to watch Rivera as I grew up- being able to see that talent for so many occasions. But it has been more of a joy to watch a player maintain his humility and grace, despite the money, the fame, the success, and even the failures. The Yankees will miss Mariano Rivera most for what he showed as a pitcher when he played baseball. I will miss Mariano Rivera most for what he showed as a person.