One of the great things about sports are arguments over the greatest players in various sports at different positions. Who is football’s greatest middle linebacker? Bear fans would say Butkus (or Singletary or Urlacher), Packer fans Ray Nitschke, Raven fans Ray Lewis, and Steeler fans lobby for Jack Lambert. For basketball aficionados, the transcendent debate is whether the best center ever is Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain; every hockey fan in North America, not to mention Europe and Russia, has an opinion about the greatest goalie.
But no sport generates heated discussion like baseball. Greatest centerfielder: Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, or perhaps Mickey Mantle? Greatest catcher: Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench , or Josh Gibson? In baseball, the “best ever” is an ongoing deliberation at every position – except one.
As the 2013 season ends, we witness the final game and retirement of Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history. Not just the best, but unlike any other position in any sport, there is no credible argument for anyone else. There have been other great relievers, five in the Hall of Fame, but virtually everyone would agree none compares to Rivera.
Relief pitcher did not actually become a position until the 1950’s when managers designated specialists to “save” the lead in the late innings. The “save”, a statistic created by Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman in the 1960’s, eventually became the standard to measure relief pitchers. Not surprisingly, Mariano Rivera is Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in saves.
There is little point belaboring casual fans with other arcane baseball statistics illustrating Mariano Rivera’s dominance. Suffice to say, for nearly 20 years, he has been at or near the top of every category that evaluates relievers. Nobody else can make such a claim. Former White Sox pitcher D.J. Carrasco, when asked who was the best pitcher he ever saw, answered simply and without hesitation, “Mariano Rivera. He’s been getting people out for 15 years with one pitch. When everybody knows what you do for 15 years and they still can’t hit it, that’s the definition of the best.”
Some of sports’ greatest players perform well during the regular season against lesser competition but do not play particularly well under the pressure of postseason competition against the best teams. Peyton Manning’s quarterback statistics during regular season NFL games are virtually unmatched yet during the playoffs his performance has been merely pedestrian. Ted Williams’s lifetime batting average was .344, eighth highest in history, but he hit only .200 in his one World Series.
When the pressure is greatest, Mariano Rivera has been even more dominant in postseason play than in the regular season. He pitched for the Yankees his entire career and in large measure his brilliance helped New York make the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons from 1995-2007, including five World Series championships. His personal statistics in the playoffs are even better than those during the regular season.
Like everyone who has played baseball, Rivera has known failure. He blew a ninth inning lead in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series on a bloop hit over a pulled-in infield. He blew two saves against the arch-rival Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series. But through everything, he has behaved with an air of dignity and equanimity, in contrast to the antics of many other relievers. Throughout baseball, he is universally respected for his decorum as much as his pitching prowess.
Rivera’s excellence extends beyond the diamond. In an era when sports pages are full of drugs and scandals, Rivera has demonstrated athletes can indeed be role models, contrary to current wisdom. In his final visit to every city this season he meets with ordinary fans and stadium employees giving them autographed baseballs, posing for photos, and conversing with them in Spanish and English.
He often goes above and beyond to personalize his efforts. He visited wounded veterans in a Tampa hospital and posed for photos with a man with Down Syndrome in Texas. In Oakland, he bought a pizza for a woman who worked in the mailroom for twenty five years. He spent private time with a family in Kansas City who lost a child in an accident. He explained, “What I’m getting from these tours is being able to say thank you. To people that work in the stadium, thanks. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure I said thank you for all those people behind the scenes that I can touch and be able to spend a little time with them… definitely it has been more than what I thought. Instead of them learning from me, I’m learning from them. Again, it’s a blessing. And I think God for that”.
A role model, not just for children but for adults.
Roger Craig, a journeyman pitcher but a better writer, authored a book called Inside Pitch discussing the principles of pitching. He wrote, “Great pitchers demonstrate composure, pride and competitive instincts. They don’t allow trivial things to upset them.”
By that measure and every other, as relief pitchers go Mariano Rivera is indisputably the greatest of them all. We shall not see his like again.
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