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Friday, May 4, 2012

A Tribute to Mariano Rivera

It is amazing to me that I'm sitting here today writing a post titled A Tribute to Mariano Rivera, but on this morning I feel that I need to do just this.  My interest in baseball has fallen in a severely exponential way in the last decade.  Twenty to twenty-five years ago I could sit and watch baseball all day, but now I can rarely sit through an entire half inning of the sport.  The game bores me and certainly in the last decade or so I have found it comical that many people still refer to it as 'America's Pastime.'  But the biggest reason that this post might be surprising is that to the extent that anyone can still refer to me in any way as a fan to any degree of anything related to baseball, I am a fan of the New York Mets, and Mariano Rivera is the longtime closer of the New York Yankees, the team that I hate more than any other professional sports team.  But yesterday, prior to the Yankees' game against the Kansas City Royals, Rivera, while catching balls in the outfield during the Yankees' batting practice, went down with a torn ACL.  Such an injury means that he is done for this season and at forty-two years of age, he may have pitched his last ball in professional baseball.  I cannot think of a sadder turn of events for the sport of baseball.

I have not always been a fan of Rivera.  Indeed, for many years I hated everything Yankees-related.  True, while I was in college in Massachusetts I grudgingly rooted for the Yankees because I enjoyed playing the role of arrogant New Yorker and hated being immersed in New England fandom.  I hated having to hear about all the Boston sports teams non-stop, year-round.  I grew to hate the Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, and Red Sox, and so I could root for the Yankees (again, grudgingly) because of the angst that arose in the region each time the Yankees succeeded during those years.  (I was in college from 1996-2000.)

But things changed during the summer of 2000.  At the conclusion of the year, the Yankees would go on to defeat the Mets in the World Series, a fact which crystallized my eternal hatred for the Yankees.  However, it was in the summer of that year that my animosity started to build toward the team.  The Yankees and Mets were playing an interleague game at Yankees Stadium and the Mets' Mike Piazza was facing the Yankees' Roger Clemens.  Now Roger Clemens had struggled when pitching to Piazza in the past, and just like any professional athlete who is facing some difficulty and in need of a few tweaks to his game, Roger Clemens made some adjustments and threw a fastball that hit Piazza in the head.  A real tough guy that Roger Clemens was, throwing at people that he could not get out fairly because he knew he was protected by the American League designated hitter rule.  But then we fast-forward to the World Series and in Piazza's first at-bat versus Clemens since Clemens had hit him in the head, Piazza fouled off a pitch, causing the bat to break, with the barrel tumbling out to the left of the mound if you are facing home plate.  And of course Clemens, being the great guy that he is, picked up the bat barrel and threw it in Piazza's direction (and to this day I believe he threw it at Piazza), but seemed to mouth the excuse, "I thought it was the ball," as Piazza took exception and started walking toward the mound.  Of course no data was provided on how many times during Clemens's career when a ball came out toward the mound that he was roughly forty-five degrees off in the direction the ball should have been thrown (you know, toward first base), but maybe this is some research that the Elias Sports Bureau can do.

Yes, I digressed, but at least some of the digression was necessary to illustrate the extent of my antipathy for the Yankees.  The conclusions of the next four baseball seasons brought considerable enjoyment for me as the Yankees lost in excruciating fashion.  In 2001 it was to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series, in 2002 it was to the California-Anaheim-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the division series, in 2003 it was to the Florida Marlins in the World Series, and then finally in 2004 it was the epic choke-job loss to the Boston Red Sox in the league championship series. Delicious.  But as I look back now, the loss to the Diamondbacks was the most amazing of those losses because in game seven of that series, the Diamondbacks beat the unbeatable Mariano Rivera when he was called on to do what he seems to have been born to do: slam the door at the end of big baseball games.

I have long hated baseball's seeming ever more liberal reliance on relief pitchers.  I hate the absurd amount of useless statistics that are developed for baseball like the 'quality start' and the 'hold.'  And I also think that the save statistic has been cheapened due to the fact that these days a pitcher can pitch six innings, give up three runs, and then get a pat on the back with a way to go with that quality start!  And then you have two or three pitchers come in and 'hold' the game, before finally the closer comes in and gets a save, many times surrendering more runs than innings pitched.  I respect the relief pitcher role less so than any other position in baseball and generally scoff anytime anyone even hints that one of these people deserve to be in the Cy Young Award conversation.  However, Mariano Rivera is different.

Mariano Rivera is different because when he came on to pitch, you believed that there was no chance he was going to blow a lead.  You almost felt you had a better chance of drowning in a lightning storm than to see Rivera blow a save, particularly in a big game.  And this is what makes that loss by Rivera in game seven of the 2001 World Series so amazing.  Rivera was not one of these relief pitchers who only recorded the easy save or would routinely pitch himself into trouble while in the course of hanging on by the fingertips at the end of games.  He came out to pitch in the tough situations and you knew it was lights out.  In game seven of the 2001 World Series, Rivera came in to start the eighth inning with the Yankees leading 2-1, and though I hoped for a Diamondbacks win, I knew it was not going to happen.

It is been more than ten years since that game took place, and my memory of all of the events of that game and World Series have faded a bit.  I confess, I did have to look up the information to be sure that Rivera came on in the eighth inning of a 2-1 game, even though I suspected that this was the case, but I do not want to look up and recount an entire play-by-play.  But I will never forget the final play of that game.  I remember sitting there in my apartment watching that game, stunned that finally after having won the last three World Series, the Yankees just might be on the verge of losing.  Rivera had already surrendered a run and the winning run was on third base with less than two outs.  I was getting excited, but still I left room for that inevitable disappointment that I thought was coming.  In the back of my mind, I just knew Rivera was somehow going to pull off some magic act in that ninth inning, the Yankees were going to win that World Series, and that blown save would largely be forgotten over the years.  But with a drawn-in infield, Luis Gonzalez blooped the feeblest of feeble hits just over shortstop Derek Jeter's head.  Had Jeter been in his normal fielding position, this would have been an easy catch and I believe those Yankees find a way to win again.  But it was not meant to be as that feebly hit ball landed on the ground and finally beat the unbeatable Rivera.

After years of reflection on those Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few of those players I still truly despise (see Roger Clemens), a few I'm indifferent toward (see Andy Pettitte), a very few I have come to grudgingly respect (see Derek Jeter), but Mariano Rivera is the only one that I have come to like.  I still remember back to the 1990 ALCS that the Oakland A's swept the Red Sox 4-0.  I loved the A's teams of those years.  I loved the Bash Brothers.  I loved their swagger.  I still vividly remember during one of those games when A's legendary and Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley mowed down Dwight Evans swinging and gave a gigantic fist pump out of exuberance of the important moment, but also with at least a little hint of taunting his vanquished opponent.  I have never been one to truly disdain taunting and showmanship, but it is because we never see a hint of either of these things out of Rivera that I respect and like him so much.  He always came out in a no-nonsense, business-like fashion.  And he almost always got the job done emotionlessly.

But there is one more reason why if the event of yesterday spells the end for Rivera, I will find it to be a truly sad day.  Mariano Rivera wears the number forty-two.  He is the last Major League Baseball player to wear the number 42 other than on Jackie Robinson Day when every Major League Baseball player wears the number 42.  Major League Baseball took the rare step of forever retiring the number 42 some years back in tribute to the important legacy of Jackie Robinson.  Now I was never alive when Jackie Robinson played, nor was I alive at any point while he lived.  I do not intend to compare the baseball or life achievements of Robinson and Rivera.  But I can think of no better person to be the last to wear the number 42.  I have always known that Rivera would one day leave the field, leaving Jackie Robinson's number 42 to be worn on that one special day each year by all, but I know now that I wish and hope that that one day was not yesterday.

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