MLB 100 - Mariano #91 - The Athletic

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MLB 100 - Mariano #91 - The Athletic

Postby T15D23 » Fri Dec 27, 2019 11:12 am

The Baseball 100: No. 91, Mariano Rivera
Joe Posnanski


Starting in December and ending on Opening Day, we at The Athletic will count down the 100 greatest baseball players by publishing an essay on a player every day for 100 days. In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as “Moby Dick.” Yes, we know it’s nutty. We hope you enjoy.

A few years ago, I wrote something about Mariano Rivera and Ernest Hemingway. Here is a part of that.

“They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”
— The Old Man and the Sea

I was re-reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” and I came upon the Joe DiMaggio references. Hemingway adored DiMaggio. He admired the grace with which DiMaggio played defense, the consistency of a man who could hit in 56 straight games, the quiet elegance with which he carried himself. All this turned DiMaggio into something more than a ballplayer. He became representative of a better time (“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio”). He became a hero for playing through pain. He became known as a paragon of baseball astuteness — “He never threw to the wrong base,” his old teammate Yogi Berra and countless others insisted.

DiMaggio became the model for Hemingway’s old man.

“I must have the confidence,” the old man says to the sea, “and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio, who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.”

Obviously, I never saw Joe DiMaggio play. But as I read it, I had to admit, I kept thinking of a different Yankee. He too was the son of a fisherman. He too grew up too poor to understand. As a ballplayer, his career almost ended before it began. He was almost traded (twice) before he settled into his permanent role with the Yankees. He too was the very essence of gracefulness. He took the mound with a calmness that chilled opponents. It didn’t matter the heat of the moment, the importance of the pitch, the number of men on base, the score of the game. It didn’t matter if it was a breezy spring training game in Tampa, a pennant-chasing battle at Fenway Park or the championship-clinching game in the World Series, he looked entirely at ease, as if the game was already over and he was sitting in a recliner and retelling the story to his own grandchildren.

And then he would throw one pitch. He only had one pitch. People would call the pitch a cutter because of the way it cut sideways, but it wasn’t a cutter because it’s a pitch without a name. Other pitchers threw cutters. No, this pitch was different, unlike anything anyone else ever threw. “I learned the pitch,” he said, “from God.”

And no one could hit the pitch. It was just one pitch but for 18 years, nobody could hit it.

“You know what’s coming,” a hitter named Mike Sweeney once said. “But you know what’s coming in horror movies, too.”

Hemingway’s old man talked so often about DiMaggio, that the boy in the story says to him: “They have other men on the team.”

“Naturally,” the old man said. “But he makes the difference.”

Hemingway loved DiMaggio. But if he had lived in our time, it would have been Mariano Rivera.

Rivera finished more games (952), saved more games (652) and finished with the highest ERA+ (205) in baseball history.

From 1996 to 2013, he only once had an ERA above three — that was in 2007 when he was 37 years old. There was a sense then that maybe he was finally coming to an end, that hitters had finally caught up to that nameless pitch that broke a thousand bats and many more hearts.

The next year, he pitched 70 ⅔ innings, walked six batters (yes, six batters), saved 39 games and had a 1.40 ERA.

He pitched 141 postseason innings. He allowed just two home runs — one that mattered (Sandy Alomar homered to tie an ALDS game in 1997) and one that mostly did not (Jay Payton homered off him in a World Series game; Rivera struck out the next hitter to win the game anyway). He had an 0.70 ERA. He allowed a total of one run in his last 24 postseason appearances.

I bring up these numbers not only because they are impressive, but also because they would have been impossible only a few years earlier. Mariano Rivera became the first player elected unanimously by the BBWAA into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and many people were horrified by that, making the fair point that Rivera’s 56.3 career WAR was roughly the same as non-Hall of Famers Dave Stieb, Jerry Koosman and Kevin Appier, and that he threw a thousand or so fewer innings than Ron Guidry, Stieb, Bret Saberhagen and numerous others whose careers were deemed too short to be Hall of Fame worthy.

How could contemporaries like Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson, who threw four times as many innings as Rivera (and finished with more than twice as many Wins Above Replacement), not get elected unanimously while Rivera did?

I do not have a counterargument to any of this — Maddux and Johnson should have been elected unanimously, great starters with short careers have been overlooked by the Hall in my view — except to say that Rivera was unlike any pitcher before him and probably unlike any pitcher to come.

Rivera grew up in Puerto Caimito, Panama, and he never thought he would leave. He cleaned fish and pulled up nets as a young boy; the Yankees signed him for $3,000. Before he pitched a single big-league inning, he blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery. He did not actually make it to the big leagues until he was 25 years old.

He began as a starter and not a very good one. It is written in his permanent record: He made 10 big league starts and went 3-3 with a 5.94 ERA. He walked 20 in 50 innings, allowed eight home runs. Legend has it that owner George Steinbrenner himself was ready to trade Rivera to Seattle for shortstop Félix Fermin.* He was included in at least one other possible trade package.

*It’s unclear what sort of hypnotic hold Félix Fermin held for some, but just a couple of years earlier, Cleveland had traded Fermin to Seattle for possible future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel.

But then the Yankees put him in the bullpen, and the difference was startling. He came into three games against Seattle in the ALDS in 1995. In Game 2, Rivera entered in the 12th inning with the score tied and a runner on first. He was electrifying. He struck out Jay Buhner to end the threat. In his first full inning, he got three outs without letting the ball out of the infield. In his second, he struck out the side (including that much-coveted Félix Fermin). He worked around two singles in the 15th, and the Yankees won the game.

He had two more scoreless appearances. And even though the Yankees lost the series, they never again listened to a trade offer for Rivera. “People inquire about him all the time,” GM Bob Watson told reporters. “But that kind of arm, you don’t give up.” They had seen the future.

In April the following year, Rivera was so good out of the pen, so unhittable, that Twins manager Tom Kelly said: “He needs to pitch in a higher league if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal.”

And the following year, he was made a full-time closer and you know how it went after that.

None of this would have been an option in Tom Seaver’s time or Warren Spahn’s time or Satchel Paige’s time or Walter Johnson’s time. The closer role was invented just in time for Rivera, and Rivera’s one pitch was created just in time for the closer role.

And oh, that pitch. Jim Thome called it the greatest pitch in baseball history, and who can argue? Yes, we can talk all we want about Nolan Ryan’s fastball, Sandy Koufax’s curve, Steve Carlton’s slider, Carl Hubbell’s screwball, Bruce Sutter’s splitter, Gaylord Perry’s spitter, Pedro Martinez’s change-up and Satchel Paige’s Bee ball (so named because, as Satch said, “It be where I want it to be when I want it to be there”). But all of them threw other pitches.

Rivera threw no other pitches. He came into the game, and he came at hitters with that same pitch, one pitch, again and again, fastball, sharp break to the left at the last possible instant. He learned the pitch while playing catch with his friend and countryman Ramiro Mendoza in 1997. He just tried a new grip, and the pitch came out whole, unblemished, perfect — “a gift from God,” he always said.

Counterintuitively, Rivera was not an especially great strikeout pitcher. He averaged fewer than a strikeout per inning over his career and in one of his most celebrated seasons, 1998, he struck out just 36 in 61 1/3 innings. In his unmatched postseason career, he struck out just seven per nine innings.

See, his pitch wasn’t built to be missed. It was built for destruction. Surely, no pitch has ever broken as many bats as Mariano’s. It attacked lefty hitters like a swarm of bees. And it made righties reach out blindly, like they were trying to hit a shadow.

Beyond that, Rivera simply had the perfect closer persona. Nothing bothered him. He failed so rarely, but when he did he simply shrugged and moved on. In 2004, he blew two saves against Boston — the Red Sox were the one team that often had his number — and the next time he pitched in Boston, fans wildly cheered him when his name was announced.

His response? “I felt honored,” he said. “What was I going to do? Get upset and start throwing baseballs at people?”

No. Not Rivera. He pitched his whole life in New York, with the tabloid back pages ready to pounce on any blown save. He never looked worried. He never seemed stressed. He never offered any hope to hitters. It’s impossible to know exactly where to rank Mariano Rivera on the all-time list because there was never anyone like him. There’s no one to compare him with. I’ll just say if I had a lead in the ninth against the Devil, he’d be the guy I’d want on the mound.
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