Mariano Rivera – Seeing A Living Legend

Back in the 1960’s, my dad was a child of Ozone Park, NY. A New York Yankees fan growing up in Queens, before the days where the Amazin’s took the field in Flushing. His favorite ballplayer? The man he holds true to be the home run king, Roger Maris. My dad taught myself, a student of the game at the age of five, all he could about his watching his living legends take the field at now old Yankee Stadium, as they became my legends of lore. He spoke of Maris, Mantle, Yogi, Whitey, Elston, Munson, Reggie, Guidry, Gossage, Chambliss, Mattingly, and what they did to have their number in pinstripes retired. He even threw in some stories about DiMaggio in his post playing career. I ate it all up. My fandom of the franchise was entrenched in my sports soul, never to be removed, tested, or broken. These men I marveled at were icons, who would live on in eternity, through their statistics, their feats, and their legacies.

My Grammy loves the Brooklyn Dodgers with a passion that extends to this very day. As a child, I fondly and vividly remember her stories of being at school during the ’55 World Series. The teachers muted themselves; the only voice in the room belonged to Vin Scully on the radio.  I’d eat up anything she’d tell me about Jackie, Pee Wee, Duke, and so many more of her idols, feeling the passion in her voice, recalling and remembering the players who only come once in a lifetime.

All I could hope for as a kid was to be lucky enough to be able to speak of “one-of-a-kind” talents that I was fortunate enough to watch step in the batters box or toe the rubber. Players whose dominance would be worthy of baseball’s history pages, but whose performance I had viewed right before my eyes.  To one day, a long time from now, be able to tell some sports-hungry youth who asks about an icon the four words that signify a legacy: “I saw him play”.

I saw Mariano play.

The greats go by one name, but Mariano has taken on a few. Mo. Forty-Two. Sandman. The more vulgar ones that opposing fans and players have called him that aren’t worth repeating. By many, including myself, he is also known by longer titles, such as “The Greatest Postseason Pitcher Who Ever Lived”, along with, “The Greatest Closer Who Ever Lived”.

Closer is arguably the most mental and strenuous position in all of professional sports, let alone baseball. It requires a pitcher to have a mindset made of steel, a confidence that cannot be broken, yet pitcher after pitcher manages to be eaten up by the demands of the job. Not Mariano.

Since he took over for John Wetteland, moving full time from setup man to the man in the bullpen, many closers have come, yet all have seemingly gone. Rob Nenn, Jose Mesa, John Smoltz, Troy Percival, Eric Gagne, Uggie Urbina, Keith Foulke,  Jason Isringhausen, Eddie Guardado, Armando Benitez (well, not really him), K-Rod, Jonathan Broxton, Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, Jose Valverde, Jonathan Pappelbon, just to name a few. All have been stars, or thought of as so for teams, but, different reasons (age/role switch/injury/lose control/lose mental stability), have kept them from getting close to Mo for more than a few years or so without being torched, some worse than others. Even Mariano’s greatest competition throughout his career, Trevor Hoffman, has long been blown by in essentially every vital closer statistic. The lone current pitcher who can have some level of success comparable is Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, but let’s get a look at how he can hold up on a serious run for the title this postseason.

Rivera led the league in saves three times, but it’s the postseason where he created his legacy, racking up 42 saves in 96 outings.

He’s pitched 141 innings of playoff baseball.  He’s allowed a total of 11 earned runs. A 0.70 ERA. In 32 series, he’s allowed more than one earned run throughout the entirety of a series just once, allowing a mass total of two whole runs to the Mets, when the Yanks won the 2000 World Series.

He’s the MVP of the ’99 Series, a clean sweep of the Atlanta Braves, allowing four baserunners total over 4 2/3rd innings pitched.

And while fans in Boston and Arizona will be quick to tell you he’s not perfect, not a single fan ever felt confident when the Bronx Bombers had the lead in October, going into the ninth.

The man who created the greatest pitch in baseball history, did it by accident. No matter how Rivera gripped the baseball, he couldn’t control it’s movement. He went to then pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who worked with Rivera to try and “fix” his deadly cutter and straighten it back out. In the middle of the 1997 season, in a bullpen in Tiger Stadium in the middle of August, as Scott Miller’s profile this week on Mo says.

Mariano calls the pitch “a gift from God”, when Mariano is himself, the gift that keeps on giving.

With teams all over Major League Baseball holding ceremonies every time Mo came through their park for the last time, he found the time to do some support of his own. In a time where all baseball wants to do is give to Mariano Rivera, all he wants to do is give back. 

As a boy who’s come from playing baseball in the streets of Panama with taped up pieces of clothing for balls, the man who’s played for New York has used his outlet, his success, and his voice to create opportunities for others. A man of God, first, a man of giving, second, man of great intelligence, after, and a baseball player somewhere down that line, Mariano Rivera is just about as one-of-a-kind as a baseball fan could hope for.

I really want to watch the clip posted above again, of Mariano’s friends Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter coming to take him out of the game for the final time at Yankee Stadium, but I don’t know how to bring myself to do so. All of this week, from Mariano Rivera Day and Jorge Posada switching roles with the pitcher, with the catcher throwing out the first pitch to the closer, to Rivera having his number retired and placed in Monument Park, while he is still playing in 42!!! To knowing I would tear up when Andy, Derek, and Mo would embrace, to then feeling the tear drops fall to go along with the chills sent up and down my spine, as the living legend that is Mariano Rivera got the thank you from the fans that still isn’t enough after all he’s done for the Yankees organization.  Even dating back to Citi Field for the All Star Game, this season in its entirety has been a thank you from the game to the player.

While I can hope and dream and pray that maybe the Yanks could convince Rivera to come back and just even pitch in the postseason for the next decade (you can’t tell me that move is entirely flawed, due to medicine, rest, the amazing pitch that is Mo’s cutter, and my delusion with coping with reality), I know Mariano will never don the home pinstripes again until his first Old Timers Day.

Whether you’re a Yankees diehard, a diehard Yankees hater, or anything in between, sports fans know that we have been privileged to see an athlete better at his job than anyone else in the 144 year history of professional baseball.

I got my wish. I took in the full career of an athlete so special, his plaque in Cooperstown was probably finished being designed a good decade ago.

I saw a baseball player make as strong a claim over a 19 year career to be the first unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame, or at least become the highest selected member.

I saw someone who future generations will marvel at, asking our generation what it was like to see the best of the best, to see Mariano Rivera.

Like my Dad, like my Grammy, and like sports fans before us, our time has our legend.

But now, I turn to those before us and ask this.

How do you cope when the legend’s gone?


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