Last month, my best friend and I were watching the Yankees play the Orioles. It was Mariano Rivera’s final time playing in Baltimore. Before the game, the O’s organization took the time to honor the retiring Yankee with a pre-game ceremony and some thoughtful gifts.
“They don’t do that for every retiring player,” my friend observed.
“There is only one Mariano Rivera,” I said.
Mariano Rivera was the greatest closer of all time. That’s not up for debate. What is up for debate is why.
Conventional wisdom says that Rivera was the best because he had the best pitch: his signature cut fastball that moved away from right-handed batters and in on lefties. But I have a different take. My observation is that his 89 MPH cutter was far from the best pitch in baseball. The secret to his success was his control.
The only thing worse for a pitcher than issuing a walk is issuing a walk in the 9th inning with your team up by one run. So Mariano Rivera simply didn’t do it. He always threw strikes. If you were going to beat him, you were going to have to hit the ball; he wasn’t going to issue you a free pass.
Over the years, I saw Rivera have a lot of tough games – including blowing the save in the 7th game of the World Series in 2001. But I never once said: “Uh, oh, Mo has lost the strike zone.”
Not only did he rarely walk batters, he rarely had to resort to throwing the ball right down the middle. His command was so good that almost all of his pitches were right on – or just off – the corner of the plate. THAT was the key to Rivera’s success.
But not every great player gets honored by visiting cities when he retires. There will be no pre-game ceremony in Boston for Alex Rodriguez when he leaves the game – just more boos.
Mariano Rivera isn’t just a great pitcher; he is a great person.
The reason why his opponents respected Rivera instead of hating him was that he was so darn classy. He never argued balls and strikes. He never intentionally hit batters. He never celebrated a strike out like that jerk Joba Chamberlain.
Rivera exhibited more than mere professionalism. He exhibited grace.
He played 20 years for the most talked about team in New York City and neither the fans nor the media ever turned against him. He is a uniquely likable and uncontroversial figure.
By the time you read this, Mariano Rivera will have pitched his final game. I am not a nostalgic guy, but I’ll be frank with you – I’m genuinely sad to see him go.