Though yesterday’s reports that Mariano Rivera will be announcing his intention to retire after this season tomorrow were hardly surprising, they aren’t exactly welcome by any means. Much like last year, when Rivera seemed poised to announce it would be his final season before that torn ACL knocked him out of action for the final five months of the season and apparently caused him to reconsider, the realization that we’ll all soon be living in a world that does not include number 42 closing games for the Yankees is jarring, and should inspire a sense of loss in baseball fans everywhere.
The first baseball season I can consciously remember being aware of was the 1995 season, but given that I didn’t have ESPN at the time I didn’t get a chance to pay much attention to things going on outside of Cincinnati and whatever was being covered on the local news there. That was remedied the following season, so for all intents and purposes, my entire lifetime as a fan of MLB has involved Mariano Rivera. I suppose I’m not telling you anything most of you don’t know, but it’s a rather sobering thing to have players you’ve literally “known” for as long as you can remember calling it quits, especially when they’ve been as consistent, reliable, and downright great as Rivera.
Believe it or not, my favorite thing about Mariano, at this point in his career anyway, is that we actually overstate his dominance, at least a little bit. In common vernacular, Rivera is an infallible machine, and the opposition might as well call it a night early when the Yankees bring him in, because you certainly aren’t going to get one over on Mo. It’s a fun perception, and there’s a hint of truth in it (to wit, Mo is really freakin’ good at pitching), but in fact the other team has put one to Rivera (either hanging a loss or a blown save on him) at least eight times in six of his last ten full seasons, and seven such times in two others. Not that that’s horrible by any stretch, but the true measure of Rivera’s greatness has always been the way he’s remained one of the top closers in the game for such a long span of time, not that he’s always been heads and shoulders above his best contemporaries on a year to year basis.
But as with all legends, the cold hard facts are a lot less important than the way we collectively perceive a player. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot in 1932? Did Bo Jackson really do half of the crazy feats of athleticism attributed to him as a teenager? Probably not, but so what? The fact that the stories continue to be handed down, and that our perception of these all-time greats causes us to actually consider that they might actually be true, is what sets these unique characters apart from the rest of the crowd.
And so it is with Rivera. Because when I look back and think of Mo, it won’t be the final number of saves he records, or his save percentage, or even specific games that come to mind. Those things are fleeting and, as the Yankees showed when he was on the shelf last season, can most certainly be replicated if that’s all you’re looking for.
Instead, I’ll remember the amazing way in which he perfectly repeated that beautiful delivery time after time after time. I’ll remember the unflappable poise he showed on the mound, no matter the situation and no matter how a pitch or an outing turned out. I’ll appreciate having had the ability to watch the undisputed greatest of all-time ply his craft in real time, knowing that he was a uniquely special talent in baseball history. And I’ll remember the incredible feeling of comfort and certainty that everything was in hand for the Yankees that washed over all of the pinstriped faithful whenever the first bars of Enter Sandman were struck. And yeah, I’ll probably exaggerate his relative greatness just a little bit to my grandkids when the time comes.
Even though hundreds of columns, television segments, blog posts, etc. will claim that the Yankees can’t possibly replace Mariano Rivera as a closer, the fact is that they will, and probably without too many hiccups if you just look at short time frames. That’s just the nature of relief pitchers, and that’s fine. Great players, Hall of Fame players, come and go all of the time, and even if they are irreplaceable in their own right, merely downgrading to another top tier reliever doesn’t exactly leave a team slumming it up relative to their competition. But there will never be another pitcher who inspires the same level of comfort and confidence in fans that Mariano did, and no one will ever occupy the same place in the hearts of all Yankee fans that he has.