By Ryan McGowan
Mariano Rivera notched his 500th career save last weekend against the Richmond Braves New York Mets.
Back in the 90’s, or even as recently as 2003, such an event would have been greeted in Red Sox Nation with snotty, sarcastic dismissals and whiny, insecure hating. New England would have made a collective litany of excuses as to why this event was irrelevant, as to how Mo was overrated, and how 500 saves wasn’t anything to be proud of.
Thank God we’ve grown up as a fan base. Now, at least, we can fully accept and appreciate Rivera for being what he is—the greatest closer of all time. No strings attached, no questions asked.
Haters will point to the biggest criticism of Rivera—that he was somewhat of a freak of nature, that his success over the years has been merely the result of having one dominant pitch, the ungodly, unhittable cut fastball that continues to saw off right-handed bats like a Minnesota lumberjack. They will say that Mo was never a pitcher, that he was instead some kind of an Ivan Drago-esque physical specimen whose Hall of Fame credentials were sown by an unfair physical domination rather than any kind of crafty, Maddux-esque cerebralism. They are wrong; Rivera has always been not only a great pitcher but also a master competitor who ranks among the greatest sportsmen of all time.
Yankees fans can understandably brag about their closer, a man who might be the single most underrated superstar in professional sports over the past decade. Sure, Billy Beane can spout his Moneyball company line about how closers are overrated and not worth the top dollars that many of them command, but Beane never had the luxury of looking into his bullpen in the 8th or 9th inning and seeing #42 come running out to “Enter Sandman” and see the utter dejection in the other team’s face. In the deciding Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS, Pedro Martinez came out of the bullpen in the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians with the score tied; by the looks on the faces of Indians fans and players alike, the game was pretty much over. And it was only the fourth inning! Pedro’s six no-hit innings get a lot of attention in baseball lore, but that was pretty much the effect whenever Mo came out of the bullpen over the years. Almost every single night. April to October.
In the grand heyday of the Sox-Yankees rivalry (probably between 1998 and 2005, where the teams finished 1-2 in the American League East every year and met in the playoffs three times), Rivera and Derek Jeter were the biggest constants in the Yankees’ methodical demolition of the Red Sox teams of that era. He was ubiquitous. It seemed like every time the Sox had the game won, their bullpen would falter, the Yanks would take the lead, and then out came Mo, and five minutes later the pinstripes were shaking hands on the field after another victory. It was like clockwork.
It pissed me off beyond belief.
But Mariano, like Jeter, has never been a player that an opposing fan could hate. Any fan, even a Red Sox fan, as long as he or she is a true fan of the game of baseball, appreciates what these guys bring to the table. Rivera was never like A-Rod, who is just too easy to despise out of jealousy and schadenfreude, nor was he ever like Jason Giambi or Mike Mussina, guys who just seemed like corporate automatons who represented the faceless, Imperialist, Yankee brand. He and Jeter have been the face of more than a decade of Yankees baseball, both triumphs and failures, and perhaps nothing exhibits that more than two famous examples of his failures over the years: the 01 World Series and the 04 ALCS.
Rivera blew the save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He even committed a throwing error which was instrumental in the Yanks’ ninth-inning collapse. I watched in my living room and cheered for the demise of the Yankees, even as I felt like an idiot in rooting for a ridiculous yahoo franchise like Arizona over the dynasty of hated New York. As much as I childishly reveled in the D-backs’ victory, part of me hated that it had to have come as the result of a classy guy like Rivera having to choke it away.
Fast-forward to Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, another Yankee ninth-inning lead, and another Rivera blown save which becomes a series-changing blunder. This time, as much as I hated to have him be the goat, it didn’t matter. He had inflicted so much torture on Red Sox fans over the years with that satanic cutter that the baseball gods decreed that the Sox must topple the great Mo Rivera to complete the exorcism that was the 04 playoffs. For someone who had been involved in as many great victorious moments as Mo, it made him such a more compelling figure to have the human failures in big spots as well. I guess if you pitch in enough pressure packed situations in do-or-die games, eventually you have to lose a few. Closers aren’t gods, after all. Mo might turn out to be immortal, but he wasn’t invincible.
That’s why I was glad to see the “ovation” that Rivera received from the fans at Fenway Park on Opening Day 2005, when the scheduling gods had mercilessly forced the Yankees to return to the scene of their monumental choke to watch the Red Sox receive their World Series rings. Even better, Mo’s reaction was perfect—he smiled, he waved his cap, and he seemed to just get it. If 2004 turned the Red Sox-Yankees series into a true rivalry rather than just a feud, than Rivera’s successes and defeats were all two sides of the same coin in such a riveting, ongoing drama as Sox-Yanks continues to be.
Which is why I don’t think Mariano Rivera gets enough attention for his greatness. While fans and the media have been fixated in recent years on Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Roger Clemens, the steroids fiasco, and a horde of other black eyes for the game, Mo has just been relatively quietly racking up save after save, pushing forward into his late 30’s with the same excellence and professionalism that he showed as a fireballing phenom set-up man in 1996.
Mariano, you have been the yin to our yang over your career, and both the Red Sox and Yankees franchises and fan bases are better for it. Baseball owes you, big time. Besides, if you can inspire a stubborn Boston homer to write a ball-washing column favrellating you, then that’s got to count for something, right?