One of my favorite recent baseball memories came in 2013. Mariano Rivera was finally retiring. But that wasn’t the best part.
Sure, he had tortured my Indians in the 1990s and then my beleaguered Red Sox until 2004 (and after that still). And yes, I was thrilled he was no longer going to be apart of the hated Yankees. But something happened on September 26, 2013 that I can’t recall happening with Rivera any other time in his career.
I liked the guy.
With an out to go in the 9th inning, Joe Girardi was ready to pull Rivera out of the game one last time (boom, Hamilton reference). Instead of going out himself, he sent Andy Pettitte (he was good but I didn’t hate the guy) and Derek Jeter (easily my most hated Yankee in my lifetime, with A-Rod being a close second) to the mound to relieve Mariano of his duties. The three men took turns embracing as Mariano tearfully exited Yankees Stadium. As much as Rivera tortured the MLB for years, it got to me.
When I began this piece, Rivera had just been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 100% of the vote. Even with this Red Sox writer saying he wouldn’t vote for him (UPDATE: He changed his mind). That’s historical. Rivera topped Ken Griffey Jr.’s 99.3% of 3 years ago.
Griffey was a beloved baseball player of my childhood; he just showed up and made extraordinary things happen. Never a scandal, nothing about PEDs or steroids, just some general unhappiness with the Mariners front office from time to time (he did demand the trade that landed him in Cincinnati). He also became the face of the MLB at a young age and grew weary of the spotlight. But no one now has anything bad to say about Griffey Jr. (but don’t quote me on that).
But Rivera? It really comes down to championships and how much heartbreak he caused your favorite ballclub. Unless you are one of those so-great-to-meet-in-real-life Yankees fans, how could this… destroyer of dreams merit 100% of the vote? Even after five meager years, how does the Baseball Writers Association of America forget what Mariano and the Yankees did? There was rumors that some writers didn’t vote for Griffey in 2016 because they “just don’t vote for first ballot nominees”. Did that just go out the window? The aforementioned Red Sox writer ultimately decided that submitting a blank ballot was unfair to the other candidates, and then he promptly voted for Bonds, Clemens, Halladay (he got in), Manny Ramirez (my dude!), and Rivera. Four World Series titles can make the hurt temporarily better but how many times did Mariano Rivera send the Sox to the clubhouse with a loss?
Mariano Rivera was a bully.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve 100% of the vote.
Like Griffey Jr., Rivera showed up and made extraordinary things happen. Albeit was for the New York Yankees, but he still did his job. The numbers speak for themselves. And the Yankees, to their credit (ugh), signed him from a local team in Panama way back in 1990! He didn’t get called up to the majors until 1995 and that was after a bunch of injuries, homesickness, and general disenchantment with the minor league baseball system.
On a day he got called up in July of 1995, Mariano threw 8 scoreless innings with 2 hits allowed and 11 strikeouts. And the Yankees still sent him back to the minors before the season was over! By October 1996, the Yankees were World Champions for the first time since 1978 and the rest was history.
Time and time again, Mariano Rivera was called to the mound with one of the most important (and underrated) jobs in Major League Baseball: hold the lead. When baseball came into my worldview circa 1993, Lee Smith became the record holder for most saves in a career. Trevor Hoffman broke his record in 2006. Rivera broke his record by 2011, a mere 8 months after Hoffman retired. Hoffman was called up to the majors in 1993 while Mariano wasn’t even a full-time big leaguer until 1996.
The BBWAA are better people than me. Do you think for one second I would’ve let Rivera into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot? All those times that smug so and so mowed down batter after batter? He doesn’t even care about “Enter Sandman”! The fricking Cleveland Indians gave him a gold record of the song as a retirement gift!
“Thanks for punking us all these years and helping us not win a World Series since 1948. Here’s a token of our appreciation!”
No! That’s not how any of this is supposed to work!
Rivera was the dude you loved to hate. You can talk about Barry Bonds, or steroids, or Alex Rodriguez, but they gave you plenty of off the field reasons to hate them. Mariano was like the Spurs of Major League Baseball; he was just so damn good that if you weren’t a Yankees fan, you hated him. People talk fondly of Tim Duncan, Greg Popovich, and the Spurs title runs of a few years back now, but back then, if you weren’t a San Antonio fan, you didn’t like them. That’s how it worked. Mariano Rivera was the final boss every single time he walked to the mound. And most of the time, the opposing team was met with a GAME OVER message.
Baseball needs someone like Rivera now. He was somebody that baseball fans could rally against. He was a true villain for a sport that thrives on narratives. I keep seeing how baseball is in trouble when it comes to attendance and viewership and I’m included in that demographic as I haven’t followed baseball for a few years (definitely not since I cut the cord) faithfully. The Red Sox, a team I adopted simply because Manny Ramirez signed there following his stint with the Indians, won the World Series for the fourth time in 14 seasons and I couldn’t celebrate. It didn’t feel right. The last Red Sox team that I felt apart of was in 2014 as they failed to defend their title. And I also had a kid, but I digress.
I don’t know if a Rivera like presence would be the kick in the pants that baseball needs or not. But what I do know is that Mo was a once in a lifetime talent, even if it was for the Yankees. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone and he was no exception to the rule. I’m not going to go watch highlights of him giving grown men nightmares for the rest of their lives or anything but I have to give respect where it’s due. And if anybody gets more first ballot votes for the Hall Of Fame than Junior, it deserves to be Mariano Rivera.
And yes, I would’ve voted for him on the first ballot too, sheesh.