Rivera's a true Yankee, almost mythical in his dominance (cont.)
But Rivera's one pitch has never lost its power. He just keeps going, year after year. Here's a challenge for you: pick out Mariano Rivera's best year. Do you want 1998, when he saved 36 games for the almost unbeatable Yankees and posted a 1.91 ERA? Or do you prefer the next year, when he led the league with 45 saves and opposing batters hit .176 against him? Do you like 2004 when he saved 53 -- 32 by the All-Star Break -- or 2005 when he had a 1.38 ERA and had an absurd 38 1-2-3 innings?
Then again, you could always choose last year, when Rivera had a 77-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and punched up a .665 WHIP -- only Dennis Eckersley in his heyday had ever put so few batters on base.
He has always looked so comfortable in the moment. It isn't that Mariano Rivera has never failed -- he actually has three of the most famous defeats in recent memory. In 1997, he gave up an eighth-inning home run to Sandy Alomar with the Yankees just four outs away from clinching a spot in the ALCS. In 2001, he gave up two broken bat singles -- Rivera breaks bats the way Chuck Norris breaks bones -- and committed an error and allowed two runs in the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series. In 2004, he blew two saves against Boston, a performance so shocking that the next year Red Sox fans wildly cheered him when his name was announced.*
*Rivera just smiled, of course. "I felt honored," he said. "What was I going to do? Get upset and start throwing baseballs at people?"
No, it isn't that Rivera never failed, it's that he never let that failure define him or knock him off course. Even with those three defeats, he's the greatest postseason closer in baseball history, maybe the greatest postseason pitcher ever. He is 8-1 in the postseason with 34 saves (nobody else has even half of that) and a ludicrous 0.77 ERA. Sixty-six times in his postseason career, Mariano Rivera has appeared in the late innings of a playoff or World Series game and not given up a run -- nobody else is even close.
Rivera does not talk much about it, at least not publicly, but he will say that to pitch well in those heart-pounding moments you have to enjoy the heart-pounding moments, you must have balance in your life (the moment is important but not THAT important; losing is difficult but it won't kill you), and you have to forget the failures and successes of the past. Rivera does not seem the type to write a book, but if he ever did it should be something about peace -- Zen and the Art of Closing Out A Baseball Game -- because that seems to be his greatest gift of all. Mariano Rivera always seems at peace.
It's probably worth noting here that Mariano Rivera has not written a book. Other Yankees have -- Derek Jeter has written two, Paul O'Neill wrote one about his father, Jorge Posada has written a children's book and so on. Rivera doesn't claim to have anything to say. He seems happiest in the stillness of the background, a hard place to find in New York City.
But he has found that quiet place in New York. And this, perhaps, is the most remarkable thing about Mariano Rivera. He's the ultimate Yankee, the embodiment of the Yankee myth, and yet for 15 seasons now he has not sparked a controversy, not been caught in the bright lights, not inspired the boos anywhere in America.
Oh, every so often, for a couple of weeks or a month, he will give up a few runs and look to be human, and there will be some who will start to prepare the eulogy, most recently a few weeks ago after a rough patch, but then he will emerge again, throwing that one matchless pitch. He's 39 years old now. He has saved 48 games in his last 50 chances. This isn't to say that Mariano Rivera is underrated -- everyone knows. Yankees fans love him. Opposing fans respect him. It's just that as good as people think he is, he might even be better.
He comes into a game -- Metallica's Enter Sandman blaring over Yankee Stadium -- and he begins to warm up, and the crowd's going wild, and the opposing players are psyching themselves up, and he has that look on his face, that placid look, that look that says that everything will be all right.
"They have other men on the team," the boy said to Hemingway's old man.
"Naturally," the old man said. "But he makes the difference."
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