The Singularity of Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera is special.

On the surface, “special” seems a poor adjective to describe him, but it’s the only one that fits. I’m sure we’re all familiar with his greatness, but I don’t think people truly understand exactly how much of a singular figure he is, and how much he has influenced the way baseball is played–to its detriment, I think. That is not in any way a knock on Rivera. Rather, it’s a criticism of the rest of baseball, and their failure to recognize just how special he is.

For one thing, when he notched his record-breaking 602nd save, the praise and congrats came from everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. In contrast, Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit–or rather, the cloying media slurpage that followed it–prompted nearly as much eye-rolling as applause, particularly when Steiner Sports ads on YES for commemorative DJ3K memorabilia made it seem like Jeter’s feat was just one arm of a larger marketing campaign.

Rivera garnered no such cynical reactions, at least as far as I saw. I don’t believe I saw one negative, sarcastic, or even snarky comment online about Rivera, which may be a new internet record. He just seems like a genuinely good guy, in the purest sense: the kind of good guy who just is a good guy, who lets his goodness speak for itself, and who would never campaign with his buddies in the press to write columns about what a good guy he is. Some writers may have played up his faith as a reason for his success, but you can’t imagine Rivera, a quietly religious man, doing so beyond being grateful for the gifts he has been given.

That’s why even self professed “Yankee haters” (I prefer the term “Yankee agnostic”) feel compelled to tip their cap to him. He reflects the best aspects of Yankee Tradition and is untouched by the worst elements of it. YES aired memorabilia ads marking the record-breaking occasion that were not unlike Jeter’s, and yet in the public consciousness Rivera remained unsullied by his proximity to such crass commercialization.

After Rivera earned his save, Michael Kay–never one to let a moment like this breathe when he can yammer over it–proclaimed him “the Babe Ruth of his position.” This is not quite accurate, though probably not in the way some might think.

While there was obviously only one Babe Ruth, his example inspired others to play the game his way and construct teams accordingly. Thanks to him, a game of slap bunts and stolen bases became a game of power, transforming baseball into the game we know today. It seems so obvious in retrospect–it reminds me of the Kids in the Hall sketch about “The History of Boxing,” where the sport was innovated when one pugilist finally punched his opponent–but I suppose the obviousness is because we now can’t imagine the sport any other way.

There will never be another Babe Ruth in the sense that no one (in all likelihood) will ever be the superstar and revolutionary force that he was. But in another sense, baseball continues to emulate him. Scouts still look for–and find–young players who, if not quite Ruthian, are at least Ruth-esque. We constantly see things in baseball that are not at all unlike what Ruth did in his time. His records, while still impressive, have been surpassed.

Like Ruth, the success of Rivera led teams to change their game plans accordingly, to find shutdown closers who make the ninth inning a mere formality. Unlike Ruth, there are no New Riveras emerging from the amateur ranks every year. There aren’t even Rivera Lites. Rivera’s example has caused the game of baseball to realign itself in order to operate around something that simply does not exist. Or rather, something that only exists within one man.

The idea of the exclusively-ninth-inning closer didn’t originate with Rivera, of course; we have Tony LaRussa to blame for that. But Rivera’s utter proficiency at the job solidified the idea in the minds of managers, GMs, and fans that this was the key to winning ballgames. And it is–as long as you have Mariano Rivera.

There is a prevailing thought across baseball that getting the three outs in the ninth inning is a sacred task that only a designated Closer can handle. This is due almost entirely to Rivera, who has gotten those three outs so easily so often and faltered so infrequently he makes other teams think, “that’s all we need to win!” Which is like saying all you need to be able to fly is to sprout wings.

Jayson Stark wrote a column in which he laid out exactly who much better Rivera is than any other closer, now or ever. Even if you need no convincing on the matter, the numbers are staggering. Case in point: In 17 seasons in the bigs, Rivera has a career WHIP just a hair under 1, a feat unequaled by any other pitcher with at least 1000 innings pitched since the deadball days of the early 1900s. While he obviously hasn’t shouldered the same workload as a starter, that puts him into the discussion of best pitchers ever.

His durability is just as impressive as his numbers. The last decade is littered with closers who had a dominant season or two or three or even more, then cooled down, got hurt, or completely lost it, never to be heard from again. Eric Gagne. Derrick Turnbow. Chad Cordero. Jonathan Broxton. B.J. Ryan. Joe Nathan. And those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head; I know there are others who were such flashes in the pan that their names are buried somewhere in the 2002-2005 file in my mind. You can already see last year’s models like Brian Wilson and Heath Bell heading down this path. That’s no knock on their talents. This just happens to 99 percent of all closers, as long as they’re not named Mariano Rivera.

You can count the number of non-Mariano closers who managed lengthy, successful careers on two hands: Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, Jason Isringhausen, John Franco, Lee Smith, Troy Percival, Robb Nen…that’s about it. All of these pitchers struggled with ineffectiveness and injury at points in their careers to an extent that make any comparisons to Rivera completely unfair to all parties involved.

Thanks to Rivera, many teams have convinced themselves that if they just acquired a bona fide closer, championships would follow, and paid top dollar to do so. So few have seen that belief rewarded. In fact, during the time that Rivera has been the Yankees’ closer, you can only point to one team has spent heavily on a closer–either through free agency or trade–and seen that closer play a major part in a World Series title.

Before the 2008 season, the Phillies traded Michael Bourn and others to the Astros in exchange for established closer Brad Lidge. He was perfect in save opportunities that year and became a big reason why Philly won it all (their otherworldly offense had something to do with it, too). The next year, Lidge had 8 losses and an ERA north of 7. He hasn’t pitched a full, healthy season since. Even for closers who manage to win it all, sustained excellence is fleeting.

Teams who don’t (or can’t) find a closer on the open market try to find them in their farm systems, even though in most cases the arms in question would have been better used–and much less abused–as starters. The Braves have remained the wild card leaders much of the year by riding the arms of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel–a bit too much, it seems, as both pitchers are faltering due to overuse just as Atlanta needs them the most. Even the Yankees (who should know better) tried this when they converted Joba Chamberlain into a reliever, with an eye toward one day succeeding Rivera in the closer’s role. Then made him a starter again. Then put him back in the bullpen. Then saw him go under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

And yet year after year, you will see teams with dreams of contention pursue some pitcher who racked 40 saves the year before, thinking that this will put them over the top. Or take that fireballing double-A starter and transform him into a reliever, portioning his talents into one-inning slices. Why?

Mariano Rivera is why, the platonic ideal of closers that no one can come close to matching, but which everyone tries to anyway. I imagine they’ll keep trying too, long after Rivera is retired. An ideal like that is hard to let go, no matter how elusive.