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.