For the Mariano, Cooperstown Should Be Unanimous

Mariano Rivera has something in common with Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and this year's National League Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom. They're all converted shortstops. The Dodgers once decided that Drysdale wasn't going to make it as a sidearm-throwing shortstop. DeGrom loathed the thought of pitching in a collegiate summer league, until he up and did it. Rivera once volunteered to try pitching in an amateur tournament because his team's best pitcher was a horror on the mound.

Thus began the journey that brought Yankee scouts to his native Panama, to sign him on the cheap, and Rivera to minor league elbow surgery before surviving the 1992 expansion draft in which he was left unprotected and either the embryonic Marlins or Rockies could have had him for a short medley.

Now Rivera stands on the threshold of election to Cooperstown. He'll become the first of the Yankees' formerly vaunted Core Five — himself, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte (who doesn't have a strong Hall case), Jorge Posada (who didn't make it after only one try), and Bernie Williams (who also didn't, after two tries), the nucleus that returned the Yankees to greatness in the 1990s — to stand on the podium holding his plaque. The question isn't whether Rivera will make it but whether he'll become the first unanimous Hall of Famer.

It's almost axiomatic that those who despise the Yankees as a team and as an institution concurrently admire particular Yankee players. It's been that way since the first of their imperial selves began winning pennants in 1921, and it remained that way even while the Red Sox made short enough work out of them this October.

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. Mel Stottlemyre, Ron Guidry, and Reggie Jackson. The Core Five. Aaron Judge. Somehow, some way, people managed to ignore their pinstripes and admire them for their orbital blasts, hitting streaks, outfield grace, smarts, craftiness, and World Series exploits.

And, then, there's The Mariano.

It's rare enough for a man to be considered the best at what he does while being admired in equal and sometimes higher proportion. It's hard enough in the arts, sciences, and statesmanship. For professional athletes it's a lot tougher. Players respected for their abilities aren't always the most admirable of people and haven't always been so.

Ruth was the absolute best of pre-World War II baseball players but he wasn't always admirable and sometimes, thanks to behaving too often as a law unto himself, wasn't even merely respected. Gehrig had the opposite problem. He was so admired and respected it became simple to underrate him as a player when he was maybe the second best player in the pre-WWII era. And his courage in the face of the insidious disease that ended his career and his life within two years further overwhelms his standing just as a player, as often as not.

Ted Williams was admired as a player, but not always as a man; his courage seemed too long wedded to his petulant temper. Joe DiMaggio earned a nation's admiration but too often wore his standing like a regal entitlement, especially as he aged in retirement. Stan Musial and Yogi Berra were admired, respected, and liked all at once. (Berra once walked in on a gathering of all-star pitchers discussing how to pitch Musial and cracked, as if he'd been in on the confab from the beginning, "Forget it. You guys are trying to figure out in 15 minutes what nobody's figured out in 15 years.")

So, among other Hall of Famers, would be Roy Campanella, Whitey Ford (who had to clean up after Mickey Mantle a few times too often), Willie Mays (before a few unsavory doings to him in his San Francisco years began to wear him down), Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Tony Gwynn, Mike Piazza, and, thinking of likely Hall of Famers-to-be, David Ortiz, Clayton Kershaw, and Mike Trout. (No, it's not unrealistic to begin thinking of Trout as a Hall of Famer in the true making.)

Rivera has known the joys of being that kind of player in hand with that kind of man. He was an assassin on the mound when brought in to preserve a Yankee win, and a gentleman and a gentle man off the mound. It's not unfair to suggest that one major reason he never wore anything but the Yankee pinstripes even in the free agency era is that the Yankees respected and needed him even more than he respected and needed them.

"I get the ball, I throw the ball, then I take a shower," he once described his line of work, somewhat famously. But he was renowned, as well, for deflecting postgame questions to the rest of the team while mentoring younger pitchers coming through the Yankees' ranks and helping to build churches among other places in Panama, the Dominican Republic, and New Rochelle, New York, not far from his current adopted home in Rye.

Whether nailing one of his record 652 saves or whether, as happened very occasionally, he'd be overcome dramatically, The Mariano never let triumph inflate his head or defeat deflate his soul. He made you wonder how deadly he would have been with more than his notorious cut-fastball, as if he wasn't deadly enough with only that, and still made another practitioner of his craft feel ten feet tall when presenting that man with the American League Reliever of the Year award that's now named the Mariano Rivera Award.

"He's the best I've ever been around," said his longtime Yankee manager Joe Torre. "Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse."

Yankee fans and Yankee despisers alike can point to signature moments in which Rivera's work left them stunned for how continuously he seemed to execute it without so much as a bead of sweat that didn't come from the temperature in the park at the time he went to work. If he beat you, he didn't behave as though you had it coming. If you beat him once in a very blue moon, he didn't behave as though you had no right to it.

"The game that you're going to play tomorrow," he once said, "is not going to be the same game that you just played."

The Mariano was maybe the Yankee who felt the least betrayed when Dave Roberts, then with the Red Sox, and pinch running for Kevin Millar, stole second to ignite the rally that sent Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series to the extra innings in which the Red Sox would begin their extraterrestrial pennant triumph after having been down to the final three outs of what looked like a likely Yankee sweep.

When Rivera decided 2013 would be his final season — he'd missed the previous season on the disabled list and couldn't bear to leave the game as anything other than one or another kind of champion, much the way Williams elected to go out in 1960 after a down 1959 — The Mariano astonished onlookers. Even at age 43 he looked (so long as he wore his Yankee cap, anyway) and performed almost agelessly on the mound. Clearly he could have pitched another season or two, right?

But it takes another kind of courage to know when it's time to retire from the work you did so well, knowing that time is a cruel and unrepentant mistress when defied. Rivera was intelligent enough and loved the game too much to ask the game to accept him at anything less than his reasonable best. In his final season, Rivera elected to meet fans and the personnel who worked in opposing ballparks to make sure they knew how much they meant to him as a player and for their love and support of the game.

The record alone would put him in Cooperstown on his first try. Not just those record saves but the 56.2 wins above a replacement-level player, the most of any strictly relief pitcher in the game's history to date. (Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley is ranked first with 62.4, but he earned a majority of his WAR when he was a starting pitcher.) He was also even more deadly in 32 postseason series than he was in the regular season. If you beat him in the postseason — as Roberts ignited in 2004; as Luis Gonzalez did to win the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks — you earned it.

There may have been no better illustration of Rivera's impression overall than his final All-Star Game, 2013. Warming up in the bullpen in the top of the eighth in Citi Field, the crosstown Mets' playpen, Rivera may have been as surprised as anyone in the park when the PA system played Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" — the longtime rally song in Fenway Park — as he worked.

Then American League manager Jim Leyland made the call. At the time the All-Star Game still meant World Series home field advantage for the winning league (it's since been rescinded, and thank God), Leyland made both sentimental and baseball sense, even if some didn't quite see the latter at the time. Rivera whipped a couple of final warmup tosses, then turned to the gate and began his usual long walk to the mound.


Not a muscle moved out of either dugout as he approached the mound to the tune of his long-time entrance song, Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Not a muscle moved out of the dugouts as the Citi Field audience bathed him in a long, loud ovation. At one point before he took the mound, or while he threw the ritual eight warmups to Royals catcher Salvador Perez, you might have seen The Mariano strain just so to keep a big embarrassed grin from splitting his still-handsome face.

Leyland had two plans that night. Let the fans have one long last look at the longtime Yankee bellwether in an All-Star Game without anything else to obstruct it; and, manage the game as if it was the last week with the postseason on the line. He got both thanks to Rivera doing what Rivera usually did, even if it was an inning earlier than normal. It's an extremely rare thing to be able to conduct a moment that transcends the game outcome while spontaneously helping to insure it.

The Mariano rid himself quickly enough of Jean Segura (an infield ground out), Allen Craig (a line out to left), and Carlos Gomez (another infield ground out) and handed it off to Joe Nathan, then with the Twins, to save it in the ninth. Giving Nathan the unusual bragging right of being able to tell his grandchildren in due course that the great Rivera was his setup man in an All-Star Game.

"Priceless," was the only word Rivera could think of to describe what he'd been conferred as he made his way from the bullpen to the game mound that night. And if he was named the game's most valuable player with the Corvette to show for it out of sentiment as much as baseball, who'd have dared to object?

"Priceless" is one of only a few million words people will try to deploy to describe his career when he stands holding his plaque at Cooperstown next July. The only question at this writing is whether he will be the first unanimous Hall of Famer, the single most stupid argument against it still being that enough of the game's legitimate gigagreats — even Ruth! — didn't get in unanimously, so why should he?

But if his career means anything, it means that the smashing of a few precedents on the mound ought to be rewarded with the smashing of that disgraceful enough precedent. Go in in a walk? The Mariano ought to go in in an unobstructed jog. Just like the little one we used to see him make on his way to another ninth, another save, another challenge to those who aspired to beat him and only rarely if ever did.

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