The closest thing to perfection in a sports world where it does not exist is Mariano Rivera's cut fastball. For the last 17 years, he has thrown that pitch, and only that pitch really, to all 5,053 batters he has faced during the regular and postseasons. Upward of 20,000 cutters. The same pitch every time. And after nearly two decades of trying, hitters still have no idea what to do with it.
Rivera plans on announcing Saturday that he will retire following the 2013 season, and with him not only will he take the most saves in history, a fistful of World Series rings and a spot alongside Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and Jeter in the New York Yankees' most exclusive pantheon, he can say, with no exaggeration, that he was better at what he did than anybody in baseball ever was at their job.
His cutter was superior to Nolan Ryan's fastball, Sandy Koufax's curveball, Steve Carlton's slider, Roger Clemens' splitter, Pedro Martinez's changeup and every other pitch. He refined it more than Babe Ruth did hitting home runs, Rickey Henderson stealing bases, Barry Bonds drawing walks or Pete Rose whacking singles. Even if what Rivera did was of overinflated value – most of his outings comprised all of 11 percent of a game – pitching the ninth inning is a legitimate role in the modern game, and he brought legitimacy and a measure of grace to the three-out save.
Even more important was what Rivera did on rare occasions: remind us that athletes, even the best ones, are not cyborgs. Rivera would lose his arm slot now and again. His velocity fluctuated. He walked guys. Four times he issued bases-loaded walks. And he blew saves – 73, in fact, during the regular season and another five in the playoffs. The picture of perfection was far from perfect.
The job wasn't just about cutters, either, and the pandemic they proved to hitters. The idea that anyone can finish games is a fallacy. Most relief pitchers can, especially if given sufficient opportunity. Not all have the necessary mettle to recover from failure, though, and it takes that – a forgive-but-don't-forget attitude toward oneself that so many never cultivate to find success.
Very quickly, Rivera understood that today is neither the same as yesterday nor tomorrow – that each game is its own piece of fine china, placed in his hands with only one edict: don't break. When he did stumble and saw the pieces around him, Rivera was better than anyone at wielding a broom, sweeping up the shards and dumping them in a place where they never would pose danger.
Just think about 2001. Less than two months after terrorists attacked New York, Rivera blew Game 7 of the World Series. No matter what happens this season, it will remain the most profound disappointment of his career. What did he do in its aftermath? Only save 393 games and post a cumulative 1.93 ERA with better peripheral numbers over the last 11 seasons than he did the previous six.
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The delicate balance of perfection and failure is Rivera's greatest legacy, one he will try to parlay into one last season of excellence. He still hasn't thrown a pitch in a game this spring, his right knee just now nearing ready for in-game action after the anterior cruciate ligament inside of it gave on a warning track during batting practice last May. Rivera, now 43, wasn't going out like that, a crumbled mess in Kansas City. He wanted it his way.
Chances are it won't be with a sixth ring. Among his comeback and Derek Jeter's, the rest of the roster's age, injuries to Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, a lack of pitching depth and a grab-bag of other questions, the Yankees head into 2013 their most vulnerable perhaps since Rivera joined them the season before the first of their recent championships. The farewell tour looks more RV than chartered plane.
And yet city to city, ballpark to ballpark, fans will fete every Rivera appearance as they should: like a peek at a gorgeous sunset before it falls asleep beneath the horizon. There always is a glow to Rivera's appearances that makes them different from others, his cutter so singularly special one doesn't just watch it but bear witness.
The countdown will start Saturday with the announcement, continue Tuesday or Wednesday when he is expected to take the mound in a live game for the first time, roll on through the summer and, if the Yankees can pull it together, into October, reach its conclusion with a return to his native Panama and live on forever five years later when voters induct him into the Hall of Fame. He won't be the first unanimous enshrinee – not when some voters on principle won't cast his name because he was mostly a one-inning reliever – but he will find himself in the place that more than any personifies what he meant to baseball.
The best of the best. The greatest ever. The closest to perfect. None more than Mo.
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