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The greatest measure of why Mariano Rivera was the first unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame is not his all-time record save total, or his incredibly low career ERA and WHIP, his incomparable postseason dominance or the fact that for nearly two decades, he was almost universally acknowledged to be not only the best at what he did, but the best who ever did it.
What set Rivera apart is that after 19 big-league seasons, 652 saves and 96 mostly flawless October appearances, his failures are more memorable than his successes.
That is because for Rivera, success was a nightly routine and failure was an aberration.
There was the blown save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, the blown save in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS, and the handful of rough regular-season patches that were sprinkled throughout his otherwise spotless career.
Otherwise, venturing nightly into the most dangerous neighborhood a major-league baseball player can inhabit – the ninth inning of a close game before the most unforgiving fan base in sports – Rivera bled all the drama out of a supercharged situation.
Unless you’re Chuck Yeager, you don’t want excitement in a routine plane ride and unless you’re a masochist, you don’t want your ninth innings to be a tightrope walk. Mo made the ninth inning boring, and what of it? Like a good pilot, you could count on him to get you home safe and sound.
For 16 of his 19 seasons – minus his first in which he failed as a starter, his second in which he served as John Wetteland’s set-up man, and his second-to-last, cut short after nine appearances by a knee injury – Rivera turned Yankee games into eight-inning affairs. He changed the way both managers – his and his opponent’s – ran their games. If you didn’t get the New York Yankees before Mo came in, odds are you weren’t getting them.
Out of 732 regular-season opportunities, Rivera blew 80 saves. That means roughly nine out of every 10 times he went to the mound, he got the job done.
And in the postseason, he was even better; in 96 appearances, he saved 42 games and blew just four. Can you imagine a hitter with that rate of success?
On the weekend that we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it is worth repeating that more men have walked on the moon (12) than have scored off Mariano Rivera in the postseason (11). His ERA in the most important games of all is a ridiculous 0.70.
He did it all with one pitch, that cutter that dropped like a bowling ball and ate up bats like a chainsaw. There was no deception. Here it is. Try and hit it. Few could.
But numbers hardly do this man justice.
In my 19 years of covering him, the most memorable moment of all came at the lowest possible time for him.
That, of course, was when he blew the save, and the World Series, against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
It seemed as sure a bet as a Yankee fan could hope for, a one-run lead in the ninth inning with Rivera on the mound. But six batters, 14 pitches, a throwing error, a hit batter and two runs later, all bets were off.
Rivera had blown the save and because we were on West Coast time, I was about to blow deadline.
So I stayed in the press box and finished off my column before heading down to the losing clubhouse. By the time I got there, just about everyone was gone.
Everyone, that is, but Mariano Rivera. And even though he had already patiently answered every question posed by every writer who had gotten down there on time, he graciously remained and answered every one of those same questions from me.
I can’t remember a single answer but I’ll never forget the kindness and dignity he displayed on what had to be a devastating night for him. Baseball could not have been luckier than to have had him be the last player in its history to wear the No. 42.
Mo was a Hall of Fame person that night, 18 years before he officially became a Hall of Famer.
In the moment of his greatest failure, Mariano Rivera managed to pull off one more save.
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