We can debate about Mike Mussina’s qualifications of being in the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, especially when he did not win 300 games or win a Cy Young award, or win a big postseason game in his career.
There is no debate about Mariano Rivera being unanimously voted into the Hall by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday. Though it shouldn’t have taken until 2019 to finally vote a player unanimously. Players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were all deserving of being voted unanimously before Rivera, but this is a conversation we can have another time.
Rivera earned this prestigious honor going back to 1998 when he was the dominant closer of his era. It’s debatable to say he is the best closer ever only because back in Goose Goosage’s day, closers had to get six or nine outs to get a save. Yes, getting three outs is hard, but there was something about getting a save for two or three innings back then.
The Yankees closer was destined to have this day as soon as he entered the scene as a reliever in 1996. He had the cutter that would make him so dominating and hard for others to hit. It’s why the Yankees were more than happy to let John Wetteland leave as a free agent after the 1996 season and give the closer role to Rivera. They knew he could be a closer for a decade. He did it for 16 years, and he could have kept playing if he wanted to, but he wanted to spend more time with his kids who were growing up to be teenagers.
For him to be this great at 43 and retire on top is impressive. Not many athletes leave on their own terms since it’s hard to do.
It’s so rare athletes have humility after achieving success. After all, they are human beings who don’t know any better when it comes to handling it. Rivera was just different. He always gave glory to God for his talent, and he was so humble about his accomplishments. If anything, he didn’t really want to talk about his on-the-field work. He wanted to spend more time helping Latin American players as ballplayers and surviving in America. He was big on mentorship.
It’s why Rivera was well-liked among his baseball peers. It’s why it was hard to hate him, even if he pitched for the Yankees. He actually embodied the Yankees brand when it came to class. It’s going to be hard for anyone to do that now in a social media generation that is all about creating a brand.
Beating Rivera was an accomplishment in itself. That’s how great he was. Sandy Alomar Jr, Dave Roberts (the player who ignited the Red Sox rally in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series by getting a hit and stealing a base with two out that not only helped them win the game, but helped overcome a 3-0 series deficit to win the series), Matt Franco and Jason Kubel can be proud of getting game-winning or game-tying hits against the Yankees closer. It provided such an adrenaline and self-esteem boost. It’s something these guys will never forget ever since it change the impact of the game.
Rivera’s worth came in the postseason. He was dominant. Sure, he gave up a game-tying home run to Alomar in Game 4 of the 1997 American League Division Series, and he gave up a Luis Gonzalez game-winning single in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. He blew Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. So what? No athlete is perfect. Even Tom Brady lost some Super Bowl games and AFC title games, and he’s considered the best player ever to play in sports by today’s fans. To expect a perfect closer is as unrealistic as expecting an utopian society.
When it came to getting the big outs and much-needed saves in October, Rivera came through more often than not. He was never fazed. It can’t be easy when millions of fans are screaming to distract him on the road, and it can’t be easy when fans are anticipating he can get it done at Yankee Stadium. There are closers who were never made for this postseason moment such as Armando Benitez, Byung-Hyun Kim, Trevor Hoffman and several others.
Not only was the Sandman a special closer, but he was a great person.
The ultimate compliment came from former Twins manager Tom Kelly who once called him Super Mario because he was invincible. He even said Rivera’s stuff is so good that he needs to pitch in a higher league and that his stuff should be illegal in the majors.
Sure, there will be another player who will win the Hall of Fame in an unanimous vote, but there won’t be a closer like Rivera ever again. No one is going to break the record of 652 saves that he had. No one will record 0.70 ERA with 42 saves in 96 postseason games again. No one will ever pitch with a cutter that was as good as his. There won’t be a player that is as genuine as him again.
It’s only fitting he is in the Hall in an unanimous decision.