Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
In prepping for Mariano Rivera's inevitable (duh!) election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I toured his pages on the indispensible Baseball Reference. To go there is to get lost in a rabbit hole of Rivera's pitching excellence.
There's Rivera's absurd 205 career ERA-plus, which is the best of all time, and his 652 saves, the most ever. Or his ridiculous postseason numbers -- 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP, just two October homers in 141 high-pressure innings. Keep going -- you might calculate the last digit of Pi before you run out of fascinating Rivera numbers.
Heck, he even adds a signature number now, becoming the first player to get 100% of the vote on the ballots of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, this one included.
Yet there's something beyond the stats or the eye test or the fact that he got the final out of four different World Series that helped teach me how great The Great Mariano truly was. It had nothing to do with what happened on the field or how his cutter turned bats to kindling, but rather stuff that percolated in a newsroom.
I was lucky enough to be the Yankees beat writer for the Daily News for five years, from 2000 to 2004. When I started, Rivera was already established as a marvel, his career arc pointing toward Cooperstown.
Any time Rivera had a bad night or -- Horrors! -- a short streak of something less than his usual dominance, my clunky old Nokia cell phone would ring. (Full disclosure: The ringtone was the tune from Bizet's "Carmen" that was in "The Bad News Bears").
It'd be the boss. No, not that "Boss." I only wish George Steinbrenner had been in the habit of calling me out of the blue back then. It was the sports editor.
"What's wrong with Mo? Is he losing it?"
It's useless in these situations to cite blather such as, "Well, all closers get hit sometimes, it's natural." Even if some part of you believed that wondering about Rivera was like wondering if the sun has gone out because it's a cloudy day, the right response to the sports editor is, "Let me ask around."
So I would. Mo was good copy. I was happy to write about him and in the 162 mini-seasons world of the Yankees. I knew it'd attract eyeballs.
An old scout friend, Joe DiCarlo, who worked for the Giants and was always at Yankee Stadium, used to love getting my calls about Rivera's "woes," chuckling away at how Rivera would be fine. Joe was right, every time.
Sometimes there would be a mechanical explanation that Rivera quickly fixed. We are talking about one of the smoothest pitchers of all time, after all. Sometimes, Mo just gave it up. The blather was right occasionally and that's part of what makes baseball so much darn fun, right?
It's important to note this: The answer was never "he's losing it." He never did, not really. Just go back to those Baseball Reference pages. Bet he could've kept pitching with success long after 2013.
But it's a testament to Rivera's greatness that any blip was met with some degree of panic. It was simply stunning to see him fail because his brilliance was so clockwork and looked so easy. His pitching motion was gorgeous, at times appearing to involve all the strain of pouring a glass of iced tea.
He always appeared calm on the mound. Of course he was no cyborg -- not with the emotion he showed during his career, particularly in the the last few weeks of his career. In business, however, he certainly appeared unflappable, as if he knew the outcome already.
Of course, no one gets to have that. And that's why if you walked into a New York sports bar and shouted, "Ten bucks to everyone who can tell me who Bill Selby is," your wallet would be significantly lighter.
Selby, of course, is the Cleveland Indians journeyman who hit a walk-off grand slam off Rivera on July 14, 2002. Selby was not exactly a star, so this wasn't anything like Edgar Martinez (.579 average against Rivera) hitting Mo. This was a shocker.
But Rivera handled getting Selbied that day like he did the other times he lost: with grace. He admitted Selby hit his best pitch, the infamous cutter, even though he had thrown it precisely where he had wanted to.
Often, if he failed, he'd say some variation of this: "That's baseball. I can do nothing."
Maybe Rivera's polish in those emotional moments was part of his secret sauce. Rivera knew postseason heartache alongside all that glory. No one will forget 1997, 2001 or 2004, least of all Rivera, but he never let those failures consume him.
Maybe he was better because of them. He even turned one to public advantage, tipping his cap and smiling when he got cheered at Fenway in 2005, a few months after his rough ALCS. That melted even cold Boston hearts and those fans always seemed to admire him after that.
With the news that Rivera is taking his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, maybe some of those fans will think of that day.
Me? I'll pore over more Mo numbers. Rivera had a better ERA at the new Yankee Stadium (1.92) than at the old (2.61).
But I won't wonder what's wrong with Mo.