After 19 major league seasons and five championships, Mariano Rivera confirmed on Saturday that his career was over. He will be sorely missed by fans of the New York Yankees, but also by baseball fans or anyone with a soft spot for underdog stories.
While dealing with tremendous soreness in his forearm (h/t Andy McCullough, The Star-Ledger), Mo participated in the 2013 All-Star Game, posted a 2.11 earned run average and saved 44 games for a team that had playoff aspirations until the season's final week.
Of course, the tears and cheers following his final appearance were in recognition of his many years of brilliance on and off the field.
Rivera is an exceptional individual with universal appeal, and these are the things that distinguished him from mere mortals.
We all awe at the summit that Rivera has reached as an all-time great reliever (much more on that later), but the fact that he even made it to the major leagues was a miracle in itself.
He hails from a poor fishing village in Panama. As a kid, Rivera didn't have legitimate baseball equipment. Mel Antonen—then of USA Today—reported that he used cardboard and tree branches instead of gloves and bats.
Even as he matured, there were doubts about whether or not his talent merited a professional contract. Rivera was already 20 years old when he finally signed with the New York Yankees in 1990, and he received merely $3,000 as a signing bonus.
However, he instantly succeeded in the U.S. by piling up strikeouts, suppressing home runs and demonstrating excellent command. The Yankees rewarded him with promotions to the Single-A level (Greensboro) in 1991 and High-A with Fort Lauderdale the following summer.
Rivera then took a big step back midway through 1992. Team doctors discovered damage in his ulnar collateral ligament and planned Tommy John surgery (which wasn't nearly as commonplace then as it is now). Although the injury was less serious than originally feared and the ligament didn't need to be replaced, the 22-year-old's season nonetheless ended prematurely.
New York was so skeptical of Rivera's future that the right-hander was left unprotected entering that winter's expansion draft. The brand-new Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins both had opportunities to snatch him for themselves, but neither decided to.
Once a prospect who the Yankees were prepared to give away, Rivera eventually blossomed into a surefire Hall of Famer. That's an inspiring backstory for people of any age, culture or profession.
Why is this woman so excited?
Because the sport's career saves leader could always be trusted to preserve a lead in the ninth inning, even at age 43. Year in and year out, Rivera's entrances meant that the opposition had virtually zero chance of a completing a comeback.
He was a freak; relief work is volatile by nature.
We've frequently seen hyped youngsters fail to sustain their initial success out of the bullpen (e.g. Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard). All-Star talents like Brad Lidge and Francisco Rodriguez alternated between untouchable and untrustworthy during their careers. Eric Gagne and Bobby Jenks were washed up by their 30th birthdays. Even Trevor Hoffman and Joe Nathan endured unimpressive years at some point.
Aside from the off-the-charts production, Rivera's repeatable delivery and release point, and his aversion of significant arm injuries for two full decades, were responsible for his ascension to prominence.
Because Rivera has been so dominant for so long, we can generate all sorts of unique stats from his career.
MLB.com's Tom Verducci provides examples:
In case you're unable/too lazy to watch, some of those astounding figures include:
- Best career WHIP of any pitcher in the past 100 years (min. 1,000 IP).
- Only one loss in 96 career postseason appearances.
- Recorded the final out of four different World Series. No one else has done that more than twice.
- More men have walked on the moon (12) than have scored an earned run against Rivera in the playoffs (11).
Another cool one from molecular biologist Cork Gaines:
Another Mariano Rivera stat: Since '95, he has 119 saves of at least 4 outs. That's more than next 2 combined (Foulke 55, Graves 49)— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) September 27, 2013
The research manager at the YES Network, Jeff Quagliata, tweets about Mo's place in Yankees history:
Mo making his 1,115th career appearance. 1st among all Yankee pitchers. 34th among all Yankees.— Jeff Quagliata (@yestoresearch) September 27, 2013
The franchise has existed for well over a century. It's difficult to comprehend that through all of its dynasties, only a few dozen position players have taken the field more often.
Jayson Stark of ESPN is notorious for digging up obscure numbers. He compiled 21 Rivera-related stats for our viewing pleasure.
For example, Rivera had more saves after his 40th birthday than former All-Stars like BJ Ryan, Duane Ward or Mark Wohlers totaled in their entire careers. He's also miles ahead on any other pitcher in history in terms of adjusted earned run average, which takes an individual's ballpark and era into consideration (min. 1,000 IP). He finished with a lifetime 205 ERA+ (league average is 100), while Pedro Martinez ranks second with his 154 ERA+.
Now, a few Bleacher Report originals found through the fabulous Baseball-Reference.com Play Index:
- Three seasons of 50-plus innings pitched and single-digit walks. Only Dennis Eckersley finished his career with more (five).
- Held left-handed batters to a .525 OPS, which is best ever for a right-handed pitcher (min. 1,000 AB vs. LHB).
- Career 2.51 earned run average in high-leverage situations. That's second all time behind Tom Seaver (2.36) among pitchers with at least 500 high-leverage innings.
There are seemingly infinite ways to express Rivera's near invincibility through statistics.
His Broken Bats
More so than all the swings-and-misses, we'll reminisce about the splintered cedar and mashed maple. There were countless instances of Rivera inducing unsure swings and weak contact in the forms of soft ground balls or innocuous pop-ups.
Okay, not completely countless.
In his aforementioned article, Stark references Buster Olney's broken-bat counter from the 2001 season. Assuming that Rivera sawed through opposing lumber at a relatively constant rate through the years, the total casualties (including the postseason) would be about 800.
Rivera's late, dramatic movement was the key to that party trick. In speaking with ESPNNewYork.com, AJ Pierzynski called his cutter "an optical illusion," while Mark Reynolds remembers that anticipating the pitch didn't make a difference.
Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer explains why the not-so-secret weapon continued working for Rivera as he aged:
According to Baseball Info Solutions data at FanGraphs and data at Brooks Baseball, the '08 season was the last in which Rivera's cutter crossed the plate at an average of roughly 93 miles per hour. From 2009 until now, Rivera's cutter has sat more in the 91-92 range.
What we've found out more and more in this span is that velocity really isn't much of a vital ingredient when it comes to Rivera's cutter. Lateral movement has always been the key, and that's something that hasn't diminished.
Batters were hilariously foiled in their attempts to align the sweet spot with the ball. Then-rookie Mike Moustakas was left with only the knob of his bat after guessing wrong in his first plate appearance versus Rivera in 2011.
Ryan Klesko ruined three bats in a single World Series duel!
Acknowledging Rivera's tendency to slice through Louisville Sluggers, the Minnesota Twins came up with an extremely clever going-away present:
We'll miss the fact that Rivera reduced larger-than-life professional athletes to flailing fools, regardless of their experience, skill level or handedness.
While other hard-throwing relievers can be seen falling off the mound after each delivery, Rivera's effortless mechanics allowed him to always get into an ideal fielding position.
Rivera's legacy as a fielder: 12th all-time in RF/9 among pitchers, 13th all-time in fielding percentage.— Dan Rozenson (@SixToolPlayer) September 28, 2013
Teammates who played behind him were surely grateful for that. By making defensive plays himself, the Sandman relieved his infielders of a lot of pressure:
You think Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson are impressive athletes? Both tore their anterior cruciate ligaments and beat the odds by recovering in time to start Week 1 of the following seasons.
Rivera came close to one-upping their feats. He likewise tore an ACL in May 2012, but eyed a return to the mound the following September in an ESPN Radio interview (h/t MLB.com's Bryan Hoch). Did we mention that he was 42 years old at the time?!
Although the rushed comeback proved impossible due to an initial delay in his surgery, realize how fortunate baseball was to have a star who held himself to such lofty standards.
Rivera certainly had the ability to "turn it on" in competitive situations. Using stats, we've already established that he thrived unlike any other pitcher in close regular-season games and October's must-win scenarios. One look at his focused expression on the mound told us that nothing else mattered other than succeeding at his job.
However, that's not why past opponents presented him with gifts and retired players continue to offer the highest praises.
It's because they adore him on a personal level. Behind closed doors and in front of rolling cameras, the boy who came to America without speaking a word of English is now an awesome speaker and candid conversation partner.
Need an example?
Most other players have a figurative button that they press in tough spots for optimal energy and performance. The effects gradually fade afterward.
River, on the other hand, always flipped a switch. He could instantly make the transition from intense closer to warm teammate/ambassador, and it's rare to find that sort of mechanism installed in a superstar.
From his delivery, to his stuff, makeup, presence in the clubhouse & how he interacts with fans & media, Mariano Rivera is great.— Joe Casale (@sportsJC16) September 27, 2013
This past Sept. 22 was "Mariano Rivera Day" in the Bronx, as the Yankees spared no expense to express their appreciation for his glorious years of service.
Yet here's Rivera shifting everybody's attention away from himself and to the late George Steinbrenner and Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel:
That's what Rose L., Raymond R., Gayle M. and John M. respect about Rivera. Along with thousands of fans, they submitted messages to AT&T's "Mo-ments" campaign, thanking him for epitomizing class and remaining humble despite the fame.
He was grateful for every opportunity he received and more impressed by his teammates' accomplishments than his own. You can't help but applaud such selflessness.
Rivera's humility is beyond comprehension! You will never confuse me for a Yankees fan, but I love this guy!! #greatestcloserever— Derek Hill (@derekhill146) September 27, 2013
Corny yes; but I gave Mariano Rivera a standing ovation from my living room. Pure greatness, humility and class.— TaurusBone (@TaurusBone) September 27, 2013
Rivera was especially busy during road trips in 2013, as he agreed to privately meet with fans in every city. Whether in Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Houston or across the Big Apple in Queens, he set aside time to share his story and to listen to others tell theirs.
If nothing else, his career was among the most unique in sports history. Consider yourself lucky to have witnessed it.