2011 has been an especially amazing year to be a Yankee fan. Right now the Bronx Bombers are in first place with a team that could take it all (Boston and Philadelphia permitting), But as much as the Yankees are focused on their team’s success, it has been a year of individual milestones. Derek Jeter, the Yankee captain, has not only surged beyond 3,000 hits; he’s passed Mickey Mantle to have played the most games in pinstripes. Curtis Granderson has reached a career high in home runs and runs batted in to make his case for Most Valuable Player. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are right behind Granderson with great years of their own. C. C. Sabathia is set to have another 20-win season. In short, the Yankees are hot.
But there is one player who is set to reach his milestone, and his may be the most special of all. Mariano “Mo” Rivera has already proven himself to be the best relief pitcher of his era, but now he is on track to set the record for all-time saves, currently held by Trevor Hoffman. That means on nearly six hundred occasions, Rivera has come in near the end of a Major League game and has had to finish the job and get at least the final three outs–and the win. The room for error is often thin, so the pressure is brief but more intense. And Mo has done it far better than anyone else.
The story of Rivera’s rise is practically miraculous. Growing up in Panama, Mariano did not expect to be a baseball player, let alone a Major Leaguer. He aspired to play soccer, but leg injuries ended that. He also tried his hand on a fishing boat. The boat capsized. When he tried his hand at baseball, he showed some promise, but nothing out of the ordinary. One day the pitcher was doing so badly, Mariano volunteered to pitch himself. He was good at it, and the Yankees brought him on board.
In the minor leagues, Rivera could have been traded, cut, or taken by other teams in the 1992 Expansion draft. Instead he kept rising through the Yankees’ farm system. In one brief period, his fastball rose in speed by several miles an hour. That just doesn’t happen in baseball.
When he finally made it to “the show.” Mariano surprised even the most astute observers. He developed his special weapon, the cut fastball, or cutter. This pitch combined the power of fastball with the unpredictability of a slider. It requires both power and precision. The result has been sensational with Rivera winning numerous awards, including the Most Valuable Player for the 1999 World Series.
Now nearly 42, Rivera’s accomplishments may actually be overshadowed by his longevity. His career saves is only the most prominent of records. As of this writing, his Earned Run Average in 2011 is 2.13, which is lower than his career average. He’s saved as many or more games than in seven seasons as a closer (and the season’s not over yet!). Even though manager Joe Girardi (who caught his games a decade earlier) keeps him more rested (his total of innings pitched is near a career low), Mo is playing at peak form.
All of this does not do justice to the man. Mariano Rivera wears the number 42 of Jackie Robinson, and has epitomized the graciousness, grit and generosity of his famous predecessor. The photo I included is of one of his numerous public appearances on behalf of charitable work, which he has done on and off season.
My favorite story of his character was during the 2004 Playoffs. The Yankees had advanced to the American League Championships. Mariano’s wife’s relatives died suddenly in an electrical accident, and he made arrangements and attended the funeral in Panama. It was on the same day as the First Game of the Championship Series. Nobody would have objected if the man had stayed away for even a day to be with his family. But Mariano Rivera felt that his team needed him as much, so he attended the funeral by day, and flew back to New York to be ready for the game that night (of course he saved the game). Although the Yankees did not win the series, it showed the dedication of this extraordinary player.
Now the Yankees are poised to enter yet another postseason. Regardless of how they fare, the Yankees can count on the golden arm of their closer, Future Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera.