The best thing, maybe the only thing, to do about Mariano Rivera’s injury is to give thanks – not necessarily in the spiritual sense, as he is surely doing in his pain and shock, but in the humanistic sense for having seen the best relief pitcher in history in our lifetime.
What a joy, what a privilege, for all of us to watch him play, to know that nobody was ever this good, this long, this consistently, this overwhelmingly, at that task of saving games.
Numbers hardly count. He might be the highest example of sheer excellence in the American majors in our lifetime -- a phenomenon, one of a kind. Marilyn Monroe. Abraham Lincoln. Mo.
Seeing Mo, bounding out of the bullpen with that athlete’s stride, one did not have to be a Yankee fan to love it.
The legend was that Mo was the best athlete on the Yankees – a team with Jeter and Williams and Rodriguez. They all knew it, the way athletes know these things, the accepted pecking order.
They watched him dart unerringly to fly balls during the pre-game shagging. They marveled at the speed and agility. Mo could play center field, they said. In fact, there was talk of letting him play an inning out there, before his career ended. This respect came on a franchise that has seen Joe D and the Mick and Bernie glide through those meadows.
How weird that Mo went down while shagging flies, his ACL torn. He was giving hints about having made up his mind to retire after this season, so my first presumption was that he could use the familiar rituals of baseball injury – the surgery, the rehab, the pain, the stiffness, the guys in the clubhouse in the Bronx or Tampa, and then retire at the end of the year.
After all, he's done everything he could do. Let him regain that beautiful deer-like rhythm and lope home to Panama. Basta ya. Enough already.
But when he got to the clubhouse on Friday, Rivera defiantly said he'd be back, this year, next year, count on it. If Mo says he's coming back, I wish him luck. Meantime, we have the memories, more visual than statistical. The save totals and percentages and earned-run averages can be looked up. What remains is the impression.
The clang of Metallica playing "Enter Sandman" as the Yankee Stadium bullpen door opened – this from a highly religious man (a Christian who did not creep people out with repeated witnessing; he stated where he came from spiritually and then talked pitching.) Heavy metal as he bounded across the outfield grass. No chest-pounding, no gestures, no smoke coming out his ears. Just Mo.
He induced a respectful frustration from batters. They knew what was coming, a ball breaking down, close enough to the strike zone that they had to swing, had to beat the ball into the earth, producing what high-school players used to call a worm-killer, a grounder. And when he broke a record, the players in the opposing dugout applauded for the gentleman who transcended all rivalries, all frustrations, all wins and losses. Mo.
What a treat to be following baseball as player or fan or writer and see Mo excel from decade to decade, three different ones now. The Nineties. The Aughts. The Teens.
At some point, Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans coalesced on the realization that we were watching two greatest Yankees at their positions at the same time. Perhaps this happens on lesser franchises (that is to say, all other franchises are lesser.) But on this overwhelming franchise for nearly a century, their greatest shortstop and their greatest relief pitcher came along together from the minor leagues (with the Boss blessedly grounded for bad behavior, unable to blow it all up with his impatience.)
There was Cap’n Derek, hitting a double and clapping his hands in exhortation, and there was Mo, with his spare, lethal effectiveness.
Mo has been more than a presence on the field, on the tube. He has been a presence in the clubhouse, too. He doesn't gossip much with reporters but in the large clubhouse in spring training he would speak softly and joke around with his fellow pitchers who dressed around him. The wise ones listen.
A couple of springs ago, a new pitcher – Spanish-speaking, at that – dressed near Mo. The new man did not listen. Looked the other way. Was in his own world. A colleague of mine caught that tableau and said, “That knucklehead doesn’t get it.”
One other thing. We are not going to have to rescind our opinion of Mo in a year or three because of scandal. His body never changed from the whippet rookie to the agile senior citizen. He is not going to be disgraced somewhere down the line like Roger Clemens, currently glowering in a courtroom in Washington.
Clemens is going to get off the hook because of the double inadequacy of the prosecution and the weak-mindedness of Andy Pettitte. Little Andy dabbled in illegal substances when it suited him but ultimately could not make up his mind what Big Rog told him in their gym sessions. Having doubts on the witness stand is bad form. You either know something or you don’t. Pettitte looks foolish, Clemens will get off the hook, but everybody knows what was going down in Clemens’ life.
This will never happen with Mo. He needs to rehabilitate his ACL but not his image. He was and remains exactly what we thought – a clean flame burning in the ninth inning, eradicating trouble, one-two-three. We have been able to watch. That is worth a cosmic thank-you.
5/4/2012 05:03:38 am
Very nicely written, kinda sounds like a eulogy though. Still holding out hope that he can tough out one more year and go out on a high note. Soul crushing to see him potentially go out this way.
5/4/2012 09:57:32 am
Dan, I saw Mo's comments and backtracked. If he says he is coming back next year, (or this year) I am conditioned to believe Mo. Thanks for your opinion. GV
5/4/2012 06:52:11 am
Thanks again for describing Mo better than anyone.
5/4/2012 09:11:55 am
just read tyler kepner's piece on rivera before i read your column.
5/4/2012 10:02:59 am
Mr. P: thanks for your perspective. You've got the feel of two other cultures -- and represent them fairly.
5/4/2012 10:17:48 am
THANKS mr v. nice to see your stuff unfettered--so to speak--from the nyt. should've added that an athlete who transcends team loyalty is a rare thing. in my lifetime, the one i recall the most is a CFL player named hal patterson. he was from kansas and came to montreal around 1954 and traded to the hamilton ticats in, i think, 1960. was called prince hal. we all loved the guy no matter who we rooted for. during that time some good players came up from the states to the cfl because the money wasn't much different, dollars were at par and the cfl practiced in the evening so players could have jobs during the day--unlike the nfl which worked out during the day. important back then so players could get a second career going back in the days when $ wasn't thru the roof and players needed to think about when their athletic careers were over. incidentally,patterson died last year, i think.
5/4/2012 11:47:03 am
Well George, almost a perfect piece, and then you could not resist the dig at Clemens, which was a reach, to say the least, to vouch for Mo's credibility. Of course, you can write what you want. Yet this is not about our differences on the Clemens case, but hating to see perfect writing ruined by a tangent. After all, I'm still reading your blog for your skill with the pen.
5/4/2012 03:20:30 pm
Hansen, thanks, as always. I think it's a reasonable digression. Big Rog and Little Andy in court, Mo in duress, all in the news. GV
5/4/2012 03:21:04 pm
hansen, hardly a dig at clemens. he is pretty obviously lying thru his teeth. contrasting rivera with clemens' behaviour is very legit. also, criticism of pettitte is legit. his waffling on the witness stand when push came to shove was pretty gutless.....
5/5/2012 03:55:04 am
Guys, not a fair evaluation of Andy's situation. It is not his fault everyone's hopes in hanging Clemens depended on him, a dubious proposition at best, because he never could remember any details of the conversation. (In fact, the defense left Andy alone when he made an inconsistent statement Wednesday that they could have spent hours torturing him about, his words that Clemens told him of the benefits of recovery from HGH. He did not previously say that. That is taken from an inaccurate paraphrase at the televised hearings by Rep. Waxman.) The prosecution's hope always was, and remains, Jeff Novitsky, assuming that the judge does not throw out the purported evidence, which he probably won't, although he should for lack of chain of custody credibility. And it's a very pro prosecution jury: almost entirely high income, middle class homeowners, and the best educated jury I have EVER heard about, two lawyers and several science types who will be able to interpret DNA evidence for the rest of the jury which will help the feds. And why the government blew up the first jury which was the opposite, low income, minority, no home owners that I could detect. Clemens lying through his teeth? The four grand jury perjury counts are based on the government's inaccurate representation of Clemens's congressional deposition. McNamee made up quite a story by using his injection experience of others, including Wall Street types and whoever he actually trained from 1995-1998, the so-called "Olympic Caliber athletes," and then morphed it onto the life and times of Jose Canseco, the admitted steroids champion, although technically David Segui probably was. I don't blame Mac: if the government allowed me to exchange one statue of limitations still running, after 2001, for one beyond prosecution, before 2001, the last time he alleged injecting Clemens, I'd do it too. George, you are invoking the term "reasonable," which is a term of art, to a lawyer. I'm ruling it inadmissible in the court of literature. A comparison between the sainthood of Mariano Rivera and the purported evil of William Roger Clemens, which should be strictly a moral argument, is a separate article. Somewhere in your historic mail, George, is the guess that once on the witness stand, Andy Pettitte would agree with the last lawyer who questioned him. For him it was always about getting everybody off his back, and I don't understand why people blame him for that. In summary, Andy didn't let ya'll down, as he would say, you did not "reasonably" interpret what he said in the first place. In fact, you and I, George, have debated Andy's congressional deposition now, for at least four years. But of course, we are never going to agree about this case, long after it's over. Which is why Clemens went to Washington in the first place: to stand up for the First Amendment right of free speech so we can argue about this.
5/5/2012 04:05:59 am
hansen, i guess you're a lawyer and have followed this a lot more closely than i have. however, clemens' remarkable career insurrection, the recent history of elite baseball players using whatever the drug of the day is, clemens' rather lame testimony and his WIFE? using the stuff......excuse (some of) us for being just a little suspicious or jaded.
5/5/2012 07:23:05 am
Bruce, the alleged decline of Clemens's career in Boston, because of a .500 record in the mid 90s, was greatly over exaggerated. In those years he still had the lowest batting average against him in the majors one year, led the league in ERA and strikeouts in another, despite nagging injuries, and in 1996, his last year in Boston, he matched his own record for strikeouts in a game, 20. After his '85 shoulder operation he never had a major injury and had nothing to recover from which would need HGH or steroids. He had almost identical numbers in 1997 in Toronto when he won a Cy Young, as he did the next year AFTER he met McNamee, in 1998. In the majority years in which allegedly used these PEDS, 2000 and 2001 in New York, he had the worst numbers of his career, despite being able to hand the ball off to Mo. Indeed, his durability declined with age and he averaged an inning less per game in the second half of his career. Essentially he was a 6 inning pitcher at best. It was McNamee who placed Roger's wife on the proverbial table as an HGH recepient and Clemens agreed with him, albeit a differing account of whether Roger was a witness. Commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged in his congressional testimony that the number of players who failed the league's random drug tests declined from what he put at 90 (and I put at more than 100) in the experimental test in 2003 to 2 in the year of the hearings, 2008. That's approximately .0026 percent according to my bad math skills that year, far from the 30-50 percent that Ambassador Mitchell threw around in his Report. The Mitchell Report served as a political necessity to get Congress of baseball's back. The vast majority of players failing the tests were and remain, mostly desperate, marginal Latin players, who took PEDS. The drug of choice then and now for anglo American players is amphetamines, not PEDS. Yes, I'm a lawyer and yes, I am writing a book on the top, which no American publisher wants to go near because its conclusion does not match the narrative set down by the establishment press and establishment Washington. But I can tell you the case is so complex I have continually made mistakes in looking at the depositions myself, and have to continually cross check who said what when and how. The numbers, however, don't lie. Baseball's 2003 random test served as an effective deterrent to future use. Finally, I leave you with this. I do not presume to tell baseball writers who have a vote for the Hall of Fame what to do. I will only say that Roger Clemens's numbers are genuine and not influenced by performance enhancing drugs. If those numbers meet the criteria of the baseball writers, he should be elected. If those numbers are not up to Hall of Fame standards, whatever they are for a pitcher these days, he should be rejected. Whatever the issue is, from dealing with brawls, or the Hall of Fame, baseball has proved capable of solving its problems. Bonds, McQwire, Sosa, are not going to Cooperstown, and history and the game moves on.
5/5/2012 06:29:35 am
Life certainly moves on with little linger time. Borden's article about the capable Robertson, together with the new closer's feat last night of striking out the side in the ninth.....are we living in real life a script idea stolen from "The Natural"? Methinks, not so fast....but you never know.
5/5/2012 08:18:15 am
hansen, thanks for the response. you've spent a little more time on it then i have......i'm sure the fact clemens seems like an arrogant dink (tho i'm sure he helps little old ladies across the street and signs autographs for little leaguers) colours my view of him.
5/5/2012 11:52:31 am
This is like a great tennis match. I'm just watching.
5/6/2012 02:29:45 am
Exactly, Bruce, the Clemens case is closest to the Alger Hiss case after World War II, in which Hiss, an aristocratic state department official perceived as extremely arrogant, was convicted for perjury for denying he was a Communist and Soviet spy. The evidence was weak and after a brief jail sentence, he spent the rest of his life making a credible case that he had been unfairly convicted. Like Clemens, he was not convincing in public because of his manner and the way he spoke. In fact, when I saw Hiss speak once in Boston even I didn't trust him. Yet an objective review of the record, including the Soviet archives after the Cold War, suggested to me was was innocent. The Clemens and Clinton cases remind me somewhat of the case of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, particularly Catherine Howard, who probably lied about her adultery with Thomas Culpepper but it was certainly unfair and illegal to behead her for sedition. George, my friend, thank you for your good grace and class to allow me to spout views you don't hold.
5/5/2012 04:10:08 pm
AS i've said in the past mr v, you keep up with this british/european stuff and using blokes in your vocab, you're gonna be strip searched one of these times you enter the u.s. of a. next thing we'll be hearing 'krikey' and zed instead of zee, eh!
5/6/2012 02:49:27 am
5/6/2012 09:50:32 am
Bruce, Nixon believed Hiss was guilty. Truman did not. And I don't. Again, my conclusion is based on the lack of proof when the KGB made its records on Hiss public, back in the 90s, I think.
5/6/2012 02:12:02 pm
Nixon....Nxon....the name sounds familiar.
5/6/2012 03:20:12 pm
george, i hope so. sex in the city hasn't been off for very long....
5/7/2012 03:02:31 am
Great pun about Miranda Boobs, there, Bruce. Sorry, not being a chauvinist here, just invoking an endearing name for her I used in a book as satire. George, I just know you're trying to recall Trot Nixon and forgot that he ended up with the Cleveland Indians.
5/7/2012 03:08:06 am
Bruce, the Miranda reference is actually in my new book, "Introduction to the Laws of the United States in the 21rst Century." Sorry about the self promotion, but that's the reference.
5/7/2012 04:51:35 am
Hansen, plug away. I didn't know you had a book coming out.
5/6/2012 10:16:32 pm
Blog is absolutely fantastic! All great information can be helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog,looking forward for more content.
5/7/2012 06:52:09 am
It is unfortunate that most of our impressions of professional athletes, as well as other high profile people, are based upon their performances and information obtained from the media. We rarely gain any insight to their inner character. In fact, too many stars are given a free pass on moral issues because their skills are so valued.
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.