Saturday’s announcement that Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had made his last appearance of the season marked the long-awaited conclusion of the most dominant career baseball has ever seen. The decision officially came from manager Joe Girardi, but Mo’s obvious input into the decision reflected all of the wonderful qualities that made Rivera one of the most beloved figures in baseball.
When offered the chance to play an inning in the outfield now that the playoffs are out of reach, (something that Mariano has wanted to try his hand at his entire career), Rivera responded, “My knee is not cooperating, and I don’t want to make a fool of myself out there. I respect the game too much for me to do something that I’m not supposed to do.” That’s just Mo’s MO: Everything he puts out on the field is for the team and for the game he loves. He does not seek glory or attention, but merely to contribute to the team that he has spent the last 19 seasons with. In a sport marred in controversy and fallen idols, Rivera has stood the test of time because his genuine kindness and impeccable professionalism stood taller than even his record-shattering production on the field.
A pleasant corollary of the decision to shut down Rivera is that Thursday’s emotionally charged Yankee Stadium send out now also serves as a fitting final Major League appearance for Mo. When fellow “core” Yankees Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte came to the mound to pull Rivera with two outs in the ninth, the scene resembled baseball at its most pure: three of the most veteran players in the sport laughing and joking (and crying) not like professionals, but like their little league counterparts who could only dream that they would ever thrive so spectacularly on the game’s greatest stage (or mound, in this case). It was a heart-warming moment that reminded me of my younger days, and despite his fearsome presence on the mound, Mo seemed to bring the kid out in everybody when the ball wasn’t in his hands; his cold stare and cutter served him well when pitching, but Mo’s clubhouse repertoire consisted of pranks, practical jokes and an infectious smile. His gregarious nature extended beyond his teammates and even to fans of opposing teams.
When the Fenway faithful gave Rivera a loud ovation (a good-natured taunt in reference to his crucial blown save in the 2004 ALCS) during the Red Sox 2005 ring ceremony, he responded with a polite tip of the cap and a warm smile. It’s a testament to both the quality of his character and the strength of his composure that the fun-loving Rivera was also something of a boogeyman figure for me growing up. As a young Yankee fan living in England, I rarely saw games unless I was visiting my grandparents, and even then, bedtime stole the ninth inning away from me. My knowledge of the great Mariano Rivera came mostly from recounted tales at the breakfast table and reenactments of his legendary “Enter Sandman” entrance. His mystique was so complete that I did not even bat an eye recently when I read that more men have walked on the moon than have scored a run off of Mo in the postseason.
Having gone out not as a champion in 2013 but still in the elite tier of MLB closers, Mo certainly has gotten the closure that has eluded many of his Yankees pitching peers — most notably current teammate and soon-to-be-retiree Pettitte, and Roger Clemens, who just penned a piece encouraging Rivera not to hang up his cleats. His faith has always helped him put perspective into his few failures on the field, and it will continue to provide him fulfillment outside of baseball, where he is an active member in his community.
The closest thing to uncertainty there will ever be in Mariano Rivera’s legacy is whether he will be the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame; a first ballot selection seems all but certain. I would argue he would be more than worthy of receiving a vote from every single member of the voting committee, but given the sometimes lower esteem accredited to the closer position and the tendency for some members to vote unconventionally for the sake of standing out, a unanimous vote seems unlikely; even Babe Ruth could only convince 95 percent of the voters that he was worthy on the first ballot. But such trivial matters will be of no concern to a player like Mariano Rivera, and they shouldn’t concern anyone who is a fan of Mariano Rivera either.
His greatness goes so far beyond his tangible performance. We could fawn all day over his saves record, his ERA, his “perfect pitch” and his postseason brilliance, but in an era where the best competitors are getting their edge from cocky mindsets and “swagger,” I will choose to focus on Mo’s ability to consistently be both the most dominant competitor and the most humble and selfless player every time he stepped on the field.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. The Sporting Life appears Tuesdays.