Author: Joe Siegal
When shortstop Derek Jeter and fellow pitcher Andy Pettite walked out to the Yankee Stadium mound last Thursday night to relieve closer Mariano Rivera of his duties for the final time, it truly marked the end of an era for the Yankees and for baseball. A teary-eyed and humbled Rivera embraced his long-time teammates, walked over to the dugout and then returned to the field for his final Yankee Stadium curtain call, saluting the Bronx crowd one last time. It was a fitting and deserved moment of pageantry for a unique player, an incomparable talent and a figure the likes of whom may never be seen again in all of baseball.
His career spanning one of the most prolonged runs of Yankee success ever, Rivera was often overshadowed on his own team by the super-stardom of Jeter and the divisiveness of Alex Rodriguez. In an era where many (myself included) saw the Yankees as the ultimate villains of the sport, Mariano served as the counterpoint to the otherwise pompous culture around the Bronx Bombers of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Even for me, a Mets fan conditioned to hate everything in pinstripes, Rivera was always to be respected. Though the image of Rivera retiring Mets catcher Mike Piazza to end the 2000 “Subway Series” World Series haunts me to this day, I also remember with a certain sadness his crushing blown save against the Arizona Diamondbacks in game seven of the 2001 World Series, as a city mourning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hoped for a Yankees championship.
Rivera, the consummate professional, always went about his business quietly and with class, even under the biggest of spotlights and against the toughest competition. “Mo” was always the rock of the club.
His steady ninth inning performances were made all but a certainty by his absolute mastery of the cut fastball. Signed originally as a shortstop prospect out of a small Panamanian fishing village, Rivera became the master of the cutter, a tailing fastball that wreaked havoc on all, but particularly on left-handed batters as it moved sharply toward their hands. The lucky hitters who so much as made contact with Rivera’s cutter often shattered their bats in the process, marking them as victims of the game’s single most dominant pitch.
Rivera retires with the all-time record for saves with 652, an absurdly low postseason earned run average (ERA) of 0.70 and five World Series rings. He is unquestionably the best relief pitcher of all time and the best pitcher to ever don the Yankee pinstripes, doing it all with one single pitch in his arsenal.
Rivera is also the last Major League player to ever wear Jackie Robinson’s number, 42. The league-wide mandate retiring 42 in perpetuity was passed during Rivera’s career, but a grandfather clause allowed Rivera to wear the number until he retired. There could not have been a more worthy player to be the last to wear Robinson’s number. Rivera embodied a type of pure competitive nature and respect for the game that Robinson would have lauded.
In his final appearance, Rivera displayed these qualities for the fans one final time, closing out his career with the grace and dominance that defined his sixteen years in the Bronx.
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