It was one of the most moving scenes I’ve witnessed on a baseball field. Mariano Rivera entered this past year’s All-Star Game to a standing ovation from the 45,000 fans at Citi Field but, even more poignantly, from the players in both dugouts, almost all of them his longtime opponents. He has been feted by his rivals in every stadium in which he performed, including this past week in Fenway Park. The celebrations are in recognition not only of his athletic excellence but, more importantly, of his goodness and sterling character.
The greatest closer in the history of baseball is retiring this year after a long, distinguished and record-setting career. Those few critics who have long disparaged the closer role, deeming it overrated and capable of fulfillment by almost anyone, must answer one question: how come no one has ever accomplished what Mariano has, and for almost two decades?
The record speaks for itself. The Yankee pitcher has well over 600 saves, and 300 more than his closest active rival, who, at 38 years old, will never challenge that record; over 40 saves in the post-season with a microscopic 0.70 ERA, with 11 World Series saves, all records that will likely never be broken. He possesses a strikeout to walk ratio that is astonishing, and consistency that is mindboggling. Many of his peers who had exceptional seasons or two have usually flamed out within a short period. Rivera marches on, year after year, throwing the same unhittable pitch, and racking up save after save.
His personal story is even more compelling. Having grown up in poverty in Panama, he strengthened his arm by throwing stones and makeshift baseballs of old socks or fishing nets. The pitch that made his career – the cutter that darts in or away from hitters after their reaction time has passed – was discovered almost as a fluke, but nothing else about his life seems coincidental. And the respect he has earned from fans, teammates and fellow players is not at all contrived or manufactured, nor is the adulation typical of the modern athlete. Therein lies his uniqueness, not as much in the skill he displays on the baseball field but the values and character he embodies both on and off the field.
Too often, athletes are lionized for the wrong reasons, and the right reasons are very rare. The very notion of perceiving athletes as “role models” rings false and usually ends in disappointment. Too many succumb to the allures of money, drugs, cheating, and womanizing and many have contributed thereby to the debasing of American culture. Most are actually role models for, as Mickey Mantle said about himself towards the end of his life, “what not to do.” That is what makes Mariano Rivera such a welcome relief (interesting word in this context) in the sports world.
Rivera is a religious man whose expressions of faith after wins or losses always sound sincere and heartfelt. His frequent references to God seem real and natural and not contrived. He is married to his childhood sweetheart and together they raise their family, that itself a sports world rarity. His charitable work is as legendary as his baseball talent – building a sports field in his home town, renovating churches (his wife is a pastor in one), funding athletic activities for underprivileged children, etc. He has spent his farewell tour of American League cities by visiting – in each stadium in which he has played – the longtime employees (clubhouse workers, ticket sellers, etc.) with whom he has interacted over the years, bestowing gifts on one particular person in each venue, and explaining that these employees are as much a part of the baseball business as he is. Such selflessness is acknowledged in the media but not trumpeted. Needless to say –no, it must be said – he has never had the slightest hint of scandal tarnish his reputation in a baseball era that has been pockmarked by persistent scandals.
His career teaches us important lessons. One was suggested by a colleague. Roles matter in life, and people have to make their contributions to the world in line with their fundamental roles. Thus, Mariano Rivera will soon retire holding a unique and dubious record: having played the most games in major league baseball history – well over 1100 games – without recording even a single base hit. But only a baseball am haaretz would construe that as a blemish on his stellar career; his role is to save games, not to swing the bat. Take note: it is only in a milieu poisoned by persistent grievances of feminists and others that the prescription of roles grates and exasperates. They are essential to the functioning of any organization, or religion, or gainful activity. We should always strive to do well what we can do and what we are supposed to do, and not lament or moan about what we can’t or shouldn’t do.
One particular trait of Rivera’s, so prized by the Jewish people, stands out: humility. In an age when countless basketball and football players, and many baseball players, showboat with every accomplishment – standing and gazing at their handiwork, glaring at defeated opponents, waving their arms and bowing to the crowd after working out a third-inning walk – Rivera is universally admired for his steely determination but also stoic demeanor. He never gloated after successes and never pouted after his rare failures, notably in the 2001 World Series when one hard-hit ball, his throwing error, and a bloop hit, cost the Yankees the seventh game, or in the 2004 blown playoffs against the Red Sox. Instead, he praised his opponents, accepted God’s will (in his words), and was always gracious. After a recent blown save, he said: “This was a great game, until I entered it.” He remains a fierce competitor, but without any desire to show up the teams whose defeat he had just sealed. When the games end, he breathes a sigh of relief (that word again) and after a few seconds displays a smile as he accepts his teammates’ congratulations. Nothing more.
No wonder baseball’s best players stood and applauded for him at the All Star Game, the man who had victimized so many of them for so long, but did it with grace, humility, dignity and mutual respect.
That is the Musar of Mariano.