Mariano Rivera was perfect athlete long after perfect ceased to exist - NBC Sports

Mariano Rivera was perfect athlete long after perfect ceased to exist
Acclaim for Yankees closer nearly universal as his retirement fast approaches
September 26, 2013, 12:00 pm

Sometimes I wonder if, in all the celebrations and gifts and festivities and shouts of praise –- and even in the occasional backlash story that pops up -- we are missing what it is that has made Mariano Rivera extraordinary. Sure, he has been an amazing relief pitcher. It’s also true he throws less than 75 innings a year. Yes, his postseason performances are so amazing the numbers look like typos. It’s also true he was on the mound from time to time when things fell apart.

He has been the indomitable finisher on the indomitable team of our time, the guy on the mound at the end when the New York Yankees win again.

WATCH: Rivera's emotional Yankee Stadium farewell with Jeter, Pettitte by his side

But in the end, I think, there’s something else, something bigger than all of that.

Mariano Rivera has been the perfect athlete in a time long after we stopped believing in perfect athletes.

* * *

1920s: Babe Ruth. A perfect fit. The nation wanted to celebrate itself, and Babe Ruth hit the home runs to light up the party. He seemed big and jolly and looked funny as he minced around the bases. Reporters protected his dark side, his boozing and womanizing and fighting and Lord knows what else, while reporting the home runs he hit that healed sick kids in hospitals.

* * *

Could you imagine Babe Ruth in our time? Oh, Twitter would eat him alive. Deadspin would have a whole microsite devoted to him. This was a man who reporters would sometimes see being chased by half-naked women with knives. This was a man who, reportedly, tried to inject himself with an extract of sheep testicles to gain strength. The New York tabloids would each have a special reporter dedicated just to follow him. TMZ would have him on 24-hour surveillance.

And yet, Mariano Rivera lives in our time.

What do you know about him? Rack your brain. He’s from Panama. You certainly know that. His father was a fisherman. Mariano was a fisherman himself for a while. He’s deeply religious, sure. He’s modest. He’s unflappable. You might know he has been married to Clara since his earliest days in pro baseball -- they met in elementary school. And what else? And nothing else. We live in a time where privacy is all but defenseless, and yet, somehow, Mariano Rivera has managed to be the most public of figures and, still hold close the most fragile and important parts of himself.

Think of the pitfalls today. One misstep. One misspoken statement. One insensitive tweet. One mistranslated thought. Celebrity life in the 21st Century is the wildest of high-wire acts, a thread-thin tightrope, fire above, no net below, and all the while people shoot pellets at your legs. Rivera did not just walk that tightrope. He danced on it. He did backflips on it. He did not just pass every test. He aced every test. 

Remember in Boston when they cheered him in 2005 the year after he blew two saves as the Red Sox finally overcame the Yankees, then won the World Series? It was a classic Boston sneer, dripping in sarcasm and irony, a cheer representing a taunt, and it could have triggered any number of responses that would have made headlines and the television crawl.

Mariano Rivera smiled.

“I felt honored,” he told reporters.

* * *

1930s: Lou Gehrig: A perfect fit. The nation, mired in the Great Depression, searched for relief, for comfort, for a reason to believe. The Iron Horse came to work every day. He never seemed to take a moment of it for granted. And when the disease that would bear his name struck him down, he stood at the microphone at Yankee Stadium and said that he felt like the luckiest man.

* * *

Baseball’s closer, like football’s slot receiver and basketball’s point-forward, is a modern idea. We have become a nation of specialists. Try getting technical help these days. Oh, you’re using an iPhone? We’ll get our iPhone specialist. Oh, wait, you’re still on an iPhone 4S? Hold on, that’s another technician. Oh, wait, sorry, you upgraded your iPhone 4S to IOS7? Hold on, that’s a different department.

Mariano Rivera has done one thing more or less his entire career. He had come on to pitch the ninth inning -- Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blaring over the speakers -- with the Yankees in the lead. Now and again, especially in the playoffs, he has been asked to finish off a messy eighth inning or just keep the score tied, but mostly for Rivera it has been one thing and one thing only: Get three outs and turn a lead into a victory. In many ways, it’s an odd job.

Rivera did not ask for this job. He did not train for it. He was a fisherman in Panama. He liked baseball the way many people like baseball. He played shortstop for the local team; he was good enough that a couple of scouts took a look at him. He was not good enough to sign, though. That’s why he worked as a fisherman. He was hoping to become a mechanic. One day, for some reason or another, the team put him on the mound. He looked pretty good out there, even if his fastball topped out at only 83 or 84 mph. A Yankees scout, Herb Raybourn, liked him enough to offer $3,500. Rivera disliked fishing enough to sign. He was 20 years old.

The Yankees made him a starting pitcher. He showed promise. The fastball got faster. But the other pitches didn’t really develop. When Rivera was 25, the Yankees brought him up to start 10 games. His first four starts, he gave up 17 runs 15 innings. It is probably worth noting that in 12 of his 16 seasons as a closer, Rivera gave up fewer than 17 runs. They put him in the bullpen mostly because they didn’t really know what else to do with him.

And then in 1996, in the bullpen, as a middle-man and setup-man, Rivera had one of the great relief-pitcher years ever. He pitched 107 innings, struck out 130, the league hit .189 against him, he gave up one home run all season. One. The transformation was stunning -- and perfectly timed. The Yankees won the World Series. The Yankees told Rivera that he was now going to be a one-inning closer.

Mariano Rivera, as he would do throughout his amazing career, nodded and took it in stride.

* * *

1950s: Willie Mays. A perfect fit. America was supercharged, ready to go, big cars, big ideas, sweeping changes – television, Sputnik, Rosa Parks refuses to go to the back of the bus – and there was Willie Mays playing baseball like much of America had never seen it before. He could do everything: Hit, field, run, slug, throw. More, he could do everything with style. His cap fell off when he ran. “Say hey!” he would say when he met people and so they called him the “Say Hey Kid.”

* * *

Rivera would say the cutter was a gift from God. He was playing catch one day with buddy and fellow Yankees pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. He tried a new grip. The ball skidded and turned like it was driven by a Hollywood stuntman. What was that? He tried it again. And again the baseball made a hard left turn. 

“How did you do that?” Mendoza shouted.

Rivera would always say: He had no idea how. That was the gift from God part. He would try to teach the cutter to other people. But none of them could throw it or, anyway, they could not throw it like he could. His cutter spun away from right-handed bats like Devin Hester in the open field. But, more significantly, his cutter attacked left-hander’s bats, shattered and exploded those bats, turned enough of them into firewood to heat downtown Toledo.

He never needed another pitch. For 16 years, he threw two pitches – his fastball and his cutter -- and really it was one pitch because his fastball cut, and his cutter went fast, and the rest were technicalities. The best hitters on earth could not hit him. The numbers boggle the mind.

-- His career ERA entering Thursday was 2.21, and the only pitchers even in his neighborhood played when the ball was dead and heavy and spit on.

-- His career WHIP – that’s walks-plus-hits per inning pitched – was 1.001 and the only two pitchers with 1,000 innings pitched and a better WHIP are Addie Joss and Ed Walsh, both Deadballers who pitched 100 years ago.

-- Of course, he has the record for saves – currently 652, which won’t be broken any time soon or, perhaps, ever. But he is also third all-time for a fun statistic called WPA for “Win Probability Added.” Win Probability is a pretty simple concept. Let’s say your team is up 10-0 with two outs in the ninth inning. Your win probability is pretty close to 100 percent. Then, let’s say the score is tied in the ninth inning, but the other team has a runner on third with nobody out. Now, your win probability is fairly low.

WPA measures how much a player’s performance adds or subtracts from the team’s chances of winning. If you hit the grand slam in the ninth to win the game, you have just hit the WPA jackpot. If you give up that grand slam, you have just bombed your WPA.

Rivera’s WPA is 56.59. Baseball Reference has compiled the statistic since 1945 … and Rivera is third among pitchers behind only Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. You might think: Well, he is a closer so of course his WPA is high. But no reliever is even close to him. Trevor Hoffman is the next highest reliever, and he trails Rivera by more than 22 wins. Almost every starter, even great ones like Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax, trail Rivera too.

The league has never hit .250 against Rivera in a season. The league has never managed a .300 on-base percentage. The league has never slugged better than the .355 batters have managed this season. His 4.1-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio is fourth all-time. He has done all of it with two pitches that are really one pitch.

And he has been even better in October.

* * *

1960s: Muhammad Ali. A perfect fit. He was a turbulent man in the most turbulent times. He bragged and preened and stood against the war. He rhymed and floated and stung. He changed his name and made people laugh and demanded his rights and trumpeted his religion. “I’m the king of the world!” he shouted joyfully after he upset Sonny Liston. “What’s my name!” he shouted as he bludgeoned a blinded Ernie Terrell.

* * *

Mariano Rivera, on his glove, has written “Phil 4:13.” This is Philippians 4:13, of course: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He has the verse embroidered on his cleats. He will tell anyone who asks that he pitches for the glory of God, and he will credit everything that has happened to him to God as well.

Faith remains a great dividing line in sports. Tim Tebow’s enthusiastic faith made him both a hero and a lightning rod. Boxers proclaim their faith after pounding another man into submission and kickers proclaim theirs after making game-winning field goals. To many, it’s the proper way to celebrate God. To others, it has no place in the games people play. Roger Kahn, in “The Boys of Summer” tells the story of a batter crossing himself before an at-bat. The catcher that day, Birdie Tebbetts, then crossed himself and said, “OK, it’s all even in the eyes of God, let’s play ball.”

In this, too, Mariano Rivera has walked the straightest line. He is open about his faith but not pushy. He is certain about his values but not judgmental. He is there to talk faith to anyone who wants to ask about it –- and he does this often -- but he does not bear down on people who are not interested. I was talking with a friend the other day, a big baseball fan, and mentioned how extraordinary it is that Rivera is so deeply religious and, yet, it has never really been an issue for people.

“He’s religious?” my friend asked. 

* * *

1970s: Reggie Jackson. A perfect fit. A war ended. A president resigned. Disco played. Gas lines lengthened. It was about me, all about me, and Reggie wanted a candy bar named for him. So: A candy bar was named for him. He entertained, he infuriated, he called himself the straw the stirred the drink. And in one World Series game, he hit three home runs on three swings. They called him Mr. October.

* * *

Let’s see if we can put Mariano Rivera’s postseason work in proper context with a few numbers. He has appeared in 96 postseason games. He pitched 141 innings. His ERA is 0.70. Yes, that’s a zero in front of the decimal point. It is, of course, the best postseason ERA for anyone who has thrown 40 innings. Sandy Koufax, at 0.95, is next.

OK, let’s try it this way: He gave up two home runs in those 141 innings. Two. He did not allow a single home run in his last 57 postseason appearances.

Maybe these numbers get us there: Batters hit .174 against Mariano Rivera in the postseason. More, they slugged .227.  His postseason WHIP is 0.76 – and remember this is over 141 innings pitched. Nobody is even close.

His postseason genius is unparalleled, and still he is charged with blowing five postseason games. He gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar in a 1997 playoff series against Cleveland. He blew a 2-1 lead against Arizona in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series –- in all that inning he committed an error, hit a batter, gave up a single, a double and a bloop single to finish it off. He blew three saves in the 2004 playoffs, two of them to Boston in that famous seven-game series. 

Rivera never shied away from his failures. This is another admirable part of Rivera. He had tried. He had been beaten. He moved on to the next challenge. “If I was perfect,” he said once, “I would not be a baseball pitcher.” 

* * *

1990s: Michael Jordan. Perfect fit. He was thrilling and clutch and commercial and you could buy his shoes. He lived his private pain publicly, not by choice. He played basketball better than it had ever been played before. After his father was murdered, he quit basketball and tried to play baseball. He was publicly mocked for it. He returned to basketball with more of an edge, and he kept playing with a fury long after his body had started to wilt. Rumors swirled around him constantly. He played through.

* * *

People will always argue about the baseball greatness of Mariano Rivera. Much of the argument depends on the way you view baseball. If you view the ninth inning as a bomb that only the nerviest and most extraordinary people can defuse, then you probably see Rivera as an all-time great. If you view the ninth inning as just another inning, and view closers as specialists not unlike punters, then you might not see him as an all-time great. And there’s a lot of room in between.

But I do wonder if this misses the real story. How does someone close games in New York for 16 years and come out of it adored? How does someone who wears nothing but Yankees pinstripes his entire career -- can you even picture Mariano Rivera without his Yankees cap on? -- get honored at Fenway Park? How does someone in today’s Twittery, bloggy, First Take, Facebook, chat board, talk radio, GIF-infused world come out of a long career as universally beloved? 

See, even people who loathe Mariano Rivera love him.

Scandal? Not a hint of it. Gossip? Never heard any. Embarrassing moments? Didn’t happen. Crisis manager Dan McGinn tells his clients: Biggest, best, most, first.  He says that when you are one of those things, you are in the crosshairs, you are in constant danger of a significant fall. Mariano Rivera was all of those things. The biggest moments. The best closer. The most saves. The first option. And he comes out of it all immaculate, a sports legend. The perfect athlete of our time.

* * *

2000s: Mariano Rivera. A perfect fit. We are saturated with sports. We are saturated with entertainment. We are saturated with opinions. People go to crazy extremes to be noticed. They twerk. They bloviate. They outrage.

And, funny, when I think of Rivera, I think of a nothing game in Kansas City in 2004. 

Sure, I was there for Rivera’s World Series brilliance, for much of his postseason excellence. I was there when he compelled Mike Piazza to fly out and knocked out the Mets in the 2000 World Series, and I was there a year later when he gave up the game in Arizona, and I was there when he pitched the last inning and two-thirds to finish off Philadelphia in 2009.

Still, somehow, the memory that lingers is of a meaningless game in Kansas City. The Royals were terrible, the Yankees were dominant, and New York led, 3-0, going into the ninth inning. It almost seemed a waste to use Rivera – like bringing out Meryl Streep for an elementary school play in Poughkeepsie –- but Yankees manager Joe Torre did anyway. Rivera grazed Ken Harvey with the second pitch he threw. 

Rivera threw five more pitches in the game. That’s all. The first three struck out Calvin Pickering. The second pitch he threw to Desi Relaford turned into a double play grounder. It was so easy, so impossibly easy. Just about anybody could have finished off the Royals that day. But somehow, Rivera did in a way that, almost 10 years later, I still remember.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski