Magnificence needs some kind of context or else it can be impossible to recognize. Superman, for instance, isn’t anything special on his own planet -- everyone there has his powers. He needed a planet of earthbound weaklings without the ability to see through walls to become super.
This is especially true in politics and sports. Jackie Robinson needed a chance against the best baseball players to demonstrate his brilliance. Barry Sanders needed a league where running backs couldn’t spin defenders into the ground on demand to illustrate his singular genius for football. LeBron James is amazing because there are few 6-foot-8 human beings as strong as him, and none of them can pass and score and defend and rebound the way he can.
All this is obvious, of course, but Tuesday I found myself thinking about Mariano Rivera again. This is the Great Mariano’s last season, so there are countless eulogies and lyric poems still to come. But this thought was a little bit different. This thought came with the news the Chicago Cubs designated closer Carlos Marmol for assignment.
Carlos Marmol was an all-but-unhittable pitcher for the Cubs just three or four years ago. In 2010, the league hit .147 against him. The league slugged .199 against him. The league hit one home run off him. He struck out 138 batters in 77 innings. These simply aren’t human numbers. They are legendary stuff.
Marmol’s stuff was so ridiculously nasty – 95-mph fastball, ridiculous slider -- that your only real hope was that he might walk you. Control was Marmol’s kryptonite. But getting a hit? Forget it. The league hit .169 against him in 2007, .137 the next year, .170 the next … Marmol was a force of nature.
And then … he wasn’t. This is how it goes with relievers and gunfighters. They show up at High Noon, under a big yellow sun, and they wear that shiny sheriff’s badge, and they draw first and best for a while, and everybody loves them and makes them homemade apple pie for keeping the peace. But sooner or later – usually sooner – time runs out. The hand begins to shake almost imperceptibly. They blow out a shoulder. They feel a twinge in the elbow. They lose the strike zone. They can’t let go of a loss. And when time runs out, things turn fast and ugly.
Chicago fans, many of them, began to DESPISE Marmol as he stopped getting outs. It’s personal when a closer loses it. Cubs fans created the We Hate Carlos Marmol Facebook page (130 members!). They rushed to radio stations to scream about him. They went to the ballpark to boo him. They went to chat boards to beg ownership to stop him from pitching again.
And when the Cubs finally rid themselves of Carlos Marmol, there were cheers – Cubs announcer Len Kasper heard people say that it was a moment of celebration on par with the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup.
But here’s the thing: This is the TYPICAL story when it comes to closers, not some crazy exception. Eric Gagne was absurdly unhittable, as dominant a reliever as there has ever been, a Cy Young Award winner, and five years later -- after being implicated for steroid use in the Mitchell Report and blowing out his elbow -- he was kicking around for the Quebec Capitales of Can-Am League.
Tom Gordon saved 46 games for Boston in 1999, was terrible and hurt the next year, out of baseball the next, and he played for six different teams the rest of his career. Francisco Rodriguez set a major league record with 62 saves, signed an enormous deal with the New York Mets, and his game dropped dramatically, less than three years later the Mets dumped him on Milwaukee where he pitches in relative obscurity (so far this year, in limited innings, he’s been terrific again).
Up and down, back and forth, in 1996 and '97, Ricky Botallico saved 34 games and was a good pitcher – in 2000, he was the closer for the Kansas City Royals and so despised that at an event with Bob Costas and Royals owner David Glass, I asked what they thought was causing the amazing climb in home runs around the league. “Ricky Botallico!” someone yelled from the audience.
Steve Bedrosion won the Cy Young Award as a closer … he was being booed two years later.
Mark Davis won the Cy Young Award as a closer … he was unpitchable the very next season after he signed a big deal with Kansas City.
Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young Award and MVP as a closer … his ERA for the rest of his career was 4.15.
No, wait, let’s do a few more. Jose Mesa was ridiculously good for the 1995 Cleveland Indians, 46 saves, a 1.13 ERA, second in the Cy Young voting, fourth in the MVP voting. Two years later he blew World Series Game 7, went into the pantheon of Cleveland sports goats, and he played for six teams the rest of his career with a 4.24 ERA over 10 seasons.
Brad Lidge finished all 41 save opportunities he had in 2009 – an amazing year, a 1.95 ERA, fourth in the Cy voting, eighth in the MVP – and the very next year he was 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA.*
*Now that I’m looking at this, a disproportionate number of these pitchers seem to be Philadelphia Phillies.
Bobby Thigpen – 57 saves in 1991, holding on for dear life in 1993, out of baseball in 1994.
Rod Beck – 51 saves in 1998, ineffective and traded the next, struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness the rest of his career.
The sad truth is we could do this all day. Mike Williams? Billy Koch? Joe Borowski? Antonio Alfonseca? Keith Foulke? Closer greatness is a short term investment. The arm just isn’t built for maximum velocity in pressure inning after pressure inning. The nerves aren’t designed for longevity. Every closer has an expiration date, and it is usually sooner than you think.
And then there’s Mariano Rivera.
He never won a Cy Young, never won an MVP, and you could argue that he never quite deserved either. He probably does not have one of the ten best seasons ever for a closer. That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but he never had the sub 1.00 ERA like Dennis Eckersley (1990) or Jonathan Papelbon (2006), he never threw 120 innings like Bruce Sutter or Dan Quisenberry, he never struck out 15 batters per nine innings like Craig Kimbrel or Billy Wagner.
What he did – and what you need this kind of context to fully appreciate – was be great and then great again and then great again and then great again. What he did was:
Dominate from 1997 to 2002, in the Steroid Era (238 saves, 2.25 ERA, 3 to 1 strikeout to walk).
Then dominate from 2003 to 2008 in the Apology Era (239 saves, 1.88 ERA, 5 to 1 strikeout to walk).
Then dominate from 2009 to present in the Looking For People to Punish Era (152 saves, 1.81 ERA, 5 to 1 strikeout to walk).
If ever a pitcher was set up for the Carlos Marmol finish, it was Rivera. He was a failed starter who the Yankees almost traded before putting him in the bullpen. He was named closer at age 27 in the city that never sleeps or forgives blown saves, on a team where one bad pitch can make you a tabloid backpage cover model, and one bad week can move you to the front cover.
And, no, I’m not normally a fan of the “It’s tougher to play in New York” theory – try playing in the Kansas City August, 30 games out, with a few thousand diehards sitting sadly in the stands – but I do think Rivera’s job these last 16 years has a particular pressure. In New York – and I love the place for it -- there’s a lot of tension. A blown save can cause mass hysteria, like the final scene of Ghostbusters.
Look: Trevor Hoffman showed marvelous consistency in San Diego – not Rivera-level consistency*, but marvelous – and that’s great, but I do think San Diego is different. People surf in San Diego, they tan in San Diego, they golf, they walk on the beach and bike on mountains, they have pretty good priorities out there. In San Diego, seriously, what’s a blown save between friends.
*Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, I think. He was a truly great pitcher. But it does baffle me when anyone says that Hoffman was BETTER than Rivera. It’s not a fair fight. There are countless ways you can measure this from ERA (Rivera 2.20, Hoffman 2.87) to ERA+ (Rivera 207, Hoffman 141), to strikeout-to-walk ratio (Rivera 4.05 to 1, Hoffman 3.69 to 1), to home runs per nine innings (Rivera 0.5; Hoffman 0.8) to, well, anything. Hoffman’s numbers, by the way, are fantastic. They are just not as good as Rivera’s. I don’t know what Wins Above Replacement really means for relievers. But Rivera had 11 seasons with a 3.0 or better WAR. Hoffman had three.
Rivera faced intense pressure night after night – every year was a pennant race, every game was a full house, and in the world of New York every save seemed important on a global scale. But year after year – and every year – Rivera threw that cutter, and the baseball seemed alive and in self-preservation mode, and his ERA is the lowest for any pitcher with 1,000 innings since the end of Deadball, so is his WHIP, and his 207 ERA+ is more than 50 points higher than Pedro Martinez or anyone else ever including the Deadball Era pitchers.
He has been Superman, everybody knows that, but it comes into deeper focus and full color when you compare him to the earthbound closers. Carlos Marmol was a terrific reliever. In 2010, he might have been even better than Mariano Rivera. But three years later, on the day that Marmol was released to Chicago cheers, Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth inning, 10 strikes in 11 pitches, dropping his ERA to 1.55. And the Yankees, of course, won it with a walkoff homer in the bottom of the inning.