Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Days Of Wine And Closers

The bottom of the 8th inning ends and in unison the crowd rises to its feet. It's a one or two run game and everyone in attendance knows who is about to enter the game. In fact, some fans might have been hoping the New York Yankees didn't score any additional runs to ensure his appearance. The bullpen door opens, "Enter Sandman" blares from the loud speakers, and Mariano Rivera emerges from beyond the outfield wall and jogs to the pitcher's mound. The crowd roars its approval and stays on its feet, drowning out the name of the first batter of the inning.

It's an experience that has been repeated hundreds of times over the last 17 years, and sadly, may not be repeated past the 2012 season. The day has to come eventually, but it's becoming clearer by the day that the upcoming season will likely be the last in the Major Leagues for the greatest reliever of all time. Opponents will not be sad to see him go. Because even at age 42 and a pitch that everyone knows is coming, Mariano Rivera is still nearly automatic.

Rivera is a finesse pitcher with a wild man's passion and firepower. He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, the cutter doesn't bite quite as much as it did, but it still breaks bats at an alarming rate to this day. His pitches come effortlessly, fluidly. There's no out of control body movement, no wasted energy. A simple delivery leaving him in perfect position to field anything he can get his glove on. There's no intimidating glare at the batter, no bizarre facial hair, no wild fist pumps or spasmodic dances after strikeouts, and no showing up of opponents. Mariano Rivera is as perfect a ball player as you will ever find, both on and off the field.

I can't honestly say that I remember the exact "a-ha" moment when I knew that Rivera was someone to be reckoned with. I do remember a starting pitcher early in the 1995 season who didn't seem like he was anything special and thought nothing of it when he was sent back to the minor leagues. But when the same player returned later in the year, he had been transformed into a strikeout throwing, bat-eating machine. He stood out in the Yankees first post-season appearance in 14 years that Fall and perhaps if Buck Showalter had stayed with him a little longer in Game 5 of the ALDS, the Yankees may have had advanced to the next round.

Rivera then changed the complexion of the game in 1996. The Yankees' starting pitchers only needed to go six innings, sometimes even just five, before Rivera threw 2-3 innings as a setup man to closer John Wetteland. The game had been shortened and that October the Yankees had their first championship in 18 years. That off-season the Yankees decided to let Wettleland walk; they had their closer of the future, and present, set to go. There were ups and downs as Rivera learned the role, most notably when he watched Sandy Alomar Jr.'s home run shorten the Yankees 1997 post-season run. But then he became invincible, un-hittable, and started to pave the road to the Hall of Fame.

From 1998 - 2000 he merely had to throw his glove on the field and the other team was finished. For that matter, the Yankees opponents only needed to see Rivera warm up in the pen and they were already psychologically beaten. Then "Enter Sandman" played, causing a tangible chill to race up and down one's spine, and the game was over in a matter of minutes.

There have been some bumps and bruises since then- the 2001 World Series meltdown, the 2004 ALCS, when Rivera had the audacity to struggle against the Boston Red Sox. (Never mind that the Yankees would not have won the 2003 ALCS without his three scoreless innings against Boston.) But, as he always has done in his career, Rivera bounced back from adversity. There he was on the mound in 2009, 13 years after his first ring, picking up his 5th piece of jewelry as the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

Rivera signed a new three year deal during the ensuing off-season, a deal that ends after what Rivera hopes is a long run this coming October. And then....it's almost impossible to even conceive of number 42 (the last to wear the number) not being out on the mound breaking bats, blowing away hitters, and getting the ball from his catcher after a game ending strikeout.

There will never be another Mariano Rivera, the greatest pitcher in post-season play, so remember every appearance this season. Whether it's a 1-2-3 9th inning, mop up duty, or a blown save, he will still be the greatest reliever of all time. And an even better person.

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