By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — He doesn’t even look like he’s aged.
For 17 seasons Mariano Rivera has put together a body of work that is unrivaled yet has been done in such a distinguished manner you almost forget he’s a New York sports icon.
Check that. Mo’s really an icon, period. The fact that he plays baseball in the greatest city in the world for the most recognized and successful sports franchise in the world is really immaterial because something tells me he’d be exceptional at anything he tried.
Imagine Mariano the astronaut or Mariano the politician or even Mariano the playwright. The guy would still somehow have his name affixed with the acronym G.O.A.T., because there is nothing about Rivera that suggests he wouldn’t work at any craft so diligently for as long as it would take to earn the lofty status as “the greatest to ever …”
People like to kill Bobby Valentine because over the years his antics as a manager wore thin. He never won a championship so there was no way to excuse his often bizarre behavior and words. He’s got a new gig now, working as an analyst for ESPN and I’m not going to sit here and say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to the game, but there are many people out there who don’t like the fact that he’s been given an awfully large microphone to spew his thoughts on why things occur in baseball the way they do.
But the fact remains Valentine, regardless of his reputation as being a bit out there, is about as brilliant and colorful a baseball mind as you will find. And during the broadcast of the Rangers-Yankees game on Sunday night he stated something rather apropos.
Valentine and Orel Hershiser, another guy who knows an awful lot about baseball, were breaking down the nuances of why Rivera has basically dominated the sport for seemingly ever with one weapon. They diagrammed and telestrated the art of the cut fastball as only Rivera throws it. They described in great detail how Rivera can basically make it do anything he wants it to do whenever he wants it done. He can start it down the middle against lefties so it makes a left turn at Albuquerque in on the hands. He can throw it at the left hip so it acts like a boomerang against righties. He can still go up the ladder with ferocity and out of the zone with cunning purpose. The two baseball minds basically broke down the greatness of Rivera in a couple of minutes.
Valentine then spoke gospel, broke off into a sort of soliloquy that may have annoyed a few hundred thousand people, but at the end of the day is the truth. He said (I’m summarizing here) Rivera is the single reason why the Yankees are the winning juggernaut they are, why they have basically terrorized baseball to the tune of five world championships and 15 postseason appearances in the past 16 seasons. Bobby V. made it clear the Yankees are who they are not because of the prowess of another New York sports icon — No. 2, Derek Jeter.
Now that debate could be endless. It could be like trying to argue politics or religion. But in the legislative body or prayer group that is New York baseball it would be easier to just thank our elected officials or leaders of our respective flocks for having the wherewithal for acquiring both of these ballplayers and honing them for as long as it has taken to make them into the stars they have become and continue to be.
Basic reasoning suggests it’s impossible to compare the importance of a daily position player to that of a pitcher who may appear for one or perhaps two innings a handful of times a week. Jeter is under constant scrutiny and has met the constantly high expectations of fans and media for ages. He has done everything you’d ever expect from a star athelete and thensome. His regular season body of work alone would almost certainly get him into the Hall of Fame, let alone the fact that he will join the 3,000-hit club before summer officially starts. And, of course, his prowess as a postseason performer is that of legend.
But there will be other players with the statistics of a Jeter. There may not be the same type of perennial winner and clutch performer, but when the dust settles Jeter will be on a list — and probably well down that list — of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game.
Rivera, on the other hand, has been the one constant in a world of utter madness. Like Jeter he’s put together a resume that is the standard for all that will come after he decides to finally hang up his spikes. As of today he needs 36 more saves to eclipse Trevor Hoffman’s all-time record of 601, and considering the pace that he’s on, having closed out seven of the Yankees’ AL East-leading nine wins to this point, there’s no reason to believe he won’t break the record sooner rather than later.
But what makes Rivera such an anomaly is the fact that he’s reinvented how to play his position. From now on every single closer who ever tries to get the final three outs of a game will be compared to the brilliance of No. 42 in pinstripes. For what will likely end up being a two-decade career in the bigs, Rivera has made a nine-inning game an eight-inning game, or a seven-inning game depending on the situation. He’s pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA over a full season 10 times and counting. He’s 41 years old and hasn’t allowed a run — earned or otherwise — this season. He’s frustrated hundreds of players, coaches and managers and thousands of opposing fans, even though they’ve had ample time to study him and come up with some kind of game plan.
There won’t be another Rivera. There can’t be another Rivera. He’s simply as good as it will get. Sure, there will be those rare days when the cutter won’t cut and he’ll get knocked around, but, really, knowing all you know would you expect that to become the norm? I don’t care if his velocity drops off to 86 or 87. You’d be nuts to think he wouldn’t adapt. He’s a physical specimen at all of 180 or so pounds. He has perfect form, a perfect delivery and has never had arm problems for those very reasons.
But more than anything else, Rivera is a tactician. Don’t think for a second he doesn’t know he doesn’t have the giddy-up on the fastball anymore. He knew that a couple of years ago. Instead, he worked and worked and worked some more to adapt, to find a way to do more with less. He’s simply one of a kind.
And don’t ever even contemplate the notion of the Yankees pushing this man out the door. Mo will go when Mo wants to go.
And not a second before.
Hearing Metallica never gets old, and neither does “The Sandman” himself.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Do you agree with Jeff’s stance on Mariano? What’s your favorite Rivera moment? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.