‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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When Mariano Rivera enters a game, opposing batters know exactly what is coming. In this modern era of specialized scouting where a weakness of any player can be exploited, there is yet to be anyone who can claim to have figured out the Yankees’ famed closer.
As the bullpen gates open, the Yankee Stadium PA system blares Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and a confident, “cool as a cucumber” Rivera toes the rubber. His opponent steps into the batter’s box, knowing well what to expect when number 42 gazes upon him. There isn’t any funky delivery, high-effort arm action or constant changing of throwing angles that many closers exhibit. Rivera simply delivers a steady diet of 92-94 mile per hour cut fastballs that no man is able to master.
He could practically approach an opposing hitter with the challenge, “I’m throwing you three consecutive cutters that will break in toward left-handers. If you can get a piece of it, I’ll let you rename it.” Unlike the fictional Ricky Vaughn in Major League II, Mariano’s trademark pitch is the real life ‘eliminator’ of the major leagues’ best. In further contrast to Vaughn and the stereotype of most actual closers, Rivera doesn’t need to put in maximum effort to rack up strikeouts. With an almost effortless motion, he deceives those who stand in his way by painting the corners of his canvas like Claude Monet.
The beauty of his unique pitch is that it is nearly impossible for batters to connect with the sweet spot of their lumber. A majority flail aimlessly at the hand of his mighty cutter, while the most experienced hitters that are fortunate enough to make contact are reduced to spraying weak dribblers. An opposing right-hander usually connects with nothing but air as the pitch breaks away and into the catcher’s mitt. Lefties have even less of a chance of success as the pitch is indistinguishable from a standard fastball yet it has a break similar to a slider that commonly results in sawed-off bats and pathetic-looking checked swing punch-outs.
What some may not be aware of is that Rivera isn’t the first celebrated one-pitch hero in baseball history. Known as “The Curve-less Wonder,” Al Orth is said to have never thrown a curveball by the account of the most reputable baseball historians.
Orth finished his fifteen-year career with the predecessor of our modern day Yankees, the New York Highlanders in 1909. At the present day site of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, visitors are able to stand where home plate was located at the Highlanders’ Hilltop Park. It was there that ‘Dead-ball Era’ legends like Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Nap Lajoie failed to master Orth’s fastball.
Baseball of course, has changed drastically since the bygone era that Orth competed in. Hitters of today have more advantages than ever thanks to the aforementioned specialized scouting along with computer tracking of pitcher tendencies and weight training. The tools of game have evolved with innovations like a tightly-wound ‘juiced ball’ and technology used to create lightweight bats that increase bat speed. Given the factors of present day baseball, there isn’t a logical explanation on how Mariano is able to dominate his trade like few hurlers have in history.
The most improbable aspect of Rivera’s career is his ability to defy age.
At 41, he shows zero sign of regression unlike the remaining members of ‘The Core Four,’ Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada whose skills have noticeably diminished. Like a vintage wine, Mariano appears to get better with age. His 2011 earned run average currently stands at 1.71 and with every passing year, he lowers his career average of 2.22. He is within 30 saves of surpassing Trevor Hoffman as baseball’s all-time saves leader and will likely do so this season.
Yesterday, Rivera became the only pitcher in major league history to make 1,000 appearances with a single team. In an era where even the best relievers make multiple stops during their careers, he has done it all wearing one uniform. Rivera continues to be an anomaly of modern baseball in so many ways. Some may call it heresy for me to say it but Mariano might be the greatest baseball player of all-time. Babe Ruth never had to face contemporary pitching or compete against athletes of color, Ted Williams was a notoriously poor fielder and Willie Mays fell victim to age.
Like Monet, Pablo Picasso and Leonardo Da Vinci, Rivera is not just a one-of-a-kind artist of his time period but in all of history. You cannot replicate the characteristics of a Picasso, hang it on a wall and pass it off as the work of the legendary Spaniard. Others have tried to copy Rivera’s cutter but none can match the innovator. It is a unique gift bestowed upon him by the baseball Gods.
While you can argue between Ruth, Williams and Mays or Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux, Rivera simply has no rival at his position. He is truly an artist beyond compare. One day I’ll have the pleasure of telling my grandchildren that I was lucky enough to watch the most peerless talent in major league baseball history.
Has Mariano Rivera earned the right to be considered an all-time legend of the game? Chime in below or send Sean a tweet @HartyLFC.