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Keidel: The Immortal Mariano — The Greatest Yankee Since Babe Ruth

Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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He will hold the perfunctory press conference to announce the inevitable: that he’s human, despite all evidence to the contrary. And since he’s performed so splendidly so silently, we’ve become numb to his genius.

Mariano Rivera will not pitch for the Yankees someday, and it seems that day will be 2014, when he will leave the largest chasm in the history of team sports, a massive chip in the once-glittering Yankee baseball diamond.

Here’s yet another semantic salutation to the immortal Rivera, to whom no superlative suitably applies. Sweeny Murti and I agree that Mo is the best Yankee since Babe Ruth. Even if we’re wrong, that’s the kind of stratospheric company he keeps when a man rises from mortal to mythology. They will talk about Rivera 100 years from now the way we talk about Ruth, with a reverent, mysterious, almost religious tone.

Considering the transient nature of the position — the eternal turnstile of rotating closers in which five good years is practically iconic — Rivera has owned the sport for over 15 years with one pitch. One pitch, which has sawed a forest of bats in half, leaving befuddled batters trotting to first with a splintered knob in his fist.

He’s an impossible hybrid of redundant but regal, so dominant sans the histrionics, in a time when celebrity and celebration are confused with accomplishment. The eternal loop of highlights, of groin-grabbing dunks and choreographed touchdown dances, have become the emblem of contemporary narcissism, where the team-first superstar has gone the way of the Toucan.  The only person possibly of his mold is Tim Duncan, who has been equally boring and brilliant in basketball. Winning is the only tonic they drink, not the Kool-Aid of Carmelo Anthony, the superficial superstar whose trophies never bear the team’s name.

With his otherworldly deeds under brown leaves, Rivera became the closer nonpareil. This morning I heard ESPN’s Mike Greenberg say that more men have walked the moon (12) than scored an earned run on Rivera in October (11). And his regular season stats are nearly as impressive. Indeed, he has saved over 600 games, which could become as distant to his peers as Cy Young’s 511 wins are to starters.

I spent a half-hour alone with Rivera in the Yankees’ dugout. It’s probably the most profound moment of my life. Only twice in my life have I been next to palpable greatness — once with Muhammad Ali and the with Rivera. The former would be the first to tell you how great he was, while the latter loathes attention. But in both cases, words can’t properly convey their eminence among vastly ordinary people, yours truly included.

Buster Olney, the former Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times, said it best: “There is more separation between Rivera and the next best relief pitcher than there is for any player at any position in any sport. Is Montana that much better than Unitas? Is Jim Brown all that much better than Walter Payton? Koufax or Gibson? Russell or Chamberlain?”

Rivera is a monolith in the Michael Jordan vein. But he doesn’t tell you he is. And he walks and talks humbly, in his hopelessly thick Panamanian accent, belying his intelligence and time in America. He speaks of himself only in relation to his team, his family and his god. There are no me-first mantras, no third-person monologues, no big endorsement deals, no signature celebration — only singular accomplishment. Reaching for the right phrase to capture Rivera is as impossible as putting good wood on his perfectly-placed cutter.

We love campy monikers like “Core Four” and such. And while three of them are still playing, there has been only one essential member of the Yankee dynasty, without whom several surefire Hall of Famers may not have been. He will never say it, so we must. Ironically, Rivera’s swan song will be sung to a tone-deaf crowd of martini-swilling, cell phone-cackling crowd of faux fans. It will be in a sterile stadium, surrounded by a dearth of decent talent for the first time in his career, which should make us savor his splendor even more.

And thus the best pitcher of this generation should be summarized by the greatest writer of any generation.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

Do you agree with Keidel that Mariano is the greatest Yankee since the Babe? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…