By Steve Silverman
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The greatness of Mariano Rivera was on display in front of the baseball world last night and he was received with universal admiration and respect.
No surprise there. Mo has always conducted himself with grace and dignity while performing at such a high level that he is universally acclaimed as the best closer in baseball history.
We are not going to make a case for Rivera as one of the game’s all-time greats and a future Hall of Famer – although relievers have not often been celebrated with election to the shrine – because it has already been made.
Rivera is not just a great baseball player, he is the best at his position by a significant margin. His numbers say that he has saved 638 regular-season and 42 postseason games, but those numbers don’t explain his dominance.
He has peers, but they are not baseball players. What other player can you point to and say he was definitively the greatest center fielder, third baseman or catcher in baseball history and get the rest of the baseball world to bow down and venerate as it does for Rivera?
Certainly not center field, where backers of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio would all argue vehemently.
Catcher? Yankee fans can make a grand case for Yogi Berra, but was he better than Johnny Bench?
Even right field is a difficult call. Babe Ruth was almost certainly the greatest player of all-time, but what do you say to Henry Aaron or Roberto Clemente supporters?
Rivera’s peers come from the other major sports. They are, in no particular order, Jerry Rice, Bobby Orr and Michael Jordan.
Rice is to the wide receiver position what Rivera is to the closer role. Like Rivera, Rice’s approach to the position was thorough and meticulous. There was an overwhelming consistency to Rice’s production and all-out play.
In a violent game, Rice played with grace and dignity. He produced receptions, yardage and touchdowns by the boatload. Rice caught 1,549 balls for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns, and it didn’t matter if he was going up against a superior opponent or an average one. He was always prepared and always played to his maximum ability.
Orr was the best defenseman who ever played hockey. The numbers were incredible as he scored 915 points in 657 games and he had six straight seasons with 100 or more points.
Some half-hearted arguments can be made for Nicklas Lidstrom, Denis Potvin or Larry Robinson, but they can only be spouted because Orr’s brilliant career was cut short by injury.
Had that not happened, Orr would almost universally be recognized as the greatest player ever. His remarkable skating speed, style, instincts for the game and tremendous courage gave him an advantage over every other defenseman.
Orr’s ability changed the way the game was played. Defensemen rarely carried the puck in the offensive zone. Orr did it because he was born to it.
Jordan has no peer among shooting guards. Many will make the argument that he is the greatest player ever, and it’s a solid point. But when it comes to scoring from the guard position, nobody could match Jordan. He averaged 30.1 points per game in his career, shot 49.7 percent and won 10 NBA scoring titles.
Perhaps the most gifted player ever, athleticism was not even Jordan’s best characteristic. His fire and competitiveness simply would not allow him to lose. His Chicago Bulls won six championships in eight years, and if he had not taken two years off to play baseball, who knows how many titles the Bulls would have won?
Rice, Orr and Jordan are Rivera’s peers. It’s an elite class, and there are no new members on the horizon.
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