By Jason Keidel
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An extraordinary thing happened during an ordinary game.
Perhaps for the only time in history, a baseball player was paraded out to the mound, alone, so that he may be worshiped, to the sounds and celebration perhaps only known to a Caesar.
It didn’t happen for Jim Brown. It didn’t happen for Michael Jordan. It didn’t happen for Willie Mays or Ted Williams. It won’t happen for Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. It only happens for the only and final No. 42.
To say Rivera was worshiped at the All-Star Game could be an overstatement. But barely. Clearly, his peers — well, he has none, so we call them colleagues — bowed from the dugout. These are the best players on Earth, many of whom will reach the Hall of Fame. Half were from the American League and half from the National League. But even they realized that they weren’t in his league.
The ritual you saw will never be seen again. Rivera is so much better than his competitors that it is literally laughable.
His 638 saves are at least 300 more than the next active pitcher. The only pitcher in his twenties with 200 saves, Huston Street, is 400 behind Rivera. (Street turns 30 in two weeks.)
Rivera’s 42 playoff saves are more than double the next in line — Brad Lidge has 18 — and no active reliever is within 30 postseason saves. His 0.70 ERA in October is the lowest in history, for any pitcher of any vintage.
Speaking of October, Rivera has thrown 141 innings in the fall, and has surrendered two home runs.
The stats must speak because he’s perhaps the only athlete in American history to whom no superlative suitably applies. Neither Daniel Webster nor William Shakespeare conjured a word that frames his ability or his nobility. If possible, he’s an even better person.
People knocked the Mets for paying tribute to Rivera. Silly. And I was shocked to hear WFAN co-hosts Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts complain about the timing and the fact that Jim Leyland orchestrated the worldwide, televised group hug in the eighth inning, rather than his customary ninth. The inning is incidental. The stage is what mattered. The isolation and admiration, the solitary salutation, were perfect.
The pitcher nonpareil, the high priest of the ninth inning, seems to enjoy every pitch and stitch of his curtain call. It helps that he’s having his best season in years.
Stats define baseball players. Yet Rivera’s age, 43, doesn’t measure his attitude, his gratitude or his cutter, which is still shredding bats and sending the bewildered batter trotting to first with a splintered knob in his fist.
Can anyone think of another tribute like this? Can anyone think of another athlete so universally cherished, respected or revered? Even the most rabid Red Sox devotee parks his pinstripe contempt when the final 42 is summoned. The All-Star Game italicized the unprecedented, awestruck reverence with which he is regarded by even the greatest and youngest baseball stars.
Not even the shadow of steroids has dimmed his spotless resume. He has been wafer-thin his entire career. And there has been no tangible dip in his production, unlike Roger Clemens, who came this close to “misremembering” his way into an orange jumpsuit.
There has been no scent of malfeasance. No rumors of drinking, drugging or infidelity. No hint of hubris. Just a man and a baseball. Just one pitch thrown with unprecedented potency for 18 years — which even the most juiced-up golems never solved during the apex and vortex of the steroid era. There is an almost biblical irony that Rivera, almost anorexic in frame, has the game to befuddle these behemoths for eternity. He was just a man.
Just a man. A mortal.
Even if he is immortal.
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