By Jason Keidel
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One grand for the grandest.

Mariano Rivera, the laconic, iconic closer nonpareil, pitched his 1,000th game in a Yankees uniform, something no other pitcher has done for another team. Normally such bookmarks reflect age and low wage, a specialist in the Orosco vein, plucked from the pen to steal an out every third game. It shouldn’t, couldn’t refer to a reliever who is still the best in baseball.

“You have to be old to do that,” Rivera said of his record after the game. “You’ve got to have the right combination, I guess, an organization willing to keep you around and you doing your job.”

And this talent and tranquility is what makes it possible, and his humility while he humiliates the opposition. Watch Rivera wince at the first mention of personal achievement. Watch Rivera throw one pitch for fifteen years and still splinter bats, while the befuddled batter trots to first with a knob in his fist.

David Justice, when he played here, said the Braves would have won several World Series in the 1990s had the Braves procured better relief pitching. I’ll say it for him: the difference between Joe Torre and Bobby Cox is Mariano Rivera.

Buster Olney, former Yankees beat reporter for the New York Times, said there’s more separation between Rivera and the next best reliever than there is for any other player at any other position in any sport. I won’t argue. Indeed, Sweeny Murti and I are simpatico in stating that Rivera is the greatest Yankee since Babe Ruth. I don’t even think the assertion can be questioned.

Much is made (if not overplayed) about the Core Four. It’s a charming tale of friendship and good fortune. But the Yankees could easily have won their titles without any one member of the quartet. Except Rivera. The Cour Four won just one title without Paul O’Neil, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, and the conga line of fine arms in the rotation (El Duque, Cone, Wells, Clements, etc.). Jeter, Pettitte, and Posada, though wonderful performers, were never even the best at their positions. No, it is Mo who matters.

He jogs to the mound to Metallica, somewhat incongruous for the pastoral pitcher who pitches the Gospel on and off the rubber. After Rivera, the calmest man in the in the ballpark is the manager. For fifteen years two Joes walked toward the bump, tapping his right arm while all other skippers reach for the Rolaids.

Just look across town. The Mets have had a fine phalanx of relief pitchers, from John Franco to Billy Wagner. Yet even when they get the next best closer, Francisco Rodriguez goes Kimbo Slice on his fiancée’s father in the Family Room, spending a night in a Citi Field cell last season.

And can you imagine Rivera pulling a Posada? In an epoch of vanity, vulgarity, and vitriol, Rivera treats his team and town with eternal respect. Rivera, along with Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux, was an emblem of on-field honesty, making a trio small men who mastered the needle-wielding behemoths of their time.

Mariano Rivera and I were born a month apart. And while I like to think I’m in my vocational prime, Rivera should have been put to pasture five years ago. A shame his historic appearance didn’t end in a save. But there will be many more. More than we should expect, or deserve.

It is fitting that Mariano is the final No. 42, a number retired by baseball to honor perhaps the most important player in baseball history, and finally retired by the only man with the dignity and decency to do Jackie Robinson justice.

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Is Mariano the greatest Yankee since Babe Ruth? Let Keidel know in the comments below…

Comments (18)
  1. KT says:

    Exceptionally well written, Jason. I am a Mets fan, but you have once more made me appreciate not only a great Yankee, but a fine gentleman. I recall his chats with kids near the bullpen often during games. A class act is Mariano.

  2. TooTall says:

    I know Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball”, but I have been known to choke up when I hear “Enter Sandman” and see Mo jogging out to the mound, especially if the game’s on the line. And if I’m at the stadium and hear those first few guitar chords, the waterworks really begin. I just feel like I’m witnessing baseball history every time he comes in the game. Mo’s an icon, an immortal. I feel sorry for younger fans who won’t get to see him play. (Before you guys start throwing around the “P” word, I am a woman).

    1. JK says:

      I was about to toss the “P” word your way – perfectionist. 😉

  3. Scott says:

    I’ve been to scores of Yankee games, if not hundreds since my first one as a 5 year old in 1978. There have been good and great players in the 30+ years since, HOF players etc, but not a one elicits the feeling you get when that music starts and he begins that leisurely jog to the mound, pops the mitt a few times and the batter shakes his head, knnowing whats coming, and knowing he’ll be back in the dugout with half a bat. I’ve seen hundreds of ball players but none ever gave me a shiver just by stepping on the field except Mo.

    1. JK says:

      Very well put, Scott. Combine his talent with his temperament and you have an unprecedented player and person. We truly won’t see his likeness again.

  4. Joe says:

    Mariano is the greatest but without Jeter in those early days, I don’t think the Yanks would have won the first 4….maybe 2 or even 3, but Jeter was the best in the clutch as far as hitting goes.

    1. JK says:

      No doubt Jeter is clutch, Joe. I merely assert that Mo is most important. I don’t think the objective observer disagrees. But any hint of an honest critique of Jeter drives his fans through the proverbial roof. If you don’t deify Derek with every breath, you’re somehow disrespecting him. I can’t win with them.

  5. Tara Roebke Barbato says:

    Stunnigly done. Although it is common for sports icons to evoke emmotions in their fans, as is evident through the myriad of comments you receive on your blogs, but for me, Mo has a magic like no other. Jason, you capture that magic in this column beautifullly. I am not shamed to admit I had a few emmotional tears for this article. Kudos. You never cease to amaze or dissapoint me.

    1. Tara Roebke Barbato says:

      I meant and never dissapoint me! Sorry for the typing error… Thats what happens when we women get emmotional!

      1. JK says:

        Men get emotional too, ma’am. No worries. But I’m sorry I always disappoint you!. Heh.

  6. mike says:

    It’s become the style to heap praise on Mariano Rivera while dissing the rest of the core 4, frankly because he’s still at the top of his game and the others are not. But anyone who thinks that the Yanks would have won 5 titles without Jeter just doesn’t know baseball or what actually happened in 96-00 or 2009. By the same token, it’s ridiculous to think that the Yanks couldn’t have won at least some of their titles with another closer. Why do people think it shows how much they admire one player to downgrade another player, especially where as in this case it is totally obvious that both were necessary for the team’s full success.

    1. JK says:

      It’s not a matter of dissing, Mike, but rather dissecting. If Mariano weren’t essential to their dominance, why does everyone – particularly his peers – say he is?

      Jeter’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who will have his number retired, a plaque in Monument Park, and perhaps several national parks. And he’s made a quarter-billion dollars to play a kid’s game. What more do you want? The truth is, whether you accept it or not, that Mariano Rivera is the lone, indispensable Yankee.

      Only jaded Jeter fans take anything short of worship as wanton disrespect. With all due respect, that’s on you, sir. And it doesn’t help your argument to brand all those with whom you disagree as people who “just don’t know baseball.” Why can’t we simply disagree without insults?

  7. Paul D. says:

    Well said, my man. There are scant few who have worn the mantle of dominance as well as Mr. Rivera. God bless him and may he fade into the twilight knowing well how his demeanor and elegance had blessed his sport.

    1. JK says:

      Well said, yourself, my man. His hybrid countenance of dominance and dignity render us most befuddled, if not honored. It will be a sad day when he hangs up his cleats, even for the most rabid Yankee detractor.

  8. Kurt Spitzner says:


    1. JK says:

      That’s all you got, Kurt? Shortest comment you’ve ever left!

      1. Kurt Spitzner says:

        I just cannot argue with anything you have said in this piece sir!

  9. JK says:

    That’s correct – the best since Babe. Any doubt or debate about that?

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