Baseball artistry personified by reliever Mariano Rivera
By Rabbi Ben Kamin
SAN DIEGO — When he recently passed Trevor Hoffman’s formidable record of 601 saves, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera maintained his hallmark reserve and quiet dignity.
Pete Rose was always a bit histrionic about his all-time record-breaking (4,256), games played (3,562), and at-bats (14,053). No one is likely to ever surpass Rose’s 4,256 hits just as no one will likely ever accrue 602+ saves as a relief pitcher.
But unlike Rose and other legitimate baseball giants (whether enshrined in the Hall of Fame or not), there is little expectation that the diffident and noble Rivera will be overweening about it. More likely, he will simply rack up more saves and remain in his decorous Yankee pinstripes—an athletic and scientific professional more like the great Tom Seaver than the flamboyant Goose Gossage.
Rivera’s quiet strength and stern resolve has undoubtedly driven the Yankees’ late-season surge to the American League Eastern Division championship—and their dismissal of the Boston Red Sox—once again. Just a couple of days before notching the milestone #602 with a save over Seattle, Rivera spoke in his characteristically self-effacing tone to the always-circling media: “Don’t get me wrong, boys,” Rivera told reporters after the game. “601 is a great number. You have to hit 601 before you can hit 602. It’s a great number. But the most important thing is we won the game.” [The New York Times.]
This is not the kind of selfless reflection normally associated with today’s postmodern, salary-inflated, intermittently performance drug-enhanced major leaguer who often calibrates his free-agency dollar potential against hometown loyalty. But setting all this aside, it’s just beautiful to watch the focused, stately Rivera pitch.
Writing in the current New Yorker, the enduring Roger Angell opines: “Almost from the beginning, there’s been a spareness and calm about Rivera’s work. For seventeen seasons, one thousand and thirty-nine games, and against four thousand eight hundred and six batters, he has been doing pretty much the same thing, over and over. Depending in great part on that one pitch, the late-moving, down-bending cutter, applied to one side or another of the strike zone, he has imposed a repetitive orderliness, a near-boring quietus, on the evening’s scattered events…Rivera, surely, suggests the longtime maître d’ of a celebrated restaurant. Impeccable, without mannerism, he goes about his complex work, and it requires an effort on our part before we notice his graceful motions, a perfect shave, his sparkling teeth, the striped pants that end exactly at his shoe-tops. His cap is straight or perhaps set off a millimeter to the right, its bill slightly but beautifully curved.“
Another writer has compared the physical rhythm of Mariano Rivera to that of dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. I agree, just as I view the arching throw of a right fielder across the diamond to the third baseman, with the latter applying a sweeping tag to the doomed base runner, as nothing less than ballet.
No wonder Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi terms Mariano Rivera’s style as “peaceful.” Baseball remains the only big-time game with that possibility.
Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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