Sheehan: Mariano Rivera Was A Hall Of Famer In More Ways Than One

Image credit: Mariano Rivera (Photo by Tom DiPace)

Mariano Rivera will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. This isn’t news—Rivera has been a shoo-in for Cooperstown since the middle of the last decade—but the manner of his election was. Rivera is the first player to receive unanimous acclaim by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in the annual Hall balloting.

That it was Rivera, rather than Willie Mays or Greg Maddux or Babe Ruth, is an accident of history, a product of the ever-changing, occasionally inscrutable process of choosing our immortals over 80 years.

Rivera is certainly worthy of the honor as the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived, and someone who spent 20 years in the spotlight without a hint of controversy.

Rivera had two Hall of Fame careers. The first ran through late September in most years, the one in which he accumulated 652 saves, the most ever; the one in which he posted a career ERA of 2.21, lowest for any pitcher born after 1900; the one that started with him as a two-inning fireman, and ended with him as the greatest closer ever.

Rivera never had a bad year, his ERA slipping above 3.00 once as a full-time reliever. His cut fastball, which he discovered playing catch in 1997, is one of the greatest single pitches in baseball history. Rivera’s career wins above replacement, 56.3, is two good seasons past that of Hoyt Wilhelm and four ahead of Goose Gossage. Both are fellow Hall of Fame relievers.

Had Mariano Rivera never been on a playoff team, he would be the greatest reliever in baseball history.

He was, though. Rivera was a critical part of five Yankees World Series championship teams. In 141 postseason innings, in the highest pressure games of all, he had a 0.70 ERA. He saved 42 postseason wins; the next three pitchers on that leaderboard have 49 combined saves.

He wasn’t just a save specialist, either; Rivera averaged nearly one and a half innings per appearance in the playoffs, and a bit more than that in his seven World Series. He had 33 postseason appearances of at least two innings . . . and he allowed a total of four runs in those games, 28 of them Yankees wins.

Had Rivera never pitched in the regular season, he would be the greatest reliever in baseball history.

When I think of Rivera, though, I don’t think of his numbers.

Rivera is the through line of my adult fandom, of the transition from a young man reading Baseball America to an old one writing for it. Rivera’s emergence as a bullpen weapon came during the 1995 American League Division Series, when he threw 5.1 shutout innings that weren’t enough to keep the Mariners from ending the career of my favorite player ever, Don Mattingly.

The next year, Rivera would allow one run in 14 innings in October, pushing the Yankees to their first World Series win of my fandom. John Wetteland closed out that one, but it was the entrance of Rivera, that entire October and so many more to come, that meant a game was over.

Rivera moved into the closer’s role in 1997 and begin racking up saves. I was in the ballpark, as a fan, on a Monday afternoon in 2011 when he set the all-time saves record. You never heard a home crowd cheer an inning-ending double play the way we cheered Nick Swisher’s eighth-inning 1-6-3, the one that preserved the save opportunity for Rivera. Thirteen pitches later, three easy outs, and save No. 602 was in the books.

Two years later, almost to the day, I was back at the new Yankee Stadium for Rivera’s final appearance. Next to me in the last row of Section 122 was my mother, who had made me a Yankees fan decades earlier. She would quit work early to take me to day games across the street, setting my bedtime to match the final out from the Bronx or Baltimore or Kansas City. She wore a Yankees jersey I’d gotten her last Christmas, and we shared a pretzel just like we used to, and she set aside the cancer and the chemo for one night. We couldn’t look at each other, tears in our eyes, as Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter pulled Rivera from the game, from baseball, from our lives.

She was gone six weeks later. Two Hall of Famers left the ballpark for the final time that night.

They live on every day in my world, though. My daughter is named for Mariano Rivera, her mother’s all-time favorite player. She has my mom’s nose and her mom’s smile and Rivera’s joy and, sad to say, my cut fastball.

When we named her, though, we knew we could safely do so, not because Rivera would rack up saves and rings and WAR, but because we would never open up a newspaper or click a link and be horrified. Rivera lived his life on the back page, not the front page, not Page Six.

That’s who Mariano Rivera is—the Hall of Famer you could name your kid for.

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