As he nears record, Rivera's career a study of poetry in motion
Like the stillness of a deep mountain lake under moonlight or the rustle of a breeze through treetops, there is a natural harmony to Mariano Rivera that is so quiet as to be easily missed. What distinguishes the great Rivera is as much the absence of features as it is what he possesses. Absence of effort, absence of ego, absence of extraneous motion, even absence of facial hair and the accoutrements of fending off fear used by the modern, highly-caffeinated, highly-pampered closer.
"Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity." Those are the words of Plato but the ways of Mariano.
Such is the simplicity of Rivera that he has reached the precipice of a major all-time record -- most career saves -- while spending his entire career with the famed New York Yankees and somehow been taken for granted. He is, at age 41 and at 599 saves, just three away from breaking the record held on a short lease arrangement by Trevor Hoffman. Rivera is something of an anachronism in these noisy, modern times, our Christy Mathewson.
What is it about sports that motivate us to turn artistry into bland ordinals? Was Montana better than Unitas? Mays better than Aaron? Sampras better than Federer? Do people sit on barstools and think they can rank poets, composers or Rennaissance painters? The folly of drawing fine line distinctions never occurs to those certain to possess the "right" answer in the measurement of beauty.
Rivera, thank goodness, makes it easy on us. There are precious few athletes who are so clearly the best at what they do that arguments are even more foolishly unnecessary than normal. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Mariano Rivera. That Rivera is the greatest closer that ever lived is obvious, but worth celebrating especially because of how he has achieved his greatness. There is about Rivera a royalty, a kingly bearing that makes him the most respected player in baseball. Such nobility is never more apparent than in the few times when the great Rivera fails. Finding Rivera expending defeatist emotion or passing blame, for instance, is time better spent finding the Loch Ness monster.
"I don't think any professional accepts defeat," he once told me. "But that's the way I think. I cannot talk about somebody else. But I think, Come on, you don't want to lose. Nobody wants to lose. I don't like it. But I accept it and move on. I always try to find the positive in that ending, when you lose a game. You know, what happened here that I did not execute right? Right after the game -- what happened? I go through the game. What did I do?
"Then after I do that, it doesn't hurt me at all."
This inner harmony dovetails perfectly with his harmony of motion. When that front knee turns up and back, it does so at precisely the same angle for pitch after pitch and year after year, and the rest of his wonderful, loose, syrupy delivery follows as a symphony follows its conductor. In the bullpen, Rivera will tell himself,
"If I'm waiting for my arm, everything is perfect," he said.
Once on the game mound, Rivera banishes all thoughts of mechanics. The reminder of waiting for his arm has no place here. Even something that simple is mental clutter. With the task at hand, Rivera is confident that he has prepared himself properly. Now there is the absence of thought. Now there is only doing.
"If you repeat your delivery over and over," he said, "the results will be good."
Rivera has been able to repeat his delivery because he has kept his body in nearly similar shape for two decades. His litheness, the looseness of his fingers and wrists and his athleticism have remained remarkably intact. That he throws essentially one pitch -- the famous cutter, he said, was a sudden gift from God while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza in 1997 -- has made such consistency easier to maintain as well. There is only one arm angle, one release point, and no manipulation of the ball. He has lasted all these years at an elite level without ever having to impart spin on the baseball by moving his hand off the side of the ball, the way breaking balls require.
"After I came to the big leagues? Never," he said. "I never want to do that. That's when I get around the ball. I correct it right away.
Once in while in the minor leagues, but not in the major leagues.
"Like I said, [the cutter] is a blessing. When the blessing is upon you, it's God's will. He's the one."
There are numbers on Rivera that border on artistry themselves. They do help tell the story of his greatness.
• He has 10 seasons with an ERA lower than 2.00 with at least 60 innings. Only one other pitcher in history has more than six: Walter Johnson, with 11.
• He never has given up a postseason home run to a lefthanded hitter (and only two in all among 523 batters).
• In his past 253 innings his ERA is 1.74 -- that's from ages 38 through 41.
• He has 31 postseason saves of four outs or more; next on that list is Rich Gossage with seven.
• In the regular season since he became a closer in 1997, Rivera has 113 saves in which he obtained four outs or more; the next closest to him in that time, Keith Foulke, has fewer than half as many, 55.
Indeed, if there is something that should last above all else about his game is that in the era of the specialized bullpen Rivera often served as his own setup man, particularly in October. The save is a dubious statistic, but to give it more meaning, and to honor the singular greatness of Rivera, it should be bifurcated. There should be saves -- in which only three or fewer outs are needed -- and then there should be Mo Saves -- saves of four or more outs.
But what really lasts about Rivera are not statistics but the consistency -- the consistency of character as much as performance. Rivera recently told Bob Costas of MLB Network that he will come to spring training next year and either sign a contract extension or play the season intending it to be his last. It is quite possible that Rivera will be the rare athlete with a full career never seen in decline. Jordan had the Wizards, Mays the Mets and Montana the Chiefs, for instance. Even Nolan Ryan's arm eventually gave out. But with Rivera there is exclusively the image of greatness, even at 41. Across 17 seasons in 34 ballparks throwing to 22 catchers in front of 117 umpires there is no noticeable diminishing of body or stuff.
There will be a day when Rivera stands before an audience in Cooperstown, N.Y., when his fame will be officially cast in bronze for perpetuity. But now, with his greatness still in our midst, is worth the time to stop and admire his quiet harmony. Such harmony, like poetry, doesn't sell so well in today's world. And poetry is what I see from the moment when Rivera takes that tip-toe jog in from the bullpen, his glove in his pitching hand, to the one where the last out is locked away without self-congratulation or even self-awareness, and all those moments in between when he repeats that idiosyncratic delivery. It's not just Mathewson he invokes; it's Whitman.
I thought of the poetry of Rivera when I came across some notes of an interview I once did with him. When I read the transcription, I saw the poetry that I first missed in his voice. This son of a Panamanian fisherman, taught to respect all others as if they were family, and by his own accounting suddenly blessed by God with one of the most famous pitches in the history of baseball, spoke in a way better presented poetically than in quotations:
-- M. Rivera