Awe does not come easily to the baseball men who endure the relentless rigors and inevitable failures of the 162-game season. But awe it was, mixed with cigarette smoke, that filled the visiting manager's office at Yankee Stadium last October as Tigers manager Jim Leyland and his coaching staff reflected upon what they had just witnessed.
The Tigers had just pulled off a stunning, cork-popping victory, eliminating the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, 3-2, in the fifth game of the American League Division Series. Only one other team, the 1926 Cardinals, ever had knocked out the Yankees in a one-run, sudden death postseason game at Yankee Stadium.
"Unbelievable," Detroit first-base coach Tom Brookens said. "Never seen anything like it and we probably never will again."
Leyland, hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and third base coach Gene Lamont each added his own version of baseball hallelujahs.
It was not the victory, big as it was, that inspired such wonder. Instead, these baseball lifers shared their amazement about the last Yankees pitcher, a guy who has been pitching in the big leagues for 17 seasons and turns 42 this month. The greatness and wonder of Mariano Rivera is hardly new, but you could say the same about the Grand Canyon, another national treasure that's been around a while and still causes jaws to drop.
Rivera threw five pitches in the ninth inning, all of them strikes, all of them wicked cutters, to dismiss three Tigers hitters with ease rarely seen in the big leagues. (For the series, he faced four batters and retired them all with eight pitches, all of them strikes.)
What Rivera can do with a baseball -- make it cut so much so late at the edges of the plate -- would induce astonishment if it was performed by a strong-armed kid fresh out of the minors. That he still does it well past 40, with the same angular body and metronomic delivery all these years, multiplies the awe factor.
Still, if consistency is the very essence of Rivera, it has left his greatness a rather quiet one when it comes to national attention. Devoid of controversy, major injuries, self-aggrandizement or the need for comeback seasons, Rivera offers the same, simple narrative. He simply just keeps getting hitters out with one pitch while maintaining the proper, gentlemanly carriage of baseball royalty.
Even while breaking the all-time record for saves this year -- the mark of 602 was held by Trevor Hoffman -- Rivera remained the epitome of understated elegance. The story came and went quickly and quietly, in part because it left no room for debate; Rivera had been considered the greatest relief pitcher ever even without the record.
Truth is, you could consider Rivera SI's Sportsman of the Year almost every year, such is his consistency of performance and character. But the occasion of becoming the all-time saves king is a new, good reason to pick him as my Sportsman. And when I thought about Rivera for this award, I thought about the words and faces of those Tigers coaches. No player in the sport commands more professional respect than Rivera. But that night reminded me that Rivera is still so clearly the very best at his specific sports discipline -- both all time and currently. About whom else can that be said in all of sports?
Rivera posted a 1.91 ERA, his 11th season with an ERA less than 2.00, tying the great Walter Johnson for the most sub-2.00 ERA seasons of at least 60 innings. (No one else has more than six.) He faced 233 batters and walked only six of them unintentionally, tying his career low set in 2008. His strikeout-to-walk rate of 7.5 was the second best of his career. And the 1 1/3 shutout innings in the ALDS lowered his career postseason ERA to 0.70 across 96 games and 141 innings.
On the occasion of his record-breaking save, in a game Sept. 19 against Minnesota, Rivera virtually was pushed to the mound by teammates to accept the congratulations of the crowd, not too dissimilar to the humble Roger Maris being coaxed into a curtain call by his Yankees teammates in 1961 upon breaking the single season home run record.
Rivera was seated next to his three sons at his postgame news conference when he was asked to describe the moment. "Oh my God," he said. "For the first time in my career I'm on the mound alone. There's no one behind me, no one in front of me. I can't describe that feeling because it was priceless."
Hoffman, in offering a statement of congratulations, hit the right notes when he said, "I want to congratulate Mariano Rivera on setting the all-time saves record. It's a great accomplishment and he is still going strong! I have tremendous respect for Mariano not just for his on-field accomplishments, but also for his service to the community."
Rivera has been generous with his time to fellow big leaguers -- watching fellow All-Star pitchers trying to tap into his time and knowledge at All-Star Games is impressive -- but even more importantly to his communities in New York and Panama through his charitable foundation. Few athletes of such greatness project such humility as does Rivera.
When I once asked him what he thought about how he is revered, Rivera replied, "You know, it's a good question, because I don't think about it. I really focus on trying to do the right thing. Then I forget what people think about me or what players think about me."
Rivera gives respect as much as he gets it, a trait groomed by his father, a hard-working Panamanian fisherman who told him to treat every person as if they were an uncle or part of the family.
"That's important," he said. "I always do that. I don't wait for people to give me respect. I always give them respect. Any player. Even a rookie, an old player, a veteran . . . I always respect them. I never try to show up nobody. I go to my business. I always take time for somebody who wants to talk to me. That's my thing."
Rivera, a man of deep faith, has spoken often and eloquently about his blessed life. The cutter itself, he insists, was a gift God gave him suddenly in 1997.
One of the remarkable aspects of this remarkable career is that we have seen no diminution to it. The pain of watching our sports icons slowly devolve never has applied to Rivera. Such pain isn't always as deep as Willie Mays as a Met or Joe Namath as a Ram. Sometimes it's just the sight of Mickey Mantle, his gait compromised by bad knees, going out as a .237 hitter at the age of 36.
Ultimately there must be a day when there is no more of Rivera, glove in his right hand, jogging in from the bullpen as "Enter Sandman" plays over Yankee Stadium, the familiar tableau of a game as good as over. But what he has done in the meantime is push away the twilight like very few in sports ever have done. The constancy of Rivera is worthy not just of recognition, but awe indeed.