January 22, 2019
Cheers to the perfect candidate for perfection.
Well, look, if you want to get all wonky about Mariano Rivera becoming the first player to ever gain unanimous Hall of Fame election on the writers’ ballot, then yeah, you can point out the silliness of the legendary Yankees closer succeeding where Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and everyone else failed.
Yet the world’s changing times brought us to this moment, and could baseball field a better symbol for perfection in 2019 than Mo?
Humble. Generous. Funny. Spectacular at his work, ordinary in his manner.
“He was such a class act,” Tino Martinez, Rivera’s Yankees teammate, said in a statement released by the team. “He never showed up a batter after striking someone out or retiring the final batter of the game.”
Added Yankees general manager Brian Cashman: “Mo was always someone who I could point to and say, ‘That’s what a Yankee should be like.’ ”
In a conference call Tuesday night, Rivera said, “I think that comes from back home, remembering where I came from and never forgetting where I came from. Because I was the New York Yankees’ closer, or we were winning or losing, that would never change my way to treat people and respect people and react to the game itself.”
His is indeed a rags-to-riches story, signed out of his native Panama for a $2,500 bonus, undergoing major right elbow surgery while still in the minor leagues and not making his big-league debut until age 25 (and not recording the first of his record 652 saves until age 26). Any young, aspiring athlete can read the Rivera tale and feel uncompromisingly inspired by it.
That goes double for the way he conducted himself. Good luck trying to find anyone in the game who will speak a disparaging word about Rivera, whose sublime tranquility as he jogged from the Yankee Stadium bullpen to the mound belied the soundtrack (Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”) that accompanied him.
Added another longtime teammate, Bernie Williams: “He was also one of those old school players that took it upon himself to take care of young players. He would take rookies to dinner, talk to them about life as a major leaguer and how to carry yourself. He was always very embracing of the young blood on the team, a great teammate.”
It wasn’t just how Rivera performed when he closed out the save, smiling and shaking the hand of his catcher without the histrionics. On the rare occasions when he blew a save, he made sure to stand at his locker shortly after the clubhouse opened to the media, taking accountability for his failure and reminding us that he was only human.
That humanity defined him, ultimately. During his final season, 2013, Rivera made a point to tour each visiting ballpark and meet with the stadium’s behind-the-scenes workers before games. It was a truly extraordinary endeavor, never attempted before or since. It spoke to the respect he held for the game and his Earth cohabitants.
You could offer similar praise about the way Aaron and Mays conducted themselves. They just arrived too early for the ultimate unanimity. Their names came up during a time when voters could fill out their ballots in relative anonymity and not worry about an unpopular opinion leading to a social media beatdown. This cushion afforded some voters the luxury of clinging to ridiculous notions like never voting for a first-year candidate.
And so Mays fell short on a remarkable 23 ballots, Aaron on nine and — three years ago — Ken Griffey Jr. on three, setting a new peak with 99.3 percent.
Rivera picked the right time to get on the ballot. And the writers picked the right guy to set the un-toppable ceiling.
“It was amazing, amazing,” Rivera said of his 100 percent approval rating. “ … I can’t even describe it or put it in words.”
Rivera might not have been quite perfect when it came to save opportunities. For this honor, though, in this time? The right word, for sure, is perfect.