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Friday, August 12, 2011
Facing Mariano's still far from easy

By Doug Glanville
ESPN.com

You can question my effectiveness as a leadoff hitter, you can challenge Dusty Baker for making me the emergency infielder for the 2003 playoffs, you can even scratch your head as you wonder why I just chased that slider in the dirt. But make sure you acknowledge that I could hit anyone's fastball.

Such is the life of a major league ballplayer. There are so many facets to being a major leaguer that every player has multiple weaknesses and ways he can be criticized. Alex Rodriguez and Ryne Sandberg struggled with popups in the outfield, Tino Martinez could be tied up by hard fastballs inside, Cal Ripken Jr. was streaky, and Adrian Gonzalez is slow.

Given that I know fastballs, I can safely tell you that the most explosive and amazing pitch I have ever seen was the fastball that came out of Mariano Rivera's hand. I hit against Randy Johnson, Robb Nen, Mark Wohlers, Billy Wagner and Armando Benitez, but Rivera's fastball was on the next level up from theirs.

Mariano Rivera
Stepping in to face Mariano Rivera is something nobody should look forward to, even now.

Granted, I faced him only one time, but that was enough to let you know about it. I remember that I fouled a pitch straight back. Despite Joe Girardi complimenting me on my effort, I couldn't recall how I actually did it. I just kept thinking that at one point, the ball was in place X, and then, unnaturally, it teleported to place Z. What happened to Y?

Well, there is no Y with Rivera. The ball is an optical illusion; it seems to accelerate and "hop" to the plate almost like he has a joystick in his hand while laughing as he hits the turbo button. Eventually I did put one ball in play -- I topped it feebly back to the mound for an easy out.

Up until that point, I couldn't remember an at-bat in which so much doubt entered my mind after one pitch, not to mention a pitch I actually put a decent swing on. It was almost like one pitch from Rivera would decide the result. If you swing and miss, you get three strikes.

Then I played with Rivera for one spring training and I realized hitters walk into the box to face Rivera as if they already have two strikes on them. From the second they dig in, they are battling, fighting for their life. They know that if they mistime their swing, they shatter their bat; if they miss, they will question their eyesight; and if they get a hit, they are immortalized.

And that's even while knowing that he has only one pitch.

Sure, as an analyst, I have studied Rivera from every angle. I know almost all the movement on his fastball happens beyond the point where it is physically possible to "see it and hit it." I know he is nearly machine-like in his ability to repeat his release point. I know that when you look at the heat map of where he locates his pitches in an inhuman way for his precision, he never throws anything in the middle of the plate.

But no matter how you slice it, when you absorb the magnitude of the fact that a pitcher can not only dominate a major league hitter in one at-bat with one pitch, but can dominate the best hitters in the world consistently for decades with that same pitch, that puts him in a class by himself. Period.

Every major league hitter knows what is coming against Rivera; they even know where it is going. And the hardest thing to deal with in a big league batter's box is trying to anticipate the pitcher's plan. What he might throw, where and when. It is circling in our heads constantly. It is supposed to be a relief when you face a pitcher who tells you where it is going, how hard he is throwing it and that it will be repeated. If you told me I was about to face a pitcher who telegraphed what he was going to do, I would fight my way to grab a bat, even now, retired and 40 years old. But with Rivera, it is almost embarrassing that despite the fact that you know what he is going to do, you still feel almost helpless. Keep in mind that when I faced him, I was hitting better than .320.

This past week, Rivera got knocked around a bit. The Red Sox and the Angels put some dents in his armor, but this has happened before. Sure, his cutter was a little flat and his location was a little off. But before we sit back and say Rivera is over the hill, let's remember that part of what makes the major leagues so amazing is that the best in the world are competing and everyone is good. Really good, even the 25th man on the roster who's hitting .185.

What we learn from Rivera is that you can be plain vanilla ice cream and be great; you can throw the same pitch over and over again and dominate if you locate and have great movement. But we also learn that Rivera has one of the best pitches in the history of the game, because to mow through major league hitters like he has with one pitch, it is the only way that is possible.

We have been lulled by Rivera over the years, in that he has made the game look easy for him, and somehow we believe that someone could be so automatic. We wonder whether these hitters are legit for a split-second even after they took CC Sabathia deep back in the third inning. Then we look at this past week and are reminded that the amazing talent that plays at the major league level will pounce on even the great Mariano when he is just a little off. This tells us how fragile any player's time in the big leagues can be. If you slip by a matter of inches and the competition doesn't just catch up but blows you out of the water, you can end up scrambling to find that release point again.

Rivera will find it again, and when he does, we might just forget once again that even his greatness is always on the brink of mediocrity. It is a testimony to his consistency that he rarely crosses over into the land of average, which is probably his most impressive attribute. Even more than his fastball.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville