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Mariano Rivera never won a Cy Young Award and was never named the league's MVP.
He never won more than eight games in a season, and that peak happened 17 years ago. Only once in his career did he throw more than 100 innings in a season, and his abortive try at being a starting pitcher ended in abject failure.
|Stats? Rings? Intangibles? Name a Hall of Fame credential and Mariano Rivera has it.|
Still, if ever a player has been deserving of being the first unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame, Mariano Rivera is that player.
It will never happen, of course. There will always be one or two voters who will leave him off the ballot for a variety of arcane reasons, maybe even just to bask in the attention that is always afforded someone who does something outlandishly wrong.
But if you can find a player who more perfectly fits the criteria for induction to Cooperstown than Mariano Rivera, I'm listening.
Rule No. 5 of the BWAA's criteria for election reads as follows: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
Playing ability? Check.
Integrity, sportsmanship, character? Check, check and check.
Contributions to the New York Yankees, the only organization he has ever played for and one he served for more than half his life?
At this point, there's no need to rehash the raw numbers that attest to Rivera's greatness, except to remind you that, to accumulate the career stats on his résumé, a pitcher must reach a level of performance most would be thrilled to put up once -- then sustain that performance for nearly two decades.
And it is truly impossible to gauge how many World Series championships the Yankees would have won since 1996 without him, although his ridiculous postseason numbers -- 42 saves, an ERA of 0.70, a WHIP of 0.759 and an ERA+ of 1.59 -- paint a true picture of a player whose already formidable talents reached another level in the most important games of all.
But there is no doubt that, since he became the full-time closer in 1997, he changed the way Joe Torre, and later Joe Girardi, managed a ballgame the same way Lawrence Taylor changed the way Bill Parcells schemed the New York Giants' defense.
And just as importantly, the same way opposing coaches had to change their offenses to deal with Taylor -- the best-seller "The Blind Side" could not have been written pre-LT, and he single-handedly raised the salary structure for left tackles throughout football -- Mo changed the way opposing managers approached a ballgame.
For 17 seasons, if you didn't get to the Yankees before Mo came in, odds are you weren't getting to them at all. While the rest of the league was playing nine-inning baseball games, the Yankees were playing only eight.
This is the kind of benefit that doesn't show up in the box score and will only become more obvious with the passage of time. In a sport in which random occurrences routinely affect the outcome of games, Rivera was as close to automatic as baseball gets.
There's no question in my mind that he is the greatest pitcher who ever wore a Yankees uniform, even if he worked only one inning a night and threw only one pitch, a cutter that broke as many hearts as it did bats.
If he was a one-trick pony, that pony was Secretariat.
Two years ago, I was asked to write a column to accompany an ESPNNewYork.com feature ranking the 50 greatest Yankees of all time. I chose to write about Mariano, whom I ranked the third greatest of all, behind only Ruth and Gehrig.
But before I wrote it, I ran the idea past Mariano, who quizzed me from behind narrowed eyes about my reasons.
I told him that every time he worked, the game was on the line; that whenever he was on the mound, no one in the ballpark, whether in the Bronx or anywhere else, dared leave his seat; and that, unlike any other player in Yankees history, every time he did his job correctly, the fans went home happy because the Yankees won.
Plus -- and this hardly needed to be said -- he did what he did better than anyone who had ever done it before.
He assessed what I said impassively, as if I were talking about a stranger. Finally, he nodded his head. "Those are pretty good reasons," he said.
That's the Mariano I will take with me when he leaves the Yankees' clubhouse for the last time as a player, an unflinchingly honest player and man, concerned with the welfare of his team first but hardly unmindful of his own abilities, and blessed with the rare quality of clear-eyed self-assessment.
He was the same way at his retirement announcement Saturday morning, dry-eyed, pragmatic, intelligent and, as always, more dignified than a roomful of Supreme Court justices.
He started us off with a joke -- "I just signed a two-year contract extension" -- but since the curveball was never part of his repertoire, he quickly got down to business.
"After this year, I will be retired," he said. "It's official now. After this year, I will be retired."
That was basically it. No theatrics, no histrionics, no crocodile tears. No 30-second pauses to feign emotion or to try to make the moment more than it was.
This isn't Jose Valverde we're talking about, or Francisco Rodriguez or Joba Chamberlain or Rafael Soriano. There was no chest-beating or fist-pumping or untucking.
Simply a man telling us of his plans and moving on, the way he always did after a game whether he had nailed down the save, or rarely -- and thus, more memorably -- blowing one.
He spoke of what a privilege and honor it was to have worn the Yankees uniform all these years, but in truth, it is the other way around. The Yankees were lucky to have him, and, in his final season, he leaves them with one last gift.
In a season that is already beset by problems and a roster that has already been torn up by injury, Rivera gives you a reason to go to the ballpark, again and again, if only on the chance that you will be seeing him perform for the last time.
It will be a well-deserved victory lap for a player who has run a 19-year race as well as it has ever been run.
In an era in which Hall of Fame voters are destined to be plagued with years of doubt over whom to vote for, whom to believe and what qualities to value, Mariano Rivera removes all doubt.
If that doesn't warrant his name appearing on every single Hall of Fame ballot in five years, I don't know what does.
The player who had the honor of being the last man in baseball to wear No. 42 now deserves the honor of being the first man in baseball to wear No. 100.
As in percentage of Hall of Fame votes.