Mariano Rivera “The Sandman”
For Mariano Rivera, the words hit home like a cut fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt : “Exit: light, Enter: night, take my hand, we’re off to never never-land.”
Those of course, are the words of the heavy metal band Metallica, in their unforgettable song “Enter Sandman”, which doubled as Rivera’s walk-up song as he ran in from the bullpen.
That’s how it was for Major League batters for 19 years, as they they shook in their cleats whenever Rivera came in. It was lights out, as their hopes faded away. With Metallica’s song blasting, Rivera became known as “The Sandman”; the feared, the respected, the dominant one. He sent batters back to the dugout like a three act opera. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Good morning, good afternoon and good night.
Still, he never allowed all of that to change his soul. He always remembered to stay humble. It was something he learned from his father, growing up in Panama. “My father is the man that, he will give you what he doesn’t have, still,” Rivera explained. “If he has 10 bucks and you need 10 bucks because you’re sick or you don’t have nothing to eat, he will give you 10 bucks. He will be at zero, but he will help you. That’s the kind of man my father is.”
Rivera needed all of that humility during his Major League debut in 1995, when he took the mound for the Yankees against the California Angels. He allowed five earned runs in 3.1 innings. In his first four starts, he posted a 10.2 ERA. That earned him a trip back to the minors and the Columbus Clippers.
Undaunted, he worked his way back to New York. On July 4th, he pitched eight scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox, allowing two hits and striking out eleven. The Yankees decided his talent was best suited as a reliever. In 1996, he became the set up man for closer John Wetteland.
The decision proved to be a great one for the Yankees, as Rivera posted a 2.09 ERA in 107.2 innings. In the post-season, he allowed only one earned run in 14.1 innings. Deservedly, he finished in third place for the American League Cy Young Award voting, and 12th for the AL Most Valuable Player.
But it was in 1998 when things really got rolling. He had discovered the cut fastball while playing catch. Now the Yankees’ closer, he saved 36 games. He followed that up with 45 saves in 1999. Amazingly, he eventually notched postseason save number 16 and surpassed Dennis Eckersley’s playoff record. He also surpassed Whitey Ford with 33.1 consecutive postseason scoreless innings.
He rolled on, coming through in the clutch year after year.
Then in 2012, disaster struck. While catching fly balls during batting practice, Rivera tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. As he grimaced in pain, it appeared to potentially be the end of his brilliant career.
But once again, Rivera fought back and returned for the 2013 season. It would be his last, and one of his best. He started out on fire, going ten for ten in save opportunities in April. In the 2013 All Star Game, his peers offered him the greatest form of respect. They remained in the dugout, leaving him alone on the field as he warmed up.
In all, he earned 44 saves in his final season. In his final appearance, Yankees’ Manager Joe Girardi sent his long-time team mates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte to the mound to remove him from the game. It was an emotional conclusion to a spectacular career. The Yankees subsequently honored him on Mariano Rivera Day at Yankee Stadium.
Joe Torre, his former manager, said, “He’s very special. He loves the competition. He’s always responded real well in big games. I think when you talk about his career, the reason he’ll go to the Hall of Fame is all about the postseason. He’s been second to none.” If there ever was a sure bet, Rivera was it. And in 2019, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And so, the hot debate is which of Rivera’s accomplishments is his greatest? If you crave consistency, you might say his 13 American League All-Star Game selections sets him apart. If you like to compare him to other great relievers, you might point to his five Rolaids Relief Awards and three Delivery Man of the Year selections.
Still, if you admire perseverance, you might choose his American League Comeback Player of the Year award. If you focus on the playoffs, you would praise his 1999 World Series Most Valuable Player Award. What could be more important than coming through in the clutch? His career record 652 saves and post-season 0.70 ERA with 42 saves attest to that.
If you’re a team enthusiast, you certainly love his five World Series Championships. Or, maybe you think his retired number, place in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, and Hall of Fame induction represent the pinnacle.
In any case, whichever one you choose, Rivera would likely not choose any of them. He would likely say that his greatest accomplishment of all is simply staying humble, just like his father.