On Sunday night, before his final game at Fenway Park, a loss that shoved the Yankees' playoff hopes down a notch from long shot to dangling by a thread, the Boston Red Sox bid their farewell to longtime nemesis, Mariano Rivera. It's no surprise that Rivera, whose career has traversed a fiercely rekindled Yankee-Sox rivalry, has pitched against Boston more than any other team besides the Baltimore Orioles. It's also no surprise that vs. the Red Sox, he's met some of his greatest successes as well as a few of his most dramatic failures.
Like most of baseball before them throughout Rivera's 2013 swan song of a season, the Red Sox sent the all-time saves leader off with a pre-game ceremony and a treasure trove of gifts, ranging from the visitors' bullpen pitching rubber, to a painting of him tipping his hat to the Fenway crowd when he was sarcastically cheered on opening day, 2005, to the now-obsolete number 42 sign that was used in the Green Monster's manual scoreboard. Personally, I'd have said thanks, but no thanks to that last one. Like the rest of the ballpark, it probably smells like stale beer and pee.
Though some abominable performances by the Yankees' starting pitching and offense prevented Rivera from playing a role Sunday night, or at any point over the weekend, Boston fans sent him off with a warm reaction, in part because they seem to have it in their minds that they've owned or at least gotten the better of old 42 throughout his career. An article posted Monday on WEEI's website entitled "Top Ten Mariano Rivera Moments vs. Red Sox" actually includes just three instances of Rivera pitching well and is mostly populated by lost Yankee leads, such as the two in the 2004 ALCS that led to the standing ovation depicted in Mo's new painting. The notion that Rivera's actually struggled vs. Boston depends on an extremely loose definition of the term that could exist only in a town where grittiness and attitude are considered actual things. Sox fans should be cheering Mariano's retirement - not because he's been easy pickings for them - he hasn't - but because they'll undoubtedly fare better against whoever the next Yankee closer turns out to be.
It's true that Rivera's had more bad times against the Red Sox than most other teams. His 2.86 regular-season ERA vs. Boston and his 1.25 WHIP rank well beneath his career norms, and the .644 OPS Red Sox hitters have managed is the second best of any team Mo's faced more than ten times. David Ortiz has been a particular thorn in the great one's side, with a triple-slash line of .342/.375/.500, and the Sox have touched him up for 18 blown saves, including the playoffs. The most memorable of those, of course, were in that 2004 series which may or may not have actually happened, and came courtesy of a Dave Roberts steal and a Bill Mueller single followed the next night by a sac fly when Rivera tried to clean up Tom Gordon's first-and-third, no-out mess.
But getting beaten to a lesser degree than mostly everyone else doesn't exactly signify success. Rivera's numbers against the Red Sox are, in fact, pretty remarkable considering that they've had the best offense in the league besides the Yankees for most of his career, and that they play in a ballpark that makes most little league fields seem spacious. Mo has managed Fenway to the tune of a 2.57 ERA and he's allowed just four home runs there in 64 games. Despite Ortiz's success, he's held some of the other more prominent Red Sox he's faced to pretty paltry career lines. Manny Ramirez hit .232/.304/.319 vs. Mo and Trot Nixon batted .125/.276/.125. Dustin Pedroia, who looks very much like the New York State Lottery's "Little Bit O' Luck" hasn't had much vs. Rivera, with a .083/.250/.083 career line. Besides those 18 blown saves, there are 64 successful attempts, highlighted by an identical postseason ERA and WHIP of 0.93. In twelve playoff appearances vs. Boston, Rivera has allowed all of two earned runs.
The nature of being a closer is that the losses tend to stand out more than the wins - when a closer does his job, it always kind of looks the same. Still, there aren't many moments more milestone than Rivera's three shutout innings in game seven of the 2003 ALCS, where he cut (pun intended) down a stacked Red Sox lineup to set the stage for Aaron Boone's series-winning blast. It was his third outing of two innings or more in that series.
The Boston crowd deserves credit for lending their appreciation to one of baseball's true all-time greats. Yankee fans should absolutely do the same the next time a Red Sox player who's carried himself with the utmost class and dignity calls it a career - on the off chance that ever happens. Still, Red Sox nation needs to give up on its snide, self-satisfied idea that it's somehow maintained an upper hand on Mariano Rivera - that's simply not the case and never has been.