Mariano Rivera's name rolls off the tongue easy, the same way a luxury car rides, nothing but pure pleasure. It's a name you might expect of a fashion designer: just imagine Emma Stone walking the red carpet at the Oscars, in a straight-from-the-runway gown, flashing her smile as she tells the press, "I'm wearing Mariano". It's not a name you would expect of a baseball player, not among the Ty Cobbs and Babe Ruths and Hank Aarons.
It's an easy name like his cutter is an easy pitch—he never exerts too much effort and still finds a way to strike you out or break your bat. If a scout today saw a high school or college or young international pitcher who only had one pitch at his disposal, they'd turn around. Why gamble when you can have a sure thing?
Rivera, though, was never a sure thing. The son of a fisherman usually doesn't become a pro baseball player (although there is one other notable exception), and most of Rivera's minor league numbers were good—but nothing to suggest that the Yankees had found themselves the best closer of all time. He didn't make his first full season appearance until he was 26; in today's world, few that age are considered prospects of any significance.
You can quantify all you want, talk about Rivera's postseason WHIP or his 600+ saves or his almost physical inability to walk hitters, bu that doesn't do him justice. There is no room in that discussion for Rivera's giving, for his mentorship, for the perception, even among newly-minted fans, that there will never be another Rivera—even if records, as they say, are made to be broken, it will take at least another 17 years to find out. In a profession dominated by hot tempers, fireballers and evanescent lifespans, Rivera remains cool, constant, steady and humble.
So it might not be surprising that Rivera may have decided to retire at season's end, but neither is it that for many of us, even the thought of him doing so remains an emotional moment. It's not just that Rivera has Hall of Fame numbers, or that he's been the only closer the Yankees have had since the Clinton administration, or that his off-field life has been free of controversy in one of baseball's most controversial eras; it's that all of these things are there, packaged and wrapped with a bow made of five World Series rings.
Think about it. What were you doing in May 1995? I was in third grade, we did not have the internet in our house, car phones were the height of technology, and Mickey Mantle was still among the living. It seems such a long time ago, but someone born on May 1st, 1995 would be turning 16 this spring. In a world where fast, instant, high-speed and immediate are the norms, 16 years is an eternity.
For a little while this winter, we worried—there was throat surgery to remove polyps, and for a moment we feared the worst, that a pitcher many consider the greatest of the era to don pinstripes might be forced to retire on something other than his own terms. The crisis was averted, but it remains a hard reminder that as we age, the line between good health and poor becomes disturbingly thin. At the core, we can argue thus: no one who has excelled at his or her job for decades should be forced to go out on anything other than his or her own terms.
We tend to lambast the saccharine, to prefer to chase Roy Hobbs, the book version rather than Roy Hobbs, the movie one, but in Rivera's case, we remain starstruck. Rivera's never hit a baseball off of the roof, but no matter—he's never needed to. Can greatness come from doing nothing more than one's job day after day? That is, after all, what Rivera does—his job, without unnecessary flash or a slick-oiled surface. Watching Rivera work is like listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata: beauty, grace, elegance, and timelessness, and for this, we are grateful.