It seems like only yesterday that Mariano Rivera embarked on his farewell tour, which culminated in an emotional moment at Yankee Stadium when Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte trudged to the mound to remove their longtime teammate from the final game of his illustrious career. Five years have passed, and now one of the most celebrated legends in New York Yankees history makes his first appearance on baseball’s Hall of Fame ballot.
The Yankees signed the then 20-year-old Rivera for $2,000 in the living room of his parent’s house in a poor fishing village in Panama in February of 1990. He threw in the mid-eighties at the time, required elbow surgery after his first season in High-A, and was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft. Yet the man who began his baseball odyssey as a shortstop and signed with the only professional team that ever showed interest in him went on to become the most accomplished closer in history — and arguably the most effective pitcher overall in the last 100 years.
”Mo” stands as the career leader in saves (652), games finished (952), and ERA+ (205). Typically only used in high-leverage, short-relief situations at the end of games, he tossed 1,283.2 innings over a 19-year MLB career that began as a starting pitcher in 1995. Among hurlers logging as many innings during the Live Ball Era (since 1920), Rivera is first in WHIP (1.00), ERA (2.21), and OPS against (.555).
Rivera’s performance during the playoffs was even more impressive. He logged 141 innings over 96 appearances, notching a microscopic 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. Amazing considering he produced those results pitching against the best teams in baseball at the highest-leverage moments of the biggest games of the season. And he did it year after year for nearly two decades.
Mariano might become the sole Cooperstown inductee who played into his forties and literally never experienced a decline phase. His numbers beginning in his age 40 season (1.95 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) were actually better than his career averages. Considering he filled a role with a typically very short shelf life, Mo’s durability and consistency over such a long career was extraordinary.
A 13-time All-Star, Rivera was named AL reliever of the year eight times — an award which now bears his name. He was a major catalyst in helping the Yankees make the playoffs 17 times, where they won seven pennants and five World Series championships. Mariano was on the mound to record the final out in an unprecedented four of them, and was named both World Series MVP and Babe Ruth Award winner in 1999. He also earned the ALCS MVP Award in 2003.
Rivera has received numerous other awards and holds many records, including most career games pitched with one team and most career games pitched in AL history (1,115). He also owns just about every conceivable career saves record, including most consecutive seasons with at least one save (18), most seasons with at least 20 saves (16), 25 (16), 30 (15), 35 (12), 40 (9), and 50 (2). He also produced 11 seasons with at least 20 saves and a sub-2.00 ERA — another record. His 42 saves, 14 two-inning saves, 96 games, 16 games finished to clinch a series, 33.1 consecutive scoreless innings, 23 consecutive scoreless appearances, and 0.70 ERA are all postseason records.
When you go back and look at his career and what he’s done with that one pitch, I don’t think there’s a greater achievement in this game than that. To go through major league hitters and dominate for all those years, it’s one of the greatest feats I’ll ever look back on. I honestly believe that, too. I don’t think people realize how incredible it really is. It will never be duplicated, ever. — former teammate Eric Chavez
Those concerned with the character and integrity qualifiers for Hall of Fame membership need not look beyond Rivera for a man who exceeds any possible standards that one could impose. A devout Christian, Mariano’s philanthropic efforts are exemplary. The Mariano Rivera Foundation distributes more than $500,000 annually through church-based institutions to help provide underprivileged children with an education. Rivera has also funded church start-ups in Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. He won the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award in 2013, which is given to the MLB player “who inspires others through his on-field performances and contributions to his community.”
Beloved by his teammates, Rivera also earned the respect and admiration of his opponents and executives throughout the game. People revere Mariano, not just for his baseball skills, but for the way he carried himself both on and off the field. The last man allowed to wear number 42 everyday would have made Jackie Robinson proud.
Rivera will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s just a question of when and by what percentage of the vote. Although most believe that he should be a unanimous first-ballot selection, the same can be said for many players who came before him, yet none received the honor.
Unfortunately, Rivera is unlikely to become the first. Blank protest ballots are submitted every year, and more recently, a phenomenon known as “gaming the ballot” has become popular. Due to the limit of 10 candidates that a voter can name on a ballot, and the backlog of statistically qualified candidates who have not been elected due to PED allegations, some voters withhold votes from obvious choices in order to vote for a less-credentialed candidate to ensure that he receives the minimum five-percent required to remain on the ballot for another year.
This year, there are six holdover milestone achievers, two candidates in their final year of eligibility, and a host of other players whose candidacy has merited serious consideration. Plus, Rivera is not the only newcomer on the ballot who will receive votes.
Although unthinkable that a player with Rivera’s credentials would be denied admission in his first year of eligibility, it remains a possibility. Should that happen, though, Rivera will undoubtedly accept the snub with his usual grace and humility. Those qualities are part of what makes Mariano such a rare and truly special person. It will be a momentous occasion once Mariano does take his rightful place among the greatest of all time in Cooperstown.