Saturday, March 9, 2013

Exit Sandman

Baseball players are so fragile, so disposable. Thirty teams, 25 players per team, and rosters in flux each year. The vast majority come and go, and even the sturdiest of players pass from the scene without making much of a ripple in the greater consciousness of fans or the world outside the game.

There are the greats of the game as well. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio come to mind. Players that transcend the game because of their outsized feats on the field, or their mythical and cultural significance off the field.

The modern era of baseball has been marred by steroid use, and suspected use. Many modern stars and their accomplishments have been tarred by their widespread use, both legal and illegal. Astronomical salaries have created a huge and mostly unbridegable divide between players and fans. The unfair control of players by teams in the past has been replaced by the free agent "gun for hire" mercenary perception of modern players.

In spite of all this, there remains a select few players that stand above the problems and distractions of modern baseball. Today, one of them, Mariano Rivera , announced his impending retirement.

His on the field accomplishments are impeccable. He will retire as the undisputed all time best closer in baseball history. Arguably the most important member of multiple New York Yankees World Series champions. His entire career spent with the Yankees, his was a uniquely singular career.

Statistics aside, Rivera has endeared himself to baseball fans with his winning attitude and humble demeanor. Lithe and slight when compared to his overmuscled    
comtemporaries, he was no streoidal mutant. His signature pitch, the cutter, was no surprise to hitters, it was just unhittable. His job, closing out games for the most famous baseball team in the world, on the biggest stages of the sport, in the highest tension moments, was his stock and trade. In a role where the best would flame out and lose effectiveness after a short window of a few years, Rivera thrived for nearly two decades.

No one is perfect, and in baseball, the Hall of Fame consists of hitters that failed 7 out of every 10 times at bat. Rivera was not perfect. He had a few high profile losses in the playoffs and World Series. But there was never anyone else you would have wanted to be in any of these tight and precarious situations.

To me, his greatness as a player was not just in his impossibly high percentage of success in crunch time. His greatness as a player, a person, and an example for all shone also in his failures. He never let a blown save or game change his outlook or performance. It's easy to own success, but Rivera owned his failures as well. No excuses, no shirking responsibility. At it's best, baseball is a metaphor for life, and Rivera's career has taught us not just how to win, but how to lose as well.

How lucky we all have been to witness the career of Mariano Rivera. We won't see the likes of his anytime soon.

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