Nice Guy Finishes First

Mariano Rivera earned a historic honor by doing more than throwing a baseball

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The impossible has happened: New York Yankee Mariano Rivera was unanimously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this week.

And if you want to know why Rivera’s selection was the first unanimous decision if Hall of Fame History, part of the answer is: Enrique Wilson.

Let’s take in just how historic this accomplishment is first, though.

Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb dominated baseball in the early 20th century. Ruth changed not only his own game but the concept of professional sports. Cobb retired with a career stolen base record that held for almost fifty years and a career hit record which would stand for almost sixty. They were part of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1936 — but neither was unanimous.

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, but if you took each one away he would still have more than 3,000 hits. That’s amazing! He wasn’t a unanimous Hall of Famer. Neither was Willie Mays, nor Mickey Mantle, nor Cy Young. Back in what may have been the most inexplicable election result of 2016, three voters found a way to vote against Ken Griffey Jr. Sixteen voters figured out a reason to leave Greg Maddux off their ballots in 2015.

Outrageous as they may seem, these slights are part of the voting process, quirks that happen every year. Or at least, they were until this week.

Rivera’s statistical record is unquestionably one of the best in the game’s history. The back of his baseball card speaks to a long career marked by health and consistent performance at a high level. If he isn’t the most talented reliever in baseball history, he is certainly the most accomplished.

Like Ruth, Rivera had a cultural impact on the game. The strike-shortened, 144-game 1995 season (Rivera’s first) saw 275 total complete games pitched across Major League Baseball. In his Rivera’s final year, 2013, there were only 124; the number has continued to dwindle and there were only (appropriately) 42 in 2018.

Still, while Rivera racked up outs and helped demonstrate the importance of the bullpen, relief pitchers remain less important than starters. He played his position excellently, but just how important is his position?

Worcester, Mass. sports columnist Bill Ballou announced his intention to abstain from voting because he couldn’t cast a ballot for a pitcher who tossed about 70 innings a year. It’s a valid point. Even with modern bullpens being used more and starters pitching fewer innings, relief pitchers are pretty easy to replace. Case in point: The Yankees really haven’t missed Rivera’s on-field performance in the years since he’s left. Their closers have at times struggled, been injured, or left in trades or as free agents, but other relievers have picked up the slack when needed. (Jorge Posada left an arguably bigger void behind the plate, and he was a full-time DH by the time he retired.)

A reliever — even the best one ever — is still just a reliever. So the question still stands: How does a reliever become the first 100% Hall of Famer?

Now let’s go back to Enrique Wilson, the utility infielder who played in pinstripes from 2001–2004.

In 2001, Rivera blew the biggest save a reliever can blow — Game 7 of the World Series. For the first time in four years, the baseball season would end without a Yankees championship. Since there would be no victory parade for those Yankees, Wilson changed his travel plans and hopped on an earlier flight home to the Dominican Republic. The flight he was originally booked on crashed in Queens a few days later. According to Buster Olney, when Rivera learned about the brush with fate spring training the next year he told Wilson, “I am glad we lost the World Series because it means that I still have a friend.”

For Mariano Rivera, Game 7 of the World Series was still just a game. Human dignity, faith, and good citizenship were always more important than baseball. By the way, he was (and is) better at those things than he ever was at baseball… and you know that he was pretty good at baseball.

There have been many pitchers who have blown postseason saves over the years, but few who have taken it in stride like Rivera. In 2004, he famously blew a save in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series that launched the famous Boston Red Sox comeback from a 3–0 series deficit. The Yankees returned to Fenway Park to start the 2005 season, and the still-giddy Red Sox fans gave Rivera a standing ovation during pre-game introductions. Rivera grinned — grinned! — and good-naturedly tipped his cap to the fans. On his final trip to Fenway eight years later, he was still exchanging yuks over the blown saves.

Need more? Consider that Rivera also helped his (sadly posthumous) fellow inductee Roy Halladay refine his cut fastball… while the two were pitching for opposing division rivals. Or the fact that he spent his final year as a player hanging out with ushers and stadium attendants on every road trip. And those are his actions, which back up the words of his former teammates.

There’s a difference between excellence and greatness. It’s one thing to be talented, but quite another to carry yourself in a way that elevates the dignity of those around you. Even Worcester’s Bill Ballou realized this; he followed up his promise to abstain from voting with a new column: “After further review, I voted for the Hall of Fame — and Mariano Rivera.” Like others, Ballou realized that this wasn’t just about honoring an amazing career, but rewarding someone who carried himself the right way for two decades.

And what a great lesson that is, right? Be as accomplished as you like, but the greatest rewards go to those who are kind, generous, and light-hearted.

He belongs in Cooperstown for what he did, but Mariano Rivera is a Hall of Famer because of who he is.

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