I don’t ever remember a moment like the one Mariano Rivera had at Tuesday’s All-Star Game. In case you didn’t see it, the American League inserted Rivera into the game to start the eighth inning; in anticipation of this, Fox didn’t even go to a commercial break immediately, instead, following the All-Star reliever with a camera as he trotted from the bullpen to the mound as the commentators went silent to let the audience take in the moment. Players from both the American and National League dugouts stood and applauded Rivera as he took the mound, as did the crowd. It may have been the coolest thing I’ve seen in sports all year.
Athletes rarely, if ever, get treated this way. Of course, athletes rarely — maybe never — have the combination of class and talent that Rivera has shown.
A lot of people hate the Yankees, but even among them, you’ll rarely find someone who doesn’t like Rivera. As Tim McCarver pointed out on the broadcast, nobody ever has a bad word to say about him. He’s never been connected to a drug scandal, or been suspended for a role in a brawl, or any manner of boorish behavior of which athletes have ever been guilty. He’s never a contract holdout. He always plays hard. He goes about business professionally, and with a smile on his face.
On a personal level, Rivera’s been married to the same woman for almost 22 years. He’s a family man with three kids. He’s a committed Christian, and he puts his money where his mouth is, running a foundation to help the less-fortunate and personally giving millions of his own money.
His performance on the field is just as impressive. With baseball’s rich history, there are always great debates: Who’s the best starting pitcher ever? The best shortstop? The best power hitter of the modern era? And so on.
But when the debate turns to the best reliever ever, nobody puts up a counter-argument to Rivera. His 638 saves are the most ever. He’s got an incredible 2.20 ERA in 1,254 innings. That’s just the regular season: in 141 postseason innings, he’s got an incredible 0.70 ERA. His 42 postseason saves are far and away a record.
It’s fashionable to compare Rivera to players of old as a “throwback” player, and also equally easy to contrast Rivera to today’s athletes as an example of what’s missing from sports. I usually laugh off these sorts of remarks — people are people, times and technology may change how we perceive them, but they’re really not often that different from generation to generation — but there may be some validity here. In a day where self-promotion is often the norm for athletes, Rivera’s calm, quiet demeanor stands in contrast. In his case, less is more.
We often lament how players of yesteryear didn’t go to the lengths of cheating or bad behavior that players do now, but the truth is, there were plenty of drug issues and other problems back then that were just better hidden in the pre-Internet era. Rivera would stand out as the gold standard in any era.
You sometimes hear the term “once-in-a-generation player” thrown around with great athletes. It’s about the highest compliment you can give an athlete. With Rivera, this may do him a disservice. Considering the total package, he may actually be a once-in-a-lifetime player.