July 3, 2013

10 things I'll tell my kids about Mariano Rivera

Today a co-worker asked me if I was still blogging and I told him the last thing I remember writing about was Mariano Rivera.

I was wrong. After touching on Mo's farewell season in April, I wrote about Craig Carton's book (which was fantastic) and the Yankees' corner infield conundrum (which no longer matters with Youk and Teix back on the DL).

With Mo receiving by far the coolest farewell gift from an opposing team and getting the last out in tonight's win – and with the blog on my mind – I decided to write some more about Mo, one of the few stars still suiting up these days for the Yankees.

I read listicles every day, as do many others. It's probably because most people don't like to read more than 140 characters at a time anymore and listicles are easy to skim. So, go ahead, if you even bothered to read my rambling intro, and check out the 10 things I'll tell my children about the greatest closer who ever lived.

1. He threw one pitch
Pitchers are instructed  in middle school and high school to learn to throw off-speed pitches in order to compete. Some pitchers can overpower their way to the majors, but even major league flamethrowers have off-speed stuff to keep hitters off balance. Knuckleballers are the exception to this rule. But Mo was in a league of his own. He threw a fastball that moved away from righties and jammed lefties – the cutter. He didn't even know it could be an effective pitch until a teammate told him in 1997 that he was naturally throwing some strange pitch. From that day on, he didn't need another pitch. One speed, same movement, and...

2. He had pinpoint accuracy
He could throw his cutter wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It was easy to predict what a hitter would do (usually they'd just watch it) because the catcher would set up exactly where the pitch would land (usually on a corner). He hit all the corners and hitters routinely swung at cutters up and out of the zone. He threw 95 mph in his prime, but as he proved in his final season, even at 89 his cutter was still extremely effective because he could put it wherever the catcher signaled.

3. He was scrawny and still feared
He was 6'2" and about 200 pounds but he looked tiny on the mound. He had flawless pitching mechanics that exuded confidence and hitters knew what pitch was coming every time. He was the most feared pitcher in baseball for almost two decades. He broke so many bats, especially against lefties, and he didn't waste any time striking out hitters. It was unbelievable to watch, night after night as I grew up.

4. He didn't fool Edgar Martinez
Superman had a weakness: kryptonite. Pedro Martinez had a weakness: Enrique Wilson. And even Mo had a weakness: Edgar Martinez. Martinez, the best designated hitter of his era, went 11-for-19 with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs against Mo. Every time Mo was asked late in his career who was the toughest hitter he ever faced, he answered, "Edgar."

5. His most memorable performance was a win, not a save
Without a doubt, I will always remember what Mo did in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox. I woke up my parents when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off home run in the 11th inning to send the Yankees to the World Series, but then I told them about what Mo did to give Boone a chance. Three shutout innings to earn the win. At that point in his career, I had thought Mo to be a one-inning guy most of the time and maybe two innings in the playoffs. But three innings? I couldn't believe he was still pitching. He later said he would have wanted to go four innings if Boone hadn't hit that homer.

6. He blew it, once
But you'll have to look it up yourself. After all of these years, I still hate thinking about the 2001 World Series.

7. He was humble, classy and candid
While I studied journalism in college, watching player interviews became more important to me. Mo was the best interviewee, by far. He gave straight answers and told you how he really felt. While he was emotionless on the mound, he put his heart into his responses. And, like any good teammate, he praised his teammates if asked about his individual performance.

8. His son went to my alma mater for a semester
This was the only time our worlds collided. He and his son, Mo Jr., visited Quinnipiac in December 2010, the only time I ever spoke to him. I said, "Mo, can we get a picture for the school paper?" He was gracious enough to stop and turn around for the picture as a mob of students followed him around campus. His son later became a Bobcat, a story that was picked up nationally, but left the school before he played baseball for the team. Unfortunately, we never quite got to the bottom of why he left.

9. He was the last to wear No. 42
Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 throughout baseball, and those who were already wearing No. 42 would be the last to wear that number. Mo was the last of the bunch to retire. Jackie's widow, Rachel, later said that Mo was "worthy" to wear No. 42. That was a big deal to me, to Mo, and to baseball. 

10. He jogged out of the bullpen to "Enter Sandman"
In the early days of his career, he didn't care what song played as he jogged out to the mound. But then in 1999 the Yankees played "Enter Sandman" by Metallica, and it stuck. That song will forever be associated with Mo in baseball circles, and it still gives me the chills.

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