COOPERSTOWN – The symmetry we’re going to see here Sunday afternoon is going to be perfect for Yankees fans making the pilgrimage from either end of the state.
Mike Mussina will be the starter for the Baseball Hall of Fame induction. As for the closer of the six-man class, could it possibly be anyone else but Mariano Rivera?
Mussina said here Saturday that during Friday’s rehearsal, Rivera broke up the group when he raised his hand and interjected, “Can I ask a question? Why do I always have to go last?”
After making the best career in history out of going last, Rivera had to go in that spot.
There’s only going to be one true closer for this show outside the Clark Sports Center on the Woodstock-type green that might have 60,000 or 70,000 or maybe even more folks here Sunday. No one really knows how many will show up to battle the searing July heat.
They’ll hear from Lee Smith, who once had the all-time saves record before Trevor Hoffman and Rivera came along. They’ll hear from Harold Baines and Edgar Martinez, striking a blow for designated hitters everywhere. And there’s the late Roy Halladay, who will be represented by his widow, Brandy.
They will be the set-up crew for Rivera, the first unanimous inductee in the Hall’s history. He will have a huge contingent of Yankees celebrities on hand from the ’90s and 2000s. The guest list is scheduled to include Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, manager Joe Torre and GM Brian Cashman.
Being with the Yankees is one thing. Being a Yankees Hall of Famer is something else entirely.
“It’s unbelievable,” Rivera said. “You can’t measure it. Just wearing the pinstripes and seeing them all over the world, it’s something special.”
The presence of Seattle jerseys for Martinez has been a big surprise here the last couple of days. But there’s no question Rivera is the No. 1 man in town. The movie theater-style marquee outside one souvenir shop on Main Street says simply, “Enter Sandman. 100% Unanimous.”
You’ve probably heard many of the numbers before. The 652 saves (most all-time) and the 2.21 ERA, lowest for any pitcher in the last 100 years with a minimum of 1,000 innings. Of course, there’s the not-a-typo postseason ERA of 0.70 and the 42 saves under the bright lights of October and November, both the most in history.
Rivera’s 100 percent vote speaks to his greatness on the mound obviously but also to his stature in the game as one of its great humanitarians. Rivera is the last player to wear Jackie Robinson’s fabled No. 42 and he said here Saturday that Robinson is the one member of the Hall he wished he had met. Rivera is a God-like figure in his native Panama and was revered by players around the game, especially as his career wound down.
Each year in spring training, he sat for a chat the with Yankees’ young pitchers. Especially the Latinos. But veterans came up to him all the time, too. Halladay approached him at the 2008 All-Star Game in old Yankee Stadium for advice on Rivera’s famous cutter, and the ball marked with a pen to show the secrets is in the deceased pitcher’s display in the Hall’s Museum.
“When you have All-Star Games, you always chit-chat with the guys exchanging your success,” Rivera said. “We were just talking. I was talking with Halladay, and he asked me how I throw the cutter and I taught him. He did good and my guys got mad at me. That’s all right. That’s part of me.”
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) July 19, 2019
Rivera joked he would have made even more money than he did had he charged guys he gave advice to.
“That’s how many players – hitters and pitchers – I spoke to and give them advice. It’s part of me,” he said. “I always want people to do good and to have success.”
During the 2013 season, Rivera staged what were billed as “Mo-Ments of Thanks” in each visit to ballparks, where he met locals and ballpark employees, many of whom worked only behind the scenes, to thank them for their contribution to the game.
I was fortunate to be on hand for Rivera’s hour with Blue Jays employees that summer in Toronto, and it was a surreal scene. There was laughter as Rivera talked about looking forward to lounging on his couch in retirement in his pajamas. There was plenty of baseball talk, and there was raw emotion as Rivera spoke in reverent hushed tones about his close relationship with late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner died in 2010, and Rivera was the player who placed roses on home plate during a pregame ceremony at Yankee Stadium three days after The Boss’ death.
As Rivera recounted that day in Toronto, Steinbrenner’s later years were spent mostly in Tampa, and he would only visit with the team when they would come south to meet the Rays.
“Someone would always come to get me and say, ‘Mo, The Boss is looking for you,’ ” Rivera said that day. “When I got there, he’d say, ‘How are you doing?’ I’d say, ‘I’m OK, Boss.’ He’d say, ‘You OK? Feel good?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, Boss. Feel good.’ And he’d say, ‘Remember I love you’ and I’d say, ‘I love you too, Boss.’ ”
When I asked Rivera here Saturday what The Boss would say about this weekend, he spoke with the same passion.
“That’s one person I would love for him to be here. Because I know that he would be proud of me,” Rivera said. “For sure he would be proud of me. He would say ‘Kid, great job.’ He always called me Kid.”
How much would Rivera like to see Steinbrenner get in the Hall someday?
“Oh my god,” he said. “If I had to give it all, I would do that.”
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) July 20, 2019
It was Steinbrenner who first greeted Rivera in the clubhouse after the tough loss in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona, when Rivera gave up the tying and winning runs. Many of the national postseason media corps were in the house for Rivera’s three great failures: The Sandy Alomar home run in Cleveland that turned the 1997 division series, the loss in Arizona and the Game 4 defeat in Boston that started the Yankees’ collapse in the 2004 ALCS.
Greatness sometimes means coming back from adversity, too.
“That’s part of the game, and I understood those moments are going to happen,” he said. “It happened in the World Series, happened in the playoffs, happened during the regular season. I understood that. You just have to forget it and move on. I didn’t even remember. What did you ask me?”
I started to reiterate the question but Rivera smiled and interrupted because he got me. That was his point.
“You have to have a short memory,” he said. “As a closer, whatever it is good or bad, you have to forget it and move on. That really helped me to continue to do my job.”
“You think about how he handled that pressure every time he went into a game in New York,” marveled Smith. “That guy was unbelievable. And the one thing he did was he kept himself on an even keel no matter what. He didn’t have a whole lot of problems but when it did happen … it showed you his personality. He didn’t let anything bother him.”
Mussina said he was always impressed by the confidence with which the Yankees played after he signed with them as a free agent in 2001. Rivera might have had just a tad to do with that.
“We still argue about who’s older,” said Mussina, who is 50 and has the 49-year-old Rivera by 11 months. “It feels like how it did 10, 12, 15 years ago for the two of us. It’s awesome to go in the same year as him.”
Mussina joked Rivera should just show up later in the ceremony, like he used to do during games.
“I just think he didn’t want to sit up there all that time and go sixth,” said a grinning Mussina. “But we’re not allowed to change much here. They have a system, and they like their system.”
And just like in his playing days, that system has Rivera making sure to provide a proper finish.