On late Monday afternoon EST a 41 year-old man finally stood alone as the greatest sportsman of his position in his sport. People will argue forever about who the greatest football player was, some will say Pelé, some with say Maradona and some will even say George Best. There is an argument for all three. Same with every other sport. It is one of the greatest things about sport that you can have these different viewpoints but in one sport one man stands so alone at the top of his tree that even the harshest critics from the bitter rivals concede that there is no debate. That man is New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Recording that 602nd save made him statistically the greatest ever but everyone knew he was the greatest many years ago. His 42 postseason saves compared with a 0.71 ERA said everything.
Rivera grew up in a small fishing town in Panama called Puerto Caimito. He dreamed of being a professional football player but a series of injuries to his ankle put pay to those dreams. He used to play baseball with a milk carton as a glove and balls made out of fishing net. He came from a background so poor that the realities of what would await his future would be so stark to what was expected that it must have been nearly impossible to comprehend.
At the age of 17 he was playing shortstop and was passed on by scouts but a year later he pitched and a scout from the New York Yankees saw something in him. He described Rivera as ‘extremely raw’ but he saw something. He would sign for $3,000 which is absolute peanuts in the baseball world and he’d move to the States to start a career playing baseball. He took his time moving up through the minor leagues before setting up for John Wetteland in 1996 as his big break. He had nearly been traded twice by the Yankees but a radar gun showing of 96 MPH saved his bacon. He had heat and was lights out. He would go on to become the closer for the Yankees in 1997 and that is when everything changed.
‘It was a gift from God’ he would be quoted for years as saying. In 1997 Rivera was playing catch with follow Yankee Ramiro Mendoza when he picked up a ball and tried out a new grip. He threw the ball towards Mendoza and it moved wildly. Mendoza threw the ball back and he did it again, and again, and again. This day Mariano Rivera discovered his cut-fastball and baseball would never be the same. Not just for Rivera or for the Yankees but the whole of the sport.
Here as I write in 2011 Rivera still only throw one pitch – the cut-fastball. Every opposing hitter knows what he coming. He makes no pretence to throw anything else but still no-one can hit it. The pitch bores in on lefties and righties give up on it. Bats break and outs are recorded. This man has become the greatest relief pitcher of all time with no debate by throwing one single pitch time and time again which no-one can hit.
He has been nicknamed ‘The Hammer of God’ and nobody questions his position as Greatest of All Time. that is quite something for a kid from a small fishing port on the Panamanian coast. It just goes to show us all that if you have that drive and determination then you can be anything that you aspire to be. You can full the full video of Mariano Rivera’s 602nd save behind the link and the only thing that was wrong about the whole situation was that the first person to congratulate him was #55 and not #20. It should have been Jorge Posada behind the plate on Monday for that 9th inning but I suppose that is a moot point.
Mariano Rivera is the greatest there is and I would guess probably the greatest there ever will be. They are some accolades but they aren’t undeserving. He continues to be the greatest even as he approaches his 42nd birthday. Whether it was a gift from God or just dumb luck he found that grip and that pitch the results are the same. A small skinny kid from the slums grew up to become the greatest player ever in his position in the sport of baseball. I think there is a lesson in this story for all of us when we complain about just how hard life is…
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