Legendary New York Yankee closer Mariano Rivera is winding down an extraordinary career. Rivera, who is universally understood to be the greatest closer ever, will soon jog in from the bullpen one last time. Rivera first became a dominant closer and a fixture of the New York sports world when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, September 11th was just another day on the calendar, and sending an attachment by email was still considered high tech by many. In this, his last year, he is still one of the best in the game at what he does.
Rivera has been broadly recognized for his excellence and his longevity. Closers generally have shorter careers. Recent baseball history is filled with closers like Eric Gagne or Keith Foulke, who were not in the big leagues when Rivera started his career, had solid big league careers, even appeared in one or more All Star games, and retired during the time Rivera has been, and remains, an active closer. Rivera has also been celebrated for his astounding post-season record. Because he played with the Yankees, Rivera had the opportunity to pitch in 96 post-season games. Over those 141 innings Rivera struck out 110 and walked 21 while posting an ERA of 0.70.
Rivera was not, however, infallible in the post-season. Yankee fans who are old enough to remember Rivera's entire career will recall three times when Rivera could not close the door in key games and series. The most recent was in 2004 when Rivera could hold the lead in game four of the ALCS against the Red Sox. This led to the Red Sox coming back from being down three games to none, to defeat the Yankees and go on to win the World Series. Three years earlier, Rivera could not hold on to a one run lead against the Diamondbacks in the 9th inning of game seven of the World Series. The Diamondbacks won that game and that series with two runs in the bottom of the ninth against Rivera. Four years before that, in Rivera's first year as a closer, he gave up a game tying home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. in game four of the LDS against the Indians, a game that had the Yankees won would have sent them to the ALCS. The Yankees ended up losing that series three games to two.
Rivera's career was long enough and he played for a good enough team that after each of these tough losses he had a chance to keep pitching in the regular season and post-season. In each case, he seemed to come back even stronger than he had been before. Rivera's resilience, as demonstrated by these returning from these three defeats, has also been an important, if often overlooked, part of his success. Nobody, even the great Mariano Rivera, is perfect. Great athletes must be able to bounce back from defeat; and Rivera proved over and over he was able to do this.
For closers, resilience is particularly challenging and important because they often pitch in extremely high leverage and high profile situations. A batter who strikes out with the tying run on base to end a game will usually get a few more plate appearances before batting again in a similarly important situation. A closer who blows a save, on the other hand, will not usually play again until the last inning of another close game. Mitch Williams, a top left-handed reliever in the late '80s and early '90s, for example, was never again effective after giving up Joe Carter's walk off home run in the 1993 World Series. Donnie Moore, a closer in the 1980s for the California Angels, gave up a big home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS. His career quickly wound down after that, before he tragically took his own life. Numerous other closers have been unable to bounce back from injury or a few high profile bad outings.
Between the end of this season and the day in summer of 2019 when Rivera gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, the legend of Rivera will likely grow, as he is not only a great pitcher, but a very likable player who is broadly respected by almost everybody in the game. Over time his post-season accomplishments will grow in people's minds and his few failures will be forgotten. Fans, particularly Yankee fans, should remember that Rivera could not win every game, but even after losing a big one, he was able to quickly get back to the top of his game. This is also an important part of the legend of Mariano Rivera.