Yankees Magazine: Head of the Class

Even among baseball's all-time greats, Mariano Rivera stands alone

February 5th, 2019
New York Yankees

In the ballroom on the 20th floor of Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel, reporters hastily jotted down notes and fired off tweets as Jeff Idelson, the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, introduced the newest recipients of baseball's highest honor.
"Over 18 seasons with the Mariners, Edgar batted .312 with 309 home runs and 514 doubles, retiring as the all-time leader for his franchise in runs, doubles, walks, RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases. …"
Idelson went one by one down the row of men seated to his left, glancing at prepared remarks as he ticked off illustrious accomplishments.
"We think about Mike -- remarkably consistent. He won 15 or more games and also logged 200 or more innings 11 times …"
Roy Halladay's widow, Brandy, sat near the front of the room, flanked by the couple's two sons, listening intently.
"'Doc' won 66 percent of his decisions, 20th best in history. …"
When Idelson began to speak about the final member of the Class of 2019, however, he needed no cheat sheet. There are stats and numbers galore to describe him, but none come close to encapsulating such a singular talent and remarkable person.
"And Mo," Idelson said, "is Mo.
"When he was on the hill, as we all know, with his signature cutter in tow, it was lights out, game over."
On July 21, Mariano Rivera -- along with Edgar Martínez, Mike Mussina and Halladay, as well as Today's Game Committee selections Harold Baines and Lee Smith -- will officially be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Anyone who has followed baseball over the last two decades knew the day would come for Rivera, by any measure the greatest closer of all time. But the thousands of fans who will celebrate his career in Cooperstown, New York, this summer know that the title only begins to tell the story.
PODCAST: Yankees Magazine Podcast, Episode 45: Rivera, Tulowitzki and Spring Training on the horizon
Less than 24 hours earlier, sitting on a sofa surrounded by family and friends in his New Rochelle, New York, home, Rivera had been waiting for the rarest of phone calls. Just 1 percent of the 19,429 players to have worn a Major League uniform have made it to Cooperstown. As soon as the first staccato notes of the faux-marimba ringtone sounded, the Rivera clan -- Mariano not withstanding -- gasped in excitement. The moment they had anticipated for years was finally upon them.
Rivera's wife, Clara, who is the pastor at the church they built in their town, leaned back and looked to the heavens momentarily, then lovingly clutched her husband's right arm. Mariano III, seated to his father's left, clapped his hands once, then rubbed his palms together, eyeing the cellphone on the table like a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy on Thanksgiving. Jafet and Jaziel smiled from ear to ear, beaming with pride at the news they were about to receive.
But Rivera's reaction was barely detectable to the naked eye. As a player, he stood on baseball's grandest stage, performing solo under the most intense pressure possible, and, win or lose, always was in complete control. His demeanor as the phone rang was no different; if his heart was racing, only he and God knew it.
Fit as ever, wearing black pants and a dark blue, long-sleeve V-neck, Rivera looked down at the phone, then looked straight ahead for a split-second. What was going through his mind? Perhaps he was thinking of 1998, when the greatest season of any team in baseball history ended with him leaping into Joe Girardi's arms -- the first of Rivera's four World Series-clinching performances. Maybe he recalled the final time he put on the pinstripes, when an unconventional pitching change turned into a live-action tearjerker at Yankee Stadium. Or perhaps for an instant Rivera's mind flashed back to the beaches of Puerto Caimito, where a barefoot young boy, the son of a fisherman, developed a love for baseball so intense that it had, at this very moment, led to him being just the second Panamanian in history to enter the sport's most exclusive fraternity.
Rivera's family quieted and looked toward Mariano as he lifted his phone from the table. The relentless ringtone had begun its third cycle when Rivera found the button on the side of the device to silence the noise. With an ocean of anticipation swelling around him, he waited still, taking a brief moment to smile at Clara before answering the call.
"Hello, may I speak with Mariano please?"
"You're speaking to him. Who is this?"
"This is Jack O'Connell."
"Jack, how you doing, man?"
O'Connell, who covered Rivera's entire career, reminded the pitcher that he had promised him five years earlier that he'd be making this call.
"I don't remember what I did yesterday," Rivera quipped.
"Well, I'm calling to tell you that the baseball writers have elected you to the Hall of Fame," O'Connell responded.
A few seconds of light clapping and somewhat-muted cheering ensued. Smiling broadly with his wife's and son's arms around his shoulders, Rivera said, "That's great. That's great."
"Amigo. Amigo," O'Connell continued as the family listened in. "I have another piece of news. You are the first person --"
An eruption of joy drowned out O'Connell's voice. This aborted sentence was the real news of the evening. The humble Rivera might not have been willing to admit that his induction was a fait accompli. But as the Jan. 22 announcement approached, speculation grew that Rivera might become the first player ever to be named on 100 percent of the ballots. And here, finally, was the part of the phone call that hadn't been preordained.

Of the 425 writers who voted, 425 checked off the box next to Rivera's name. History, once again. Baseball's all-time saves leader, the last player to wear No. 42, the only player to have his number retired by the Yankees while he was still active became the first person elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame.
Rivera, so stoic and cool throughout his career, finally couldn't contain himself. He stood up and shouted, swarmed by an embrace of hugs and flying fist-pumps. Doling out kisses and high-fives among the shouts, all the speechless Rivera could do was laugh and smile.
"I mean, I could not be more happy," an ebullient Rivera told the writers assembled at the St. Regis the next day. "To share that with my family, my wife and friends, it felt like when we won the championship in 2009 after being there for a few years and didn't win it. It was an amazing feeling, a great feeling knowing that you were voted 100 percent. It was -- I couldn't comprehend it. But at the same time, I was grateful for it, so thank you guys. Thank you very much."
In the hours in between the phone call and when Rivera slipped on his Hall of Fame jersey, accounts of his heroics poured in from all corners, bringing into focus just how special the slender right-hander was and still remains.
The statistics alone scream out Hall of Famer. Rivera's Major League-record 652 saves are nearly double that of baseball's active leader (Craig Kimbrel, 333). Over one particular hot stretch in 2004, when Rivera established the Yankees' single-season franchise record with 53 saves, he notched a save in 12 straight appearances, including four in four days at the start of June.
A rare hiccup in Rivera's postseason dominance occurred that October, as the Red Sox overcame the reliever and a 3-games-to-none deficit in the 2004 American League Championship Series to eventually win their first world championship in 86 years. In his first appearance of the 2005 season, Rivera gave up a game-tying, ninth-inning home run against Boston. Derek Jeter hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the frame to give Rivera one of his 82 career wins -- fifth most among all Yankees pitchers during his 19 years in pinstripes -- but when the closer allowed five Red Sox runs (one earned) the next day, some wondered if the end was near.
Reports of Rivera's demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.
A week later at Fenway Park, on the day the Red Sox received their World Series rings, thousands of Bostonians cheered him during player introductions, crediting him with helping to lift the Curse of the Bambino. Rivera politely doffed his cap and smiled broadly. A few hours later, he recorded a save, his 338th, then allowed just one other longball the entire season, on Aug. 16. For the year, he posted a career-best 1.38 ERA and finished second to the Angels' Bartolo Colón in the AL Cy Young voting.
Once a skinny shortstop who "hated to pitch" until the Yankees moved him to the mound at age 19, Rivera posted a sub-2.00 ERA in eight of nine seasons between 2003 and 2011, including 2009, when he converted 36 straight saves en route to his fifth World Series and the Yankees' 27th.
In May of 2012, at age 42 and more than 1,000 games into his career, with the all-time saves record tucked safely under his belt, Rivera blew out his knee while shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City. He told reporters to "write in down in big letters -- I'm not going out like this." In 2013, he returned to pitch in 64 games, saving 44.
That was the year of Rivera's "Mo-ment of Thanks" farewell tour, during which he spent time in each city where the Yankees played meeting with fans, employees and others who shared his love for baseball, thanking them for keeping the game going strong and letting them know he appreciated them. More than his 0.70 ERA or 42 saves in the postseason (both MLB records), it was those stories about Mo the person that made the rounds in January after his unanimous election.
There was the one from former Yankees farmhand , recalling his first big league Spring Training in 2012, when he sat dejectedly in an empty clubhouse after undergoing rehab for a torn oblique, trying to play it cool when Rivera walked in.
"Considering I was a nobody A-baller, I kept my eyes down on my feet and minded my own business," Burawa wrote on Instagram. "Next thing I know, he's in the chair next to me, telling me his story, about failing as a starter, about an injury he had when he was younger, about how the setbacks we think are fatal usually end up as speed bumps on a longer, grander road. This is the greatest of all time, taking the time to cheer up a nobody, for no other reason than he thought it was the right thing to do."
If there was a Humanity Hall of Fame, Rivera would certainly merit enshrinement there, too.
"That comes from humble beginnings, remembering where I came from," Rivera said. "Just because I was the New York Yankees closer or because we were winning or losing, that would never change my way to treat people and respect people and react to a game or to the game itself. I've always been a person that has respected everybody."

Stories of Rivera's kindness and grace when encountering fans -- particularly kids -- were too numerous to mention. Notes of congratulations poured in, from former teammates and coaches to fellow titans of sport. In an age of "hot takes" and profitable contrarianism, Rivera achieved something nearly impossible: consensus.
"When athletes are voted in to a Hall of Fame, there is always disagreement. But not when it comes to my old friend, Mariano Rivera," soccer legend Pelé wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of them together. "EVERYONE agrees that you are a great, Mo!"
Guided by his unwavering belief that "God has perfect plans for me," an unbreakable commitment to his family and a natural inclination to treat people from all walks of life with respect, Rivera once again found himself in a class by himself. When asked how he might leverage the platform of being the Hall of Fame's first unanimous electee, Rivera immediately thought of helping others.
"I think that this is the greatest accolade or event that has happened in my life because I want to take the opportunity to use this to build a learning center for the boys in New Rochelle," he said. "That's how, to me, I take the advantage and the opportunity that these blessings have given me."
And so, in 2019, Rivera is officially a Hall of Famer. Just like the cutter he wielded to perfection on the mound, everyone knew it was coming. And yet, at the last second, a flash of brilliance showed why he's still a cut above the rest.