It was four decades ago when Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, regularly promoted his heavyweight fights by waving his right fist and boasting, “I am the Greatest … I am the Greatest.”
At Yankee Stadium today, Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, unquestionably the greatest closer in Major Baseball League history, will be honored in ceremonies before the Bronx Bombers oppose Buster Posey and the San Francisco Giants.
Rivera announced during spring training that he would be retiring at the end of the season, his 19th in the Major Leagues, all with the Yankees.
During his career, the Panama native entered the weekend with a 2.22 earned-run average in 1,112 regular-season games. In 1,229 2/3 innings, he allowed 997 hits, walked 286 and struck out 1,171 en route to setting the career save record with 652. He converted 89.1 percent of his save opportunities.
Rivera was even more impressive during the postseason. In 96 games, he fashioned a microscopic 0.70 ERA with 42 saves. No other reliever has 20 postseason saves. His only postseason loss came in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
To fully understand and appreciate what Rivera has accomplished, one must analyze his background. He started playing baseball in Panama at age 7 and had to use a shoe box for a glove. He did not get his first baseball glove until he was 10 years old.
While gaining the reputation as the greatest closer in Major League history, Rivera actually began his big league career as a starting pitcher.
He split his first season in the Majors in 1995 starting and relieving. He was moved permanently to the bullpen after the Yankees acquired starter David Cone from the Toronto Blue Jays on July 28, 1995. He never again started another Major League game.
Rivera served as closer John Wetteland’s setup man in 1996, helping the Yankees capture their first World Series since 1978 by beating the Atlanta Braves in six games. After Wetteland departed as a free agent following the 1996 season, Rivera became the closer.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
Rivera’s teammate from the time of the trade in 1995 through the 2000 campaign, Cone calls the 13-time All-Star “the most universally respected the beloved player in the game today.
“There always has been a calmness about Mariano and he’s been like that since Day 1 and the Yankees feed off that. It’s amazing that he has been so successful, basically being a one-pitch pitcher, a cut fastball. Batters knew it was coming and they still couldn’t hit it.”
When Rivera retires, he will be the last Major Leaguer to wear No. 42 as Major League Baseball officially retired the number in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cairo’s Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. Rivera, who had worn that number, was grandfathered.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, had repeatedly said how pleased she was that Rivera would be the last player to wear No. 42 because of the class he exuded on and off the field.
Rivera is far more than the saves’ record holder as he has done an enormous amount of work in the community.
He spends time in Panama during the off-season where he provides Christmas gifts for local children.
In 2004, he opened two Intel Community Centers in Panama City, Panama, as a part of an after-school program that gives area youngsters access to computers and adult mentors to help them develop self-confidence and learning skills.
He helped finance the building of a new elementary school and new church building in Puerto Caimito, Panama.
In September 2008, he sponsored a youth baseball tournament in the Bronx. In December of that year, he delivered Christmas gifts to students at a Harlem high school.
A deeply religious man, Rivera has used his Mariano Rivera Foundation to help build churches in New York and Panama.
During his final trip to each Major League city this year, the 43-year-old has spent time with behind-the-scenes club employees and/or fans, thanking them for their contributions to the game. These were not the typical five-minute, “hi-and-bye” gatherings but 45-minute to one-hour sessions. Nobody left those meetings without an autographed baseball and a photo with Rivera. This is believed to be the first time a player acknowledged workers and fans in this manner.
While Rivera never won an MVP Award, he definitely is an MVP – Most Valuable Person.
—The Albany Herald Editorial Board