Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Troubling Legacy of Mariano Rivera

Greatest closer of all time? Absolutely. Greatest Yankee of all time? In the discussion. Driving force behind four championships? Definitely. Responsible for some of the best moments of my life? Uh huh.

So why do I get a queasy feeling in my stomach every time I look at Mariano Rivera?

For all his greatness, for all his icy nerves, for all the times he's come up huge, Rivera is still responsible for three of the most devastating, painful defeats in Yankees history. Three post-season series that the Yankees would have won if Rivera had been able to shut the door. Three times that Rivera stood on the mound moments away from clinching a deciding game. Three games that I'm still not over, years later and hundreds of converted save opportunities under the bridge.

1) Game 4, 1997 Divisional Series - The Yankees seemed to be on their way to a successful title defense, leading the Indians two games to one in the best-of-five, with Game 4 at Jacobs Field. Leading 2-1 with two outs in the 8th, Rivera gave up an opposite-field, game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. The Indians went on to win the game and the series.

As Rivera's legend grew, much was made of this game being a necessary lesson in his development as a closer. I'm still not sure what that lesson was. By that time, Rivera had completed a dominant season as a primary set-up man, and a dominant 43-save season as closer, with post-season experience in 1995 and 1996. If losing that series to Cleveland really did somehow strengthen his resolve, and helped lead to his incredible 1998-2000 run, fine, the loss was worth it. But I don't buy it. Rivera simply made a bad pitch at the worst possible time.

2) Game 7, 2001 World Series - Ugh. Three outs away from a fourth straight World Series title. Three outs away from sending Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez out on the right note. Three outs away from not letting that season's stunning late-inning heroics from Martinez and Scott Brosius go to waste.

Rivera defenders point out that there wasn't a hard hit ball in the inning, which is true. But he still allowed a game-tying hit to Tony Womack, made an awful throwing error and hit Craig Counsell, that spastic little gnat, with a pitch. This one is all on Rivera.

3) Game 4, 2004 ALCS - A four-pitch walk to Kevin Millar to lead off the inning of what should have been the clinching game of a humiliating sweep of the Red Sox. Everything that happened after that, from Dave Roberts's steal, to Tom Gordon's Game 5 meltdown, to Curt Schilling becoming even more of an insufferable prick, to the movie version of Fever Pitch, stemmed from that inexcusable walk. I feel ill.

There is little doubt in my mind that, had Rivera done his job in those three games, the Yankees would have won six straight World Series, and Bill Simmons would never have been able to publish his awful book.

Mariano Rivera has a career post-season ERA of 0.80 and has converted 34 of 38 saves successfully. His career ERA+ is 200. I'm not an idiot. I know that most other closers would probably have blown three times the number of big games he has, and that he's provided countless more thrilling moments than horrifying moments. I also know that this post epitomizes what most people hate about Yankees fans.

But is there another closer alive who could have blown those three games and not been labeled a choker? Rivera's legacy was already defined and established before the 2001 and 2004 gag jobs, so he's gotten the benefit of the doubt from fans and the media.

I'm not ungrateful to Rivera. Without him, who knows how the last ten years would have played out. But I'll never be able to get rid of the bad memories, and they stand out more than the good ones. I should love this man unequivocally, but there's too much cognitive dissonance associated with him.

I propose that Rivera change his entrance song from Enter Sandman, in order to better capture my conflicted, guilty and confused feelings about him. A few options:

1. Let Down/Radiohead
2. Rebellion (Lies)/Arcade Fire
3. The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine/Spoon
4. In-Between Days/The Cure
5. Once in a Lifetime/Talking Heads (this will work best if Rivera is willing to do David Byrne's spastic dance all the way in from the bullpen)

Where is Howard Spira When You Need Him?

In a piece for Esquire a few years ago, pop culture guru and occasional sports columnist Chuck Klosterman argued that rooting for one team your whole life is a foolish and outdated concept. After all, the argument goes, you end up simply rooting for a uniform and a logo, with no regard to the players, management or style of play of a particular organization. It makes more sense, according to Klosterman, to shift allegiances based on who your favorite players or teams are at any given moment.

I dismissed the argument out-of-hand upon first reading it, and wrote Klosterman off as just another smug, soulless hipster who jerks off to his own pop culture allusions. Which he is. But in recent years, it has become harder than ever to root for my favorite team, as the Yankees' brass seemed to make a point of acquiring every player in baseball I despise, starting with Roger Clemens in 1999.

This off-season, flush with a newfound sense of purpose stemming from his victorious power struggle, GM Brian Cashman excised some of the worst cancers from the roster by getting rid of Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Jaret Wright. 600 pounds of dead weight gone, not counting Wright's chaw.

Still, when compared with the 1996-2001 dynasty, or even the less successful teams of the '80s and early '90s, the 2007 Yankees contain several players for whom it will consistently kill me to root, which makes me worry that Klosterman might be on to something.

  • Alex Rodriguez – I know, I know. He's one of the greatest players of all time, and clutchness can't be proven, and gay jokes aren't funny and blah blah blah. But you know what? The guy's just a dick. He gleefully signed the biggest contract in baseball history, then submarined his team and forced a trade when – surprise! – the weight of his contract burdened the Rangers to the point that they couldn’t compete. Suspiciously polished, he still takes every opportunity to lift himself up in public at the expense of other players. I hated him when he was a rookie in Seattle and I hate him now. Seeing him remain ringless has been the silver lining in the Yankees' recent run of postseason failure.
  • Jason Giambi – A cheater. Also: greasy.
  • Johnny Damon – Seems like a nice enough guy, but he was the face of the most loathsome group of players ever assembled. An adulterer, a self-confessed idiot and the subject of one of the most asinine episodes of MTV Cribs of all time. (Hanging in Damon’s dining room was an enormous painting featuring the 2004 Red Sox as the apostles at the Last Supper, with Johnny himself as Jesus, of course. And something tells me he doesn't mean it in a campy way.)
  • Carl Pavano – Gutless, a liar, and not a good baseball player.
  • Phil Hughes – He is getting my hopes up way too high, and there's no way he can deliver what I expect from him in his career. I blame him for this.

Despite all of this, despite the egos, steroids and ill-conceived hairstyles, I’ll still live and die with the Yankees this year. Why?

I guess it’s because I’ve rooted for them for the last 30 years, no matter what. I stood by them through the 1980s when they failed Don Mattingly by not giving him some decent pitching. I stood by them through miserable no-chance seasons like 1982 and 1989 when all hope seemed lost. I stood by them after heartbreaking Game 7 losses, when I wanted to stay in bed for a week and shave my eyebrows off for no reason. I have been steadfast through retirements, trades, career-ending injuries and woeful mismanagement.

Sticking with a losing team is easy. Forcing yourself to fall in love with a bunch of jerks is not. Still, there is something fundamentally unsound about Klosterman’s argument. Abandoning the team you grew up rooting for because you hate a few of the players is a douche move. Maybe I am just rooting for a uniform now, but maybe that's the point.

There's much more losing than winning in fandom, even for Yankees fans. Most seasons end without a championship. But the payoff when your team does win is immense, from the feeling of community the win engenders to the immense personal satisfaction that all the dark days and tough losses led to something great.

Switching allegiances every couple of years to follow a favorite player or style of play can't possibly offer the same reward, because the suffering is gone, and the connection isn't as deep.

So, come on ARod, let's do this!