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)