I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the New York Yankees. Deep down, in our heart of hearts, I think we all do. Whether you’re a true fan or an eternal enemy, part of you doesn’t totally commit one way or the other.
For people that hate the Yankees, part of you loves them (or at least loves hating them). You want to see them succeed, if only so that you can laugh at them when they fall from grace. Face it, if the Yankees weren’t any good, who would really care? It’s only when they’re making their 16th playoff trip in 17 years that we all have enough fuel to hate them properly. And the season is made better for everyone when the Yankees are there to be hated in all their successful glory.
And if they don’t succeed (a.k.a. anything less than a World Series trophy)? Well, then fans of the Yankees will turn their love to hate in a heartbeat. Their players & owners have built a level of expectation that’s only met by the most unrealistic of EPL clubs. Only in New York, it’s reasonable to expect it. When your team spends three-quarters of a billion dollars in a single off-season, you expect to see some return on that investment.
For me, my hatred of the Yankees only goes so deep. As an Oriole fan, obviously there are nights when I curse every last one of them (and you too, Jeffrey-fucking-Maier). But as I’ve said before, I watch sports for entertainment and inspiration. And few teams have been more entertaining in my lifetime, for better or worse, than the New York Yankees.
Love them or hate them, there’s a certain level of respect you have to maintain for the Bronx Bombers. For the all-time greats who wore the uniform, their greatness didn’t appear out of thin air. They seized it. And one Yankee proved again this week why he's among them. I’m speaking, of course, about the man who passed Trevor Hoffman for the most games saved in a career with 602: Mariano Rivera.
There have been many up’s & down’s for baseball over the last decade. But one thing that has been as consistent as anything in the sport is this: If you’re the away team playing baseball in the Bronx and you hear “Enter Sandman” come over the loud speakers… you’re probably not winning today.
(Admit it. Even the most rabid Yankee-hater knows that Mo's entrance is one of the badass moments in baseball.)
While Mo got a few opportunities as a starter in ’95, his journey truly began in 1996, when the Yankees decided to make him their set-up man to then-closer, John Wetteland. With that combination in place, the Yankees were 70-3 when leading after 6 innings and Rivera finished 3rd in the Cy Young vote. (Oh, and Yankees won the World Series... and three of the next four... damnit.)
From that season on, he has been as dominant as any single player in sports. In over 1,200 innings, he’s only given up 65 home runs while striking out 1,108. In his 16-year career, he holds an ERA and WHIP (for my money, still the only pitching stats that matter … sorry sabermetricians) of 2.22 and 0.999. And when he enters the postseason, it doesn't get better. It gets absurd. In 139 innings of playoff baseball, Mo has a 0.71 ERA, a WHIP of 0.766, 109 strikeouts, and has given up only 2 (TWO!) home runs. This has all lead to a trophy case that holds 12 All-Star appearances, 5 World Series rings and a World Series MVP trophy.
And of course, he’s done all of this with just one pitch.
Think of the closers who have come and gone in the 16 years that Mo has been dominating with one cut-fastball. Just in the last few seasons, I can think of four off the top of my head that have risen quickly and flamed out just as fast. Jonathan Papelbon was supposed to be the next Mariano Rivera. Now he’s part of a bullpen that’s gagging away the Sawx’s postseason hopes. Joel Nathan has been dominant during the regular season for years, but injuries and lackluster postseason success leaves him well below Mo’s otherworldly level. Brian Wilson and Brad Lidge both had perfect postseasons in their respective World Series-winning years. And both men quickly wound up on the DL the following season.
Oh and did I mention during these last few seasons, Mo has been right there with all of them among the league-leaders in saves during the regular season? Did I also mention he’s 41-years-old? Imagine someone slightly younger than your father closing playoff games at Yankee Stadium. That’s Mariano Rivera.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. And yes, part of the reason Mariano has these unbelievable numbers is because he plays for the Yankees. No other closer in baseball has had as many opportunities as he has to reach these levels of greatness.
But the reason I find this argument to be a bit hollow is because it’s also an argument for calling him one of the greatest pitchers ever. Yankee Stadium, old and new, is a bandbox. Their fans are as callous and fickle as it gets. The pressure to win never leaves for one moment. The expectations are higher than for any other team in any other American sport. (I’ll give a slight nod to European soccer fans. Those dudes are crazy.) And Mariano has met and exceeded those expectations time after time after time. Yes, he has gotten many chances to be great because he plays for New York, but he has capitalized on those opportunities like no player before him.
Not to mention that a big part of the reason the Yankees have been so successful over the last 15 years is because they’ve had the Sandman. How much comfort has the team taken from knowing that Mariano is waiting in the bullpen? How many managers besides Torre & Girardi have had the luxury of knowing as long as they can hold a lead for 8 innings, the 9th one will probably be a matter of routine? And think for a moment about how much the Yankees have struggled to develop the rest of the bullpen. Of all the needs the team has had over the years (as much as a team that's missed the playoffs once in 17 years has needs), the one area GM Brian Cashman has struggled to maintain most is the relief corp in front of Rivera. To be fair, every team struggles in that department, but that’s exactly my point. Year after year, game after game, the only position the Yankees haven’t had to worry about in the last 15 seasons is the one many teams start from scratch on every year: their closer.
Look, I know plenty of people reading this are saying to themselves, “Dear Lord, Aps, stop jerking off Yankee fans and give me a reason to care.” And that’s fair. It’s hard for most Yankee-haters to allow themselves to root for or respect anyone in pinstripes. I don’t expect many of you to climb on board this Mariano love train. But I do believe greatness should be recognized and appreciated. A player of Mariano’s caliber doesn’t come along very often. And when they do, only those who are fooling themselves can believe that what they’re witnessing is anything less than incredible.
So if you must hate, go ahead and hate. But at the very least admit that seeing one man with one pitch playing for one team for sixteen seasons and amassing a career such as this is a special thing.
You don’t have to like it. But you’re only cheating yourself to ignore it.