On the Divine Right of Closers

If Mariano Rivera did not exist, would we have to invent him?
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Mariano Rivera didn’t die two weeks ago, although some of his knee ligaments did. He’ll most likely come back in 2013 and still be Mariano Rivera. His knee ligaments don’t throw his cutter, or at least aren’t the most important body parts in his prolonged, heroic dominance. Thanks to the wonders of postmodernity, Rivera’s pregame knee injury got roughly as much media scrutiny—at least in the New York metropolitan statistical area—as JP Morgan Chase & Co. dropping $2 billion down a subway grate.

I happened to be in the penumbra of a flat-screen TV tuned to the MLB Network at the precise moment Rivera went down in a heap on the warning track two Thursdays ago. Within minutes, if not seconds, of the injury, MLB had cut to a live feed from the warning track of Kauffman Stadium. The situational body language (and MedEvac golf-cart) made it clear that a balding, olive-skinned Yankee had a pretty serious thorn in his paw. My immediate reaction was to wonder why any channel, even one with a purview as narrow as the MLB Network, was so concerned about Raul Ibanez.

I also happened to be standing next to two pretty committed Yankees fans at said precise moment. The notion of Ibanez being hurt, which I announced out loud, wasn’t exactly greeted with joy, but it didn’t cause wailing and gnashing of teeth, either. But within five seconds it became clear that it was Rivera, not Ibanez, who was getting swaddled by teammates and training staff like a particularly valuable oil-slicked pelican. The Yankees supporters got quiet, and serious, for a minute, and the non-Yankee fans present felt obliged to apologize to them, in the tone of finding out a co-worker’s non-nuclear relative has passed away.

Rivera is literally irreplaceable—no one will be allowed to wear number 42 in MLB games after he retires, save for April 15 every year, when everyone will have to wear it, including whoever is closing games for the Yankees. Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, even if he doesn’t succeed in his already-announced comeback. In the 45 years since the save was invented (and retroactively applied to the game’s foregoing century of results) no one has saved more games than Rivera; in the nearly twenty-years that Rivera has been coming into games, no one murked futile hopes, both physically and spiritually, more routinely than the Yankees’ wax-faced reaper of bats.

***

The modern-day closer is a mutant. There wasn’t always such a thing as a ninth-inning relief specialist. And I don’t mean that the popularity of the “save” statistic created a job for game-finishing closers, or even their antecedent, the “fireman” job that began with guys like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage, who routinely pitched 2+ innings and were under enormous peer pressure to bear both steampunk-Madden-computer names and reverse-Terminator hipster mustaches.

Literally all I mean by “there wasn’t always such a thing as a ninth-inning relief specialist” is that literally there wasn’t always such a thing as a ninth inning. In the 1845 rules of baseball, there were only 21 outs (f.k.a. “counts”) in a game. The super-macho, super-intense last three outs were recorded in the seventh frame, just like Little League. Even though games have always had endings, a specialized role for game-ending pitchers didn’t evolve until just the other day, in the geological time scale of baseball. There have been relief specialists since forever ago.

Ellis “Old Folks” Kinder, one of the immortals captured in David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49, was converted to a reliever mid-career a la John Smoltz and posted 100+ wins and saves for his career. Also, in 1947, a seagull dropped a three-pound smelt on the mound while Kinder was pitching. The Washington Senators of the '20s had frequent recourse to a dude named Firpo Marberry in high-leverage situations, and he rarely disappointed. Also, he was nicknamed “Firpo” because his on-field mean mug resembled an Argentinian boxer named Luis Firpo. Firpo Marberry later lost an arm in a car crash, but continued to pitch effectively in old-timers' games. None of the preceding is made up, I would like to add.

***

But for all the tetanus-era Rabelaisian swagger of Firpo and Old Folks,  and later the Goose and Mr. Fingers, baseball's appeal to the imagination, the demotic relatability that made the game into something of a civic religion for 20th century America (I am aware it is the 21st century), was mostly driven by the dream of standing at the bat. Way back in 1888, it's Mighty Casey (and his teammates, Cooney, Barrows, Flynn, and Blake) who receives the aspirations of Mudville fans; of the man who wins the high-leverage at-bat against Casey we only read that of how the "writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip." 64 years later, in Malamud's The Natural, that writhing pitcher gets a name, Herman Youngberry. In the book, the Pittsburgh starter is so terrified of Roy Hobbs (himself a pitcher of no mean talent) that he faints, and the phenom Youngberry, a prelapsarian reflection of Hobbs' vanished youth, is summoned from the pen (in the movie, Youngberry is the starter—and doesn't faint, because that would be silly, like an exploding scoreboard—and Nebraska farmboy John Rhoades fills the space of the Youngberry character from the book).

The book and the movie of The Natural have err, divergent resolutions, which I won't explicitly spoil, but suffice it to say that both are about the glory of Hobbs, and neither is about Youngberry/Rhoades. I'm hard up to think of a baseball story, fiction or non-, that glorifies the act of closing. For lots of reasons, some obvious and some I'm straining for, the act of closing is anti-heroic, anti-Promethean even. Think of The Duke from Major League. We never see the Gashouse Gorillas' relief staff in "Baseball Bugs" but I can only assume they looked like the 1946 equivalent of Brett Myers. Of course there is a confirmation bias toward the active triumph of hitting—we remember Joe Carter vs. Mitch Williams, but only because of the drama that unspooled from Carter succeeding and Williams failing. Even in the otherworldly 18 seasons of Mo Rivera, his failures are the most memorable moments—against Cleveland in 1997, against Arizona in 2001, against Boston in 2004. (Just as a statistical aside/jaw-slackener, Rivera's postseason career ERA and WHIP are 0.70/0.759, substantially better than his already ludicrous career regular season marks.)

This inside-out appreciation of Rivera's greatness has as much to do with his own Fordist way of shutting down batters as it does with his general job description (playing for the Yankees doesn't make the greatest closer of all time any more warm and cuddly—interestingly most other Cooperstown-worthy relief pitchers have been vagabonds, moving from city to city like Wyatt Earp, in search of peace that can't come). Rivera's arrival fairly matches up with the advent of the modern closer (no offense if you're reading, Ernie Camacho); the man he succeeded in the Bronx, John Wetteland, left the Yankees after the '96 Series for a big free-agent deal to save games for Texas. Since Rivera's arrival, the saves record was shattered by Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne won a Cy Young and had an 84-game save streak, and Jonathan Papelbon was rated worthy of a five-year, $60 million contract.

Baseball observers schism into intuitionists and empiricists over the matter of closers. Some have been ripping on saves, and the men who make them, as overrated, for decades, and seemingly every year a team—with varying degrees of success—announces an attempt at closer-by-committee. Just as often, sports-talk ululationists and tabloid backpages make the case that teams need brand-name solutions at the back of their bullpen, or everything will be f***ed.

If you watched K-Rod implode as a Met, or have ever watched Matt Capps pitch, you can appreciate the thrift wisdom of Joe Maddon's open-sourced closer solution. If you watched Joe Borowski close games, you can not mind the retail shock therapy of giving a multi-year, mid-10-figure contract to a guy who's probably going to pitch a third as many innings as Jake Westbrook. The position is surely overrated and overpaid, but try to convince someone living in the afterglow of Calvin Schiraldi or Jose Mesa's love.

***

Rivera's injury was the most prominent catastrophe to the closer guild in 2012, but it's been an ugly early season for that particular profession. No fewer than 12 teams have changed closers, because of wonky thumbs, torn ligaments, and talent deficiencies (perceived or real). The internet paranoia kettle, stoked in part by fantasy tweakers, is always shrieking with news about closer legitimacy crises, something that the Yankees haven't known since the first Rudy Giuliani mayoralty.

Mo's absence will be felt more vividly than his presence was, which is probably fitting, giving that we know him through the very few times he didn't quietly dispatch three batters. His actual (deeply great) personality never quite matched with the "Enter Sandman," metal-up-your-patootie sad killer clown role that the Yankees built for him. But Rivera  has created something above and beyond reserving a plot in Cooperstown—he invented a position out of an uncertainty that had existed for more than a century, by refuting that uncertainty with one pitch, over and over again. The era of the superstar closer may not last forever, but with Rivera as foremost example, neither will it be forgotten.


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