Why We Watch: Fernando Rodney, or The Archer and the Magic Plantain

His hat is bumped. His starchy banana-like fruit is supernatural. Fernando Rodney is a closer, but thankfully he's also a lot more interesting than that.
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An excerpt from The Archer and the Magic Plantain,  a children’s’ story

“But what if I can’t hit the target, Magic Plantain?” said Fernando. “It’s so far away.”

“Don’t worry, Fernando,” said the Magic Plantain. “As long as you keep me by your side, you won’t miss. Just draw back the invisible bow and aim for the sky.”

And so it was for all the season. And Fernando thought he had become so good he no longer needed Magic Plantain because he could hit the target all by himself. Fernando decided to eat Magic Plantain. And then the next day...

The 2013 Mariano Rivera farewell tour is unfolding as scripted, give or take. He’s getting outs, recording saves and maintaining a flawless record all while relying on his one signature pitch, which remains as unhittable as ever even though hitters know it’s coming. Even Yankee haters can’t help but show their respect as Mo makes his final visit to the away ballparks; opposing managers issue heartfelt plaudits and… you know what? I’m boring myself writing this.

Sure, Rivera is the nearest thing to perfection ever to grace a bullpen, but in baseball as in life, perfection can be oppressively dull. Since he took over the closer role for the Yankees, Rivera’s presence on the mound has mostly allowed various spectators to head for the exits early; as dazzling as he has been, as unassailable as his astonishing postseason performances are, there was never really much tension or drama to it. He was great, and no one would argue that. But it could be argued that he was maybe a little too great.

The lasting images from Mariano’s career will be the times he failed, because they were so rare. The hit he gave up to Luis Gonzalez in the 2001 World Series, his battles with David Ortiz in the 2004 American League Championship Series -- this is the closest Rivera would come to generating drama. At his best, he was drama’s opposite. There are a number of reasons why Mariano was this way: that cut fastball, those teammates, a basic and basically inarguable genius for a difficult game. The worst of these reasons, and one of the more enduring, is Mariano’s personification of the “closer mentality.” There are a bunch of reasonable compliments wrapped up in that phrase. But man, that phrase.

The closer mentality is one of the game’s most relentlessly tang-ed intangibles, a buzzword that scouts and managers seek and deploy frequently and delightedly. This mental state can’t be taught or transferred or statistically measured, although there are any number of crummy columnists who can sketch its outlines for you. But the basic principle is that a pitcher needs to be born with it. The closer’s mentality has often been mistaken for cocksure arrogance when personified in the person of such relievers as Rod Beck, John Rocker or Kenny Powers, but Rivera showed the true way of the closer with his total emotional detachment.

Nothing seemed to faze him -- there was no evident trouble bouncing back from the rare blown save, no celebratory fist pumps after the hundreds of non-blown saves, generally no reactions whatsoever. This may all be attributed to Rivera’s humble and passionate spiritual… and again, I’m bored. This is the idea, and all very much to Rivera’s credit, but this is about Why We Watch. So let’s talk about Mariano Rivera’s opposite. Let’s talk about Fernando Rodney.


Mariano Rivera delivers his pitch with his signature graceful tango scoop. Fernando Rodney, when the Tampa Bay Rays need him to close out a win, does not do that. He pitches, sure, but his movement is a violent punch thrown with such force it leaves him hopping off the mound towards first base. Rivera wears the pinstripes well, and will be known as the last Major Leaguer to wear Jackie Robinson’s holy number 42; Rodney is known for his extravagantly cocked hat-brim. Where Rivera has held onto the closer position since officially taking it over, Rodney has had to fight for it each time, with three different teams. And where Rivera robotically and professionally celebrates his victories by simply shaking his catcher’s hand, Rodney wheels around a flamboyantly shoots invisible arrows into the Tropicana dome. They are different, then. But this is not “who do you want your kid to grow up to be?” or “who is a better co-worker.” It’s “who do you want to watch?” And here, and mostly only here, is where Fernando Rodney has something on The Great Rivera.

One of the first noticeable peculiarities about Rodney is that cap and its angle. Although far from the first to tilt his brim, Rodney has often pushed it to performance art levels. This sartorial decision seems innocent enough, even slightly laudable in its insistent if not necessarily flattering swagger. That is, until you read the comment section on any article about Rodney’s hat tilt. Baseball purists are driven to apoplexy usually reserved for steroid discussions where Rodney’s hat is concerned. But luckily he plays for baseball’s coolest dad, Joe Maddon, a chill fiftysomething who is on record as a new age parent who just loves to see his kids expressing themselves. He is a manager who can live with Fernando Rodney as closer.

It’s true that the angle of the dangle on Rodney’s brim may be directly proportional to the level of comfort and support he’s getting from his coaches. Not unlike Sylvester Stallone’s character in the classic 1987 father-son arm-wrestling drama “Over the Top,” Rodney seems to gain confidence from the tilt. It’s like it’s a switch that turns on Rodney’s closer mentality, however briefly and fitfully. It’s a little weird, maybe, but is it much weirder than celebrating a dramatic win by crisply shaking Francisco Cervelli’s hand?


In his early years in the MLB with the Detroit Tigers, Rodney was being groomed for the closer spot. It didn’t stick right away. Watching him on the mound in save situations was like watching a shy kid get called upon to do a difficult math problem in front of the class. Rodney’s sleepy-dog eyes always looked to be on the verge of shedding tears. He would softly pound his glove and stare off despondently into space with each base runner he put on. He always looked like he wanted to disappear. Tigers fans encouraged him in that wish.

And when the Tigers added Todd Jones to the bullpen in 2006, he did. Relieved to be back in a middle relief role, Rodney stayed there until replacing the aging Jones in the middle of the 2008 season. That was when Rodney first seemed to have cracked the code to being a closer –- or at least to have done the math on where the money is for relievers.

In 2010, Rodney cashed in as a free agent and went to the Los Angeles Angels. Surprisingly, it was not to serve as the team’s closer. Fate, in the form of an injury to then-closer Brian Fuentes would shortly make Rodney the go-to guy in the ninth. But he lost the job again in 2011 and continued to lose innings as he lost favor with the by-the-book Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Rodney asked for a trade. Here was an assertiveness that was not always evident on the mound. It was a sign, maybe, that things would soon get good for Fernando.

Something about Joe Maddon’s loose and quirky managerial style clearly worked for Rodney. Thanks again to an injury to the then-closer -- this time Kyle Farnsworth -- Rodney was given a chance to close, and this time he owned it. In 2012, Rodney was an All-Star, the American League Comeback Player of the Year, and broke the record for single season ERA by a relief pitcher.

Rodney even developed a creative save celebration whose coolness is reflected in the way that, like his cap, it has managed to infuriate the kinds of people that are always infuriated by cool things. Rodney’s bow and arrow mime might seem juvenile, but in a game that frowns on individual celebrations it showed that Rodney had developed the swagger that has often masked as confidence for a closer. Which brings us to this season and the Magic Plantain.

Rodney has improved some of late, but has mostly struggled mightily this season;  he has five blown saves, and has walked 22 batters in 27 ⅓ innings.. This is all the more shocking considering last year Rodney turned in a season even Mariano would have envied, albeit modestly and with his characteristic understatement. It’s tough not to envy a peer with a 0.60 ERA and saves in 48 of his 50 opportunities.

Rodney is not repeating that season in this one. So was last year a lucky fluke? Is something off with Rodney’s pitching mechanics? Was it a talking fruit?

Rodney had the honor of representing his home, the Dominican Republic in the 2013 World Baseball Classic; he had the further honor of being the team’s closer. On the Dominican’s dominant run to the WBC title, Rodney recorded a save in seven straight games. He gave up only one hit.

He also contributed to some folklore by attributing the team’s success to a plantain that he told reporters spoke to him and told him that if he were to keep it close to him, the Dominicans would win. A bumped hat is one thing. A reassuring platano is something else.

It turned out the plantain spoke the truth. But since completing the prophecy, little has been seen of the Magical Plantain. The correlation between that and Rodney’s recent struggles is hard to ignore, even if it’s clearly about time to compost that thing.

This is not to say that talking bananas have any effect on pitching, or even exist. Nor is it to say that the closer mentality is such a fragile thing that indulging a goofy superstition could ultimately derail Rodney. I actually don’t care about any of that. I’m just saying that Mariano Rivera would never have a magic plantain. I’m just saying that the fact that Fernando Rodney did is a reason to enjoy him while we can: while he is still getting outs, while the banana gods smile on him, and while he continues to blithely defy a bunch of things worth defying.

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