Mariano Rivera: A Zen Master With a Mean Cutter

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In the high-stress vocation of ninth-inning pitching dominated by theatrical personalities, he was the embodiment of Zen calm — a cool Jedi master among the hotheads, and an almost extraplanetary source of composure and grace in the gritty, often chaotic world of Major League Baseball, Michiko Kakutani writes in this appreciation of Mariano Rivera’s career for The New York Times.

He was the reliever who arrived to the strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” a closer who dependably delivered closure — turning out the lights on the league’s best hitters, shutting almost every door. He was feared as the Yankees’ silent killer, their one infallible weapon — Mr. Automatic. But he was also the one member of the Evil Empire so respected by enemy fans that he was feted, in this, his final year, in other ballparks across the country, including Fenway Park in Boston, where he was hailed as “a real gentleman, a fierce competitor and a most worthy opponent.”

Mariano Rivera understood what Steve Jobs, Lao Tzu and Bruce Lee understood: that simplicity is an art and a strength, a source of joy and beauty and power. The greatest closer of all time, who could become the first player to win unanimous election to the Hall of Fame, did it all with basically one pitch: the cut fastball. It moved with such velocity and wizardry that it seemed to defy the laws of physics, breaking hundreds of bats and shattering many more dreams. It was a pitch delivered with easy elegance and brutal economy, a pitch Rivera could tailor with such precision and infinitude of detail that it flummoxed even the most canny and experienced batters.

It was also a pitch that underscored an almost perfect fusion of character and style. As Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has pointed out, baseball is what the deeply religious Rivera does, it’s not who he is. But who Rivera is — a consummate professional, stoic, focused, dedicated and at peace with himself — has indelibly imprinted the way he has gone about the job: his unparalleled consistency and longevity, his grace under pressure, and his ability to come back from adversity, be it a blown save or his potentially devastating ligament tear in 2012.

Over the years, the arithmetic of Rivera’s career has been dazzling: 652 regular-season saves, including 44 this season through Friday at age 43. His postseason numbers have been even more stunning: 42 saves, with a mind-boggling 0.70 earned run average in 141 innings. The Yankees would not have won five championships from 1996 to 2009 without him; he got the final outs in the last four of those World Series.

But math alone cannot communicate Mariano’s achievement, his almost otherworldly control of the ball, or his aura as a great warrior, gentleman and mensch. Colleagues, fans and journalists have struggled to find words to convey his accomplishments, and his heart and soul and will — his steely determination on the mound and his humor and charm off the field.

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ABC’s Robin Roberts observed that it was rarer to score an earned run off Rivera in the postseason than to walk on the moon. The former Mets manager Bobby Valentine once said: “No one else throws a 94-mile-an-hour cutter. It’s like bird watching in a foreign land. You can’t understand it.” Rivera’s teammate David Robertson, who may inherit his job, called him “the most consistent human being to ever play the game of baseball.”

One baseball analyst attributed Rivera’s success to the “three C’s” — “control, control, control.” Another attributed it to the “four C’s” — “confidence, concentration, control and competitiveness.” To which a Yankees fan might add even more alliteration: constancy, calm, class, composure, continuity and complete command of craft.

People have compared Rivera to Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky to convey his soaring talent and just how indispensable he has been to his team. Explaining Rivera’s mystique goads others to reach for analogies outside sports to describe the indescribable, comparing his artistry to that of famous musicians and painters, his tenacity and mental toughness to that of Navy SEALs, his sleight of hand to the legerdemain of a Harry Potter or Houdini.

Rivera himself was succinct and to the point about his job: “I get the ball, I throw the ball, and then I take a shower.”

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For fans who grew up watching No. 42 or have followed him for the last 19 seasons, he has become the embodiment of the Yankees at their very best: not the big-spending, patched-together All-Star team that chased after the likes of Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown, but the team that Rivera, along with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, defined. The team always came first for these homegrown Yankees, and they played with brotherly dedication and collective pride.

Rivera’s retirement is a melancholy moment for the Yankees and their fans. Williams retired in 2006, Posada last played in 2011, and Pettitte was scheduled to pitch his final game Saturday. Jeter will be the only one to return next year — and to a team in need of reimagining and rebuilding, and possibly fated to some long years in the baseball wilderness.

That the beloved and seemingly ageless Sandman is exiting this year not only means the end of a golden era, but also reminds us of the swift and unrelenting passage of time. The perfect ending everyone yearned for after the Rivera tribute last Sunday at Yankee Stadium was a win for Andy and a save for Mariano, but that was not to be. And yet, the larger narrative of Rivera’s career remains a storybook one.

The son of a fisherman, he grows up playing baseball on a beach in Panama with a milk carton for a glove, a stick for a bat and whatever was available for a ball; after being signed by a Yankees scout for $3,500, he does his apprenticeship in the minors, joins the Yankees and struggles at first, and then suddenly hits his stride. He wins a championship in 1996 as the setup man for John Wetteland and, soon, leaps into hyperspace as the closer, becoming such a feared adversary that opponents will talk about needing to win games against the Yankees in seven or eight innings before he takes the mound.

In the last month or so, the pace of Rivera tributes has accelerated, within baseball and the news media, and also among fans on Twitter and Facebook, on radio call-in shows, and even in an AT&T-sponsored “Thanks for the Mo-Ments” promotion. They recite Rivera’s luminous stats, cite songs (like Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” or Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”) they would dedicate to him, and trade memories of his clutch performances: those emotional World Series wins; Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox (won in 11 innings by Aaron Boone’s home run); his record- setting 602nd save with a perfect ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins in September 2011.

Such outpourings of love are a testament to the intimate and deeply felt karmic relationship that has developed over two decades between Rivera and Yankee fans, and New York City — a relationship that has been heightened, perhaps, by his job as the closer. No one has been more of a team player than the humble and loyal Rivera, and yet his was a strangely solitary job: taking the field not alongside his teammates but alone, at the end, with the heavy responsibility of saving the game for them all.

The photographs and videos of Rivera running toward the mound from the bullpen — shot from behind, No. 42 starkly outlined on his impeccably crisp pinstripes — have given way to similar images (in newspapers, and on T-shirts and souvenir pins) showing him striding not into the electric blur of Yankee Stadium but into some less immediately recognizable realm. Jogging into the future and retirement. And through the gates of Cooperstown and into the forever of history.

For the original report go to

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