Sunday, June 7, 2015

Recent Reads: The Closer by Mariano Rivera

"Man proposes, but God disposes." ~ Thomas a Kempis

I'm currently listening to the audio book Baseball by Ken Burns during my commute. What struck me is how baseball is really a game of stories. Every player has a story, every great moment has a story. How each player became part of the game, his stats, his role on his team, his highs and lows. If stories are gold, Burns has identified one of the great veins and done a rewarding job of unearthing this precious metal.

The Closer is one man's miraculous story about how a 9th grade dropout from  an obscure Panama fishing village became the most feared and most successful closer in the game. It's the story of Mariano Rivera.

In the modern era, baseball has become very specialized. Teams depend on a starting rotation to keep them in the game, but have a bullpen with designated hurlers to come in later. A closer is the term used to describe a team's ace reliever, brought in to get the final outs in a close game. It's a high-pressure position to play because by the time you're brought in there's always something on the line. It takes a special breed of person to consistently perform in this role.

Most of the great teams of our time have had an intimidating closer whose power psyches batters out before he even steps on the mound. Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, "Goose" Gossage and Trevor Hoffman are just a few of the names on nearly every list of great closers, but one name is at the pinnacle: Mariano Rivera.

Rivera's stats are simply astonishing. His 652 career saves are the most in baseball history. His ERA is the lowest in history for a career reliever. But those are just his regular season stats. In post-season play Rivera's stats are simply jaw-dropping. His ERA in 32 post-season series is a remarkable 0.70. There were streaks in which he never allowed a hit for many, many games in a row and had an ERA of zero.

Any follower of the game from the mid-90's till his retirement in 2013 knows his name, and his face. But my guess is that very few knew how he became the greatest closer of all time, and will be a shoo-in to baseball's Hall of Fame when he first becomes eligible.

Young Mariano Rivera enjoyed playing baseball, played on teams as a teen like many boys. But in his remote Pacific coast village the most likely future for him would be in fishing, as that is what kids did who were sons of fishermen. They took over the family business, the second most dangerous career behind logging.

One of the thing that he liked to do every day was throw a ball against a wall over and over and over. His goal was pinpoint accuracy, and he honed it by consistently hitting this one spot where there was a nail-head that he used as a target. He didn't draw a strike zone on the wall. He just aimed at the nailhead.

His great love was catching fly balls in the outfield, though he also played catcher and infield. He just liked playing baseball.  One day the team he played on had a big game of sorts and their starting pitcher was getting plastered by the opposing team so that before the second inning was over the team was down 9-1. The manager came out and called Rivera in from right field. "I want you to pitch," he said.

Rivera had never pitched in his life, but he knew he had a good arm, and year of hitting that nail on the head also gave him a remarkable control over where the ball went. The other team never scored another run, and his team fought back to win.

It just so happened that there was a scout sitting in the stands that day. This scout them called a man who had connections to the New York Yankees. Rivera was asked, along with a group of other pitchers, to come pitch at a tryout. Afterwards he was offered $2,000 as a signing bonus and told to report to Tampa for spring training.

The book is a story about baseball through the eyes of a simple man from a remote fishing village. It is also a story about a man of faith who sees God's hand in everything. This was an unexpected feature of the book, but is a central part of Rivera's story. The remarkable pitch for which he became famous, the cutter, he claims was a gift from God. Likewise the sizzling speed of his fastball, which when thrown with precision proved nearly unhittable.

The third feature of the story is the simplicity of the storytelling. With the assistance of co-writer Wayne Coffey there is a refreshing innocence in the telling. Despite his fame and the wealth he achieved, he never stopped being a fisherman's son. Throughout the book the author uses fishing metaphors and similes. "The ball failed to clear the left field fence by the width of a fishing hook."

Fans of baseball, especially Yankee fans, will enjoy the book and get many insights about the game. I can't recall ever reading a baseball book from this perspective before. For sports fans who dislike it when football players kneel to say a prayer of thanks after a win, this book may not be for you. Rivera is not ashamed of his faith, and tells it as he sees it.


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