When it comes to the greatest performer in a particular sport, there is very rarely a consensus opinion.
Who’s the best basketball player ever?
“Well, Jordan’s won 10 scoring titles.”
“ Kobe has 6 championships.”
“LeBron’s longevity is unmatched.”
“Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game.”
Who’s a better quarterback – Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers?
True football fans can discuss this for hours.
But when it comes to the topic of best relief pitcher of all-time, there really is only one name on the list – Mariano Rivera.
In his 19 seasons with the New York Yankees, Rivera was a 13-time All Star and five time World Series Champion.
He’s the all-time leader in saves at 652 and games finished at 952. He was named best reliever in baseball 8 times and finished in the top three in voting for the Cy Young (baseball’s top award for pitchers, very rarely given to relievers) four times.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and was the first and only unanimous inductee by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
As great as Rivera was during his entire career, it was in the post-season playoffs – when big games were on the line – where he truly shined. He owns the post-season records for lowest earned run average (.70) and most saves (42). He was named MVP of both the American League Championship Series in 2003 and the World Series in 1999.
If you don’t know anything about baseball statistics or sports in general, take my word for it. There is no relief pitcher in baseball that is close to having this level of accomplishment.
I’ve been a Yankee fan my whole life. I can remember, as a little kid, watching Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one World Series game and freaking out. (SIDE NOTE: The only two baseball players that have had candy bars named after them are both Yankees: Reggie and Babe Ruth). I’ve been lucky enough to watch Rivera consistently dominate in the nearly two decades that he was on the mound.
But as easy as it is to discuss Rivera’s success – and as much as I am captivated by people who can continually achieve at the highest level – my lasting memory of him is from one of his most spectacular failures.
Game 7 of the 2001 World Series was a painful one for Yankee fans. After all New York City had gone through earlier that Fall, the Series was a much needed distraction. And with the game on the line our storybook ending was in sight as Rivera entered the game in the 9th inning to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” – the music that accompanied his walk from the bullpen to the mound every time manager Joe Torre called upon him to close things out.
I will save you the play-by-play but after making a rare throwing error, Mariano blew the save by giving up a bloop single by Luis Gonzalez with the bases loaded allowing the Arizona Diamondbacks to score the winning run and win the series.
But the disappointment I felt watching from my Brooklyn apartment isn’t really what sticks with me. Nor is it the collective gasp of the neighborhood that could be heard coming through my open window as people had gathered out on their stoops to watch their beloved home team win another championship amongst their friends and neighbors.
Nope, the thing that sticks with me is the image of Rivera himself.
With the Arizona fans going nuts, announcers projecting in delight, Diamondback players mobbing Gonzalez as he rounded first base, the picture that is burned in my brain is that of Rivera himself. Stoicly, systematically and routinely walking off the mound towards the dugout of his surely devastated teammates. No ranting. No glove throwing. No metaphorical self-flagellation. No display of emotion at all, really.
Just a man who had a lot of really good days at work having a particularly bad one.
And I fully believe that it was this composure – not letting the hugeness of the moment get the better of him – that allowed him to have an additional dozen years of success in the Major Leagues.
We can point to plenty of athletes who had let a disappointing result in a big moment mark the end of their productive careers. Kickers like Scott Norwood who blew a chipper field goal in the Super Bowl that would have given the Buffalo Bills a long yearned for title. Or the unbeatable Mike Tyson getting knocked out by journeyman Buster Douglas.
But it was Rivera’s composure, even after the worst possible outcome on the biggest stage, that allowed him to remain on the top of the game for the next decade.
One of the great things about a facility like ours is that we are surrounded by like-minded people who find training to be an important and valuable part of their lives. And that is wonderful but also can come with the burden of being emotional about the outcomes of training. Nailing your split times on the SkiErg or hitting the weights you wanted for your two-rep max bench press takes on an elevated sense of importance.
And most of the time bringing meaning into your training is a positive thing. But it’s when things don’t go your way, when you don’t hit those times or weights that you have to acknowledge, accept and have the composure to move on.
When training can simply become part of who you are – rather than something you accomplish – that is when you’ll elevate to that Rivera-like next level.
Do that for long enough and you’re a surefire pick for the Hall of Fame.