Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina. A phenomenal class for both performance and, by all accounts, character.
As a Yankees fan, I am particularly thrilled about Rivera and Mussina. Baseball, for whatever reason, builds character–the stories you hear about baseball players are different from basketball or football players (the contrast between Cody Bellinger and Lonzo Ball is a great example). Maybe it is because, as one former baseball player told me, you carry your own bags in the Minor Leagues for five years before making it big. The Yankees have always in particular personified that for me and Rivera and Mussina are clear examples.
Mariano Rivera clearly deserved to be a unanimous Hall of Fame pick. Derek Jeter’s letter in The Players’ Tribune is a great read; the stat that best encapsulates Mo is the fact that, despite pitching for 19 years, “In human history, more people have walked on the moon than have scored an earned run off of Mariano Rivera in the postseason.” But despite the accolades, this is the story that I have always loved about Mariano Rivera the most:
At the same time, Rivera believes in a higher power. Before Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, Rivera surprised teammates by addressing them in a team meeting, and the words he chose confused some of them. After exhorting them to get him the ball, Rivera talked about faith and fate; no matter what happened, it was all in the hands of God. It didn’t sound like him, a veteran teammate said, because Rivera was all about confidence and control. But Rivera intended his words to be a comfort for his teammates, because they were comforting to him.
Hours later, the Diamondbacks scored twice in the bottom of the ninth against Rivera to beat the Yankees and win the World Series, the most notable failure of Rivera’s career. He made a throwing error, allowed two runs, and when it ended—when Luis Gonzalez blooped a broken-bat single over the Yankees’ drawn-in infield—Rivera turned and ambled off the mound, his stride and expression never changing. He looked and moved the same as if he had just completed an inning in a mostly meaningless game in May.
The Yankees’ victory parade in the city was canceled, and Enrique Wilson, the Yankees’ utility infielder, changed his flight back to the Dominican Republic. The plane Wilson was initially scheduled for—American Airlines Flight 587—crashed in Queens, killing all 260 passengers.
Wilson saw Rivera the next spring, and they talked about the twist of fate. If Rivera had closed out the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, Wilson would have, in all likelihood, been on the plane that went down. For Rivera, this was further confirmation that he and his teammates were all subject to God’s will. “I’m glad we lost the World Series,” Rivera said, “because it means that I still have a friend.”
Built this way, Rivera’s psyche is all but indestructible. Most of his successes and failures belong to him, the rest to God. There is nothing ceded to his opponents.
Mike Mussina was a bit more of an edge case, probably because he was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. He threw three games where he was perfect through seven, but never finished any of them (but somehow, Philip Humber threw a perfect game?). He was thirty wins short of 300. He was 187 strikeouts short of 3,000. He never won a World Series, despite dominating the postseason. He was a six-time top-5 finisher for the Cy Young, but never won.
But what I love about Mussina is that he never seemed driven by the individual accolades; he was driven by the love of the game and his team. In 2008, he won 20 games and struck out 150 batters. Had he kept playing, he would have easily reached 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, and, had he stayed in pinstripes for just one more year, would have won the World Series in 2009. But Mussina walked away, determined to go out on top. When he got the call, he was coaching basketball at his high school alma mater.
Congratulations to two wonderful, classy pitchers. Their spots in the Hall are well-deserved.