Friday, November 15, 2013

Mariano Rivera and the Face of Victory

In case you missed the hoopla, hoorahs, and heaping helpings of hubble-bubble, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera retired at the end of the 2013 baseball season. After 19 years in the game playing for only one team and being on the winning side of several championships, there is no doubt Rivera had a great career. For his accomplishments, some have mentioned he might be the first unanimous Hall of Famer.

But before we crown Rivera the greatest player ever – which is what a unanimous Hall voting would do – I’d like to ramble a bit why I think the public loved him so much and whether or not any Rays player could ever reach such lofty acclaim.

First, on an interesting aside, did you know there are no punters in the NFL Hall of Fame? Nor are there any long-snappers. Both of these specialized positions work under pressure. So why are baseball closers held in such high regard?

Closers end games. Most of the time, anyway. The final relief pitcher of the night is a very emotional position. Not only on the field, as they attempt to solidify their teammates’ victorious efforts for the evening, but also for the fans. Closers are the gatekeepers to celebration. Successful closers are front and center in the memories fans have of the final out of championships. As Rays fans, we remember David Price was on the mound when Akinori Iwamura fielded the last out of the 2008 ALCS. No matter what else Price does for as long as he is in a Rays uniform, that play will be one of our most lasting impressions.

Despite pitching only the ninth and sometimes the eighth inning, Mariano Rivera “closed” the Yankees’ championships in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009. His final pitch to end each game set Yankees fans in New York City and all over the world in a frenzy of celebration.

To Yankees fans – one of the biggest and most influential fanbases in Major League Baseball – the image of Mariano Rivera brings to mind championships. The concept is almost Pavlovian.

Had Rivera not been automatic, he would have denied fans the opportunity to celebrate. Average or below average relief pitchers bear the brunt of fan bases that went into the final innings of games expecting to win. Winning would have sent the fans home happy, feeling the expensive tickets, pricey parking, and way too overpriced beer were worth the cost because their team won.
Financially, fans that go home happy are more likely to return to the ballpark.

Of course, there is ample data that the closer position is statistically overrated. However, “saves”, even for the forward-thinking Rays, are still a driving force in the appearance order of the bullpen – although one might argue Joel Peralta and perhaps even Alex Torres were more valuable to Joe Madden. (As a matter of fact, only Kyle Farnsworth and Josh Lueke allowed more walks and hits per inning out of the Rays bullpen than Fernando Rodney.) Because he pitches the ninth inning, Fernando Rodney is the Rays face of victory with his bow and arrow routine, crooked cap, plantains, and other pro wrestling-like gimmicks.

Since Rivera was on the Yankees since before the Rays existed, and since the Yankees have had winning ballclubs for most of that time, there is no way any current Rays player has added as much significant emotional value to the Rays fanbase as Rivera has to Yankees fans. However, are there any Rays players who have added even a minor amount of significant emotional value? Might any of them have a chance to be at least as locally acknowledged as Rivera was on the national scale? Might the Rays present any Rays players with a sand dollar, no less the elaborate sand castle they presented to Rivera?

(Note: Significant Emotional Value (SEV) is not a measurable statistic. Rivera’s stats are insane. He dominated with one pitch for 19 years. However, some defensive-minded backup catchers play just as often and stick around with one skill as well. If we cheered framing pitches like we do saves, perhaps Jose Molina would be at the end of a Hall of Fame career. Unfortunately for Molina, that’s not the case. Framing pitches carries little significant emotional value for the fans. At least most of them.)

Taking a look at Rays “Face of Victory” candidates, the first potentially heralded hero would be any closer the Rays decide to keep for more than a two years, which unfortunately hasn’t happened since the days of Roberto Hernandez (1998-2000). Knowing the Maddon/Friedman front office as we do, that probably won’t be the case anytime soon. I doubt Fernando Rodney returns to the Rays in 2014. If Rodney does stay with the Rays, he would need at least one World Series winning moment before he becomes the face of celebration for the Rays. To Rodney’s determent, closers usually don’t age well (see Troy Percival or Kyle Farnsworth).

Next on the list of possible leaders in Significant Emotional Value is David Price, who, like Rodney, might be counting down his days in a Rays uniform. While Price has a huge head start, clinching the biggest win in Rays history to date, even if he signs a new contract and stays with the Rays, unless he moves back to the bullpen, I don’t believe he would be on the mound for too many more clinching moments. It’s possible he could turn out a performance like Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series, but moments like that are few and far between. Odds are he would be pulled in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of the clinching game so Madden could put the game in the hands of his bullpen.

The third player who could possibly receive a bevy of booty upon retirement because of his emotional impact to Rays history is Dan Johnson. There is no doubt “The Great Pumpkin” holds a near, dear, and special place in the hearts of Rays fans thanks to his numerous late inning heroics. But is it enough? I would think when Johnson does retire, the Rays might have him throw out a first pitch and maybe present him with a plaque of his finest moments. That would be a nice gesture. But there would be no number retirement, no induction into the Rays Hall of Fame, and certainly no gifts from other teams.

After the departure of Dan Johnson, Jose Lobaton picked up the baton of unlikely outcomes. Lobaton earned his ice cream several times in 2013, including an exciting game-winner in the ALDS versus the normally unhittable Koji Uehara, who coincidentally was on the mound for the Red Sox when they won the World Series, upping his own Significant Emotional Value. If Lobaton continues the ice cream celebrations could Cold Stone Creamery permanently retire a flavor in his honor? Would even a Tampa Bay area local ice cream parlor dare to take a flavor off the shelf in honor of the Rays backup catcher?

(By the way, I think the Hard Rock Casinos and CafĂ© “retiring” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” because a baseball player used it as his entrance music is the most shameless and ridiculous attempts at publicity I’ve heard in a long time. Metallica playing live for Rivera a few weeks before he retired was a very cool and novel tribute. But the Hard Rock people have nothing to do with baseball nor with Mariano Rivera. Now no Hard Rock establishment, whether in New York or anywhere else, will play “Enter Sandman”. Forever. Because of a baseball player. I hope the Seminole Hard Rock Casino knows I am going to request it each and every time I visit because of principle.)

This finally brings us to the most famous Rays player and the most famous Rays player song – a song that may just be retired on every Tampa Bay rock radio station the day this player hangs up his cleats. Of course, I am talking about “Down & Out” by Tantric and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Longo is the best bet to be the Rays version of Mariano Rivera. With his heroics in Game 162 (the “9/11” of baseball nicknames, by the way – completely unoriginal), Longo already has one classic moment under his belt. He also has the ability to rack up more with his long-term, team-friendly contract. Currently, he is on pace to be our Chipper Jones. But if we are lucky, Evan could be the face of several World Series championships.

Then just maybe when he calls it a day the entire baseball world will shower him with praise and parades.