By: Winnie T. Sittón
Photos: Latinstock, EFE y Winnie T. Sittón
For the first time ever, a player was unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is Mariano Rivera, the former Panamanian pitcher who played 19 seasons with the New York Yankees. To top things off, he was selected on his first nomination, something very few ballplayers have achieved. To have received the votes of 100% of the 425 electors of the Baseball Writers Association of America is something else entirely, a great feat that has not been accomplished until now.
For the 83 years these elections have been held to choose the most significant players in the history of baseball, many people have wondered who would be the first ballplayer to be unanimously elected to the home of legends.
And now that there is an answer, the question is worth considering again, but in terms of a specific name. Who is Mariano Rivera? And what is more, how did this immigrant, born in one of the poorest towns in Panama, achieve what none of the other 331 members of the Hall of Fame have managed? This is the story.
The 49-year-old athlete from Panama is without a doubt one of the greatest notables of his generation. He debuted in the Major Leagues on May 23, 1995 and retired on September 26, 2013. He started as a relief pitcher, i.e. the person who relieves the starting pitcher when the starter begins to tire or for reasons of strategy. But after two good seasons, he became the Yankees’ official closer in 1997. That’s when great things started to happen.
The closer, as the name indicates, is the pitcher who takes over during the final innings to “save” the game when victory is at risk. Good concentration and a certain cold-bloodedness are needed to shine in this position and Mariano Rivera showed that he could cut it.
He was the leader in saves during the 1999, 2001, and 2004 seasons. Thanks to his devastating cut fastball, he became the greatest closer of all time, retiring with a historic record of saves: 652 in 19 seasons, plus 42 more in the postseason. There is a good reason he was known as Switch Off.
His control over the ball was key to five New York Yankees World Series trophies: 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009. He got the last out of the series in four of those victories. He was also named the World Series MVP in 1999 and the American League Championship MVP in 2003. He was chosen for the All-Star Team 13 times.
From Puerto Caimito to the World
The Panamanian star had accomplished more than enough to be eligible for the Hall of Fame, but it would be naive to think that he was the first player in the history of baseball to be unanimously elected solely because of his stats and records. If that were the case, an unanimous induction would not be such an unprecedented feat, since many other baseball players have had equally impressive stats, meaning that it could have happened before. In fact, the closest anyone came was former center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who received 99.32% of the votes in 2016. He fell short by three votes.
What makes Mariano Rivera special is that people love him, however corny that sounds. It is quite likely that the unanimous election is simply a reflection of the warm affection showered on him by millions of fans around the world.
He earned his fan base through hard work and by being both a merciless pitcher who induced fear merely by stepping onto the field and an equable, reserved, and calm person off the field. These qualities are linked to his religious faith and, undoubtedly, to the economic privations he suffered in Puerto Caimito, the fishing village where he spent his childhood and adolescence.
He received many demonstrations of affection during his career. We might look back to his last game in Yankee Stadium and the emotional standing ovation by 48,675 spectators and his teammates as he cried on the mound that night of September 26, 2013. The stadium bid farewell to one of the great legends of baseball with frenetic applause; Rivera, his face bathed in tears, waved his cap at the spectators for the last time.
The trophies he won are housed in Yankee Stadium; his autographed ball and other memorabilia relate this great player’s journey with one of the historic teams of the Major Leagues. But just outside the stadium is one of the most powerful expressions of the profound affection inspired by Mariano in New York: Rivera Avenue, named in his honor upon his retirement. This simple but meaningful gesture by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg in May 2014 ensured that the legacy of this Panamanian player would not be forgotten in his home away from home.
Direct to the Hall of Fame
The induction ceremony will be held on July 21 at 1:30 p.m. (local time), at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Admission to the event is free and, as in previous years, some 50,000 people are expected to attend. It will be streamed live online at www.baseballhall.org
Also voted in this year are ballplayers Roy Halladay, Edgar Martínez, and Mike Mussina; chosen by a special committee, Harold Baines and Lee Smith will be inducted as well. All of them will be honored for their careers in the sport, but the star of the gala will unquestionably be Panamanian ace Mariano Rivera. The 2019 ceremony will be remembered as the day when an already great man became immortal.