Baseball Saints and Sinners

Eight Men Out should be required viewing for those who think that baseball in its earlier days was never a business or that players and owners were motivated only by love for the game. The announcement by Mariano Rivera of his upcoming retirement gives us a chance to reflect that we have been witnesses of such a sublime melding of physical and spiritual grace on the diamond.

With Spring just around the corner, it’s time to take a break from the dreaded deprivations of sequestration and concentrate, of course, on baseball. And so, the other day a few friends and I gathered to watch Eight Men Out which is, to my mind, the best baseball movie ever made; crammed as it is with great acting, great writing and great baseball scenes, not to mention a fairly accurate depiction of the Black Sox scandal which led to a granite rule of the game: gambling and gamblers will not be tolerated. 

Eight Men Out should be required viewing for those who think that baseball in its earlier days was never a business or that players and owners were motivated only by love for the game. And it might help those who are constantly clamoring for admitted gambler Pete Rose to be reinstated to baseball and duly elected to its Hall of Fame, to realize that better players than he will also never darken the doorstep of Cooperstown

Yes, the history of baseball is replete with miserly owners, money-hungry players and crooks and cheaters of all kinds; kind of like the world in general. Yet baseball has been blessed with many more athletes who have been a credit to the game, though with the recent PED scandals they seem fewer and fewer. Why it is that so many talented athletes are so morally flawed that they would risk putting various and sundry chemicals in their bodies for a taste of fleeting glory or worse, for money? Are there any players with that rare combination of supreme performance both on and off the field left in today’s game? 

Well we have had, and will have for one more year, just such a player. The announcement by Mariano Rivera of his upcoming retirement gives us a chance to reflect that we have been witnesses of such a sublime melding of physical and spiritual grace on the diamond. For more than 18 seasons, fans of the New York Yankees have cheered his appearances while all others have dreaded them.

They say that nothing in life is guaranteed except death and taxes, but I would add the quick and lethal dispatch of batters facing “Mo” Rivera to that list. It has been my contention that the average Yankee fan has missed many of his regular season saves; either getting up to fetch a snack or beckoning the bartender for another celebratory drink while he made short work of the ninth inning. He has been that reliable. Baseball is a sport that relies more on numbers than any other, but it only takes one word to sum up the career of Rivera: inevitability. 

Now, some would say that Rivera benefited from great setup pitchers throughout his career; but seriously, can anyone doubt that it is most probably the other way around? In the same way that a great hitter ensures better pitches for those hitting around him, so too with Rivera. How often did an opposing manager begin sweating with his team trailing the Yanks in the later innings; using up his bench while his players swung wildly in desperation knowing that their scoring opportunities were diminishing with every pitch? My husband, an inveterate Yankee-hater, has said that Joe Torre only became a great manager when he merely had to manage six-inning games. 

Yet there is more to Rivera than the fluid and seemingly effortless delivery of his devastating cut fastball. He is a terrific fielder, no doubt going back to his boyhood days as a shortstop in his native Panama. Add to this his longevity—he has outlasted not only the prime years of his competitors, but their entire careers—and you have the perfect relief pitcher. 

But more than this, Rivera is, what they called in the old days, a perfect gentleman. His gracious comportment on the mound and his humble demeanor in press conferences all but shout that he is a committed Christian, and so he is. In fact, his goal in retirement is to become a minister, where he will no doubt deliver the Good News with the same elegant ease as his famed cutter. 

Are there other good guys in baseball? Sure, but it’s hard to name another who lives out his reputation as the game’s greatest closer and its best moral representative every time he toes the rubber. He is indeed an anomaly in today’s world: a man who is the best that ever was at his profession, yet openly acknowledges that his talents are no credit to himself, but that they are gifts from above. 

The lords of baseball may one day decide to cave to the modern world’s desire for the relaxation of its moral rules—as have so many institutions in this country—and indeed reinstate Rose and the Black Sox, thus further cheapening the game’s integrity; but the great Rivera will endure.

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