In the world of sports youth is king. Youth is speed, power, and faster recovery times; youth is untapped promise and potential. Youth is what no athlete covets enough until it's gone, then they are left to their own devices to maintain a high level of play. Many athletes aren't able to adjust to a loss of some of their God-given talent and falter, but others seem immune to the laws of nature and remain productive into their old age. When that happens milestones are reached and records are broken. Tim Wakefield and Mariano Rivera each showed on Tuesday that hard work and perseverance can overcome age.
On Tuesday night, (or Wednesday morning if you're a Yankees fan on the East Coast), Wakefield and Rivera, long time rivals, each reached personal milestones. Wakefield watched the Boston offense secure his 200th career victory when they beat down the Toronto Blue Jays 18-6. In Seattle, Mariano Rivera became the second player ever to compile 600 career saves. The levels of the milestones are different, but both are impressive in their own right. The milestones are made even more impressive because each player has reached these accomplishments through the predominant use of only one pitch. No trickery, no deceit, just good old-fashioned execution.
Wakefield has one of the most successful knuckleballs in the history of Major League Baseball. And Rivera changed the way the cutter is viewed in baseball. Ask any pitcher in the league to name the four pitches they would most like to be able to have and Mo's cutter is always included in their hypothetical arsenal. Even though many players try to emulate Rivera's cutter none have been successful. It is the the one pitch that is so unhittable that it baffles and frustrates fans from other teams. How often have Yankees fans heard naive statements like: "why don't the left-handed hitters move away from the plate? Or every year when Rivera invariably goes through a week where he blows a few saves people think he's lost his touch. Oh, you poor souls ...the pitch is just unhittable. Live with it. Respect it.
Despite their age, Wakefield and Rivera are able to maintain a high level of play into their 40s and without controversy. The Yankees and Red Sox aren't trying to jettison these players, nor are Wakefield or Rivera holding their teams hostage (Brett Favre, anyone?). They just play the game the right way and continue to succeed. Tim Wakefield, currently 45 years old, is in line with the numbers he's had for much of his career. While those numbers aren't overly impressive, it must be remembered that it his Wakefield's versatility and dependability that make him a key to the Boston Red Sox, not his dominance. His level of play has maintained consistent.
At 41, Rivera is having an excellent year. While 2011 is not quite Mo's career year, it's pretty close. His WHIP is 0.93 (.07 lower than his career average), his era is 2.05 (.17 lower than his career average) and he has 41 saves (the seventh time in his career he's had 40 or more saves). His numbers are still dominant at 41. But more than their on-field prowess, Wakefield and Rivera stand out off the field and in the clubhouse. In a society where self exploitation and shameless self-promotion is often rewarded with endorsements, ESPN face time, and a large contingent of Twitter followers, two old-timers continue to show the young'uns how it should be done. Wakefield and Rivera respect themselves and the game of baseball. And it's a welcome relief.
What's most impressive about the well-respected Wakefield, and the legendary Rivera, is that they are true role models in a sports world that often lacks good ones. They continue to show up every day to do their job and do it well, all while shunning media adoration. Wakefield and Rivera are well respected in their clubhouses, and while they are surely called "grandpa" or "old man" from time to time by their teammates it comes from a place of reverence.
As a Yankees fan, I tip my cap to Wakefield for a storied career. And to Mariano, I bow to your greatness. Rivera is a legend who stands tall amongst all the legends to ever wear pinstripes, and in the next few days he'll make history when he overtakes Trevor Hoffman with his 602nd career save. Congratulations, Mariano Rivera.