NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 30: Mariano Rivera #42 and Russell Martin #55 of the New York Yankees celebrate a 2-1 victory against the Baltimore Orioles on April 30, 2012 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Metta World Peace clocks an innocent James Harden with an elbow to the head. Raffi Torres does the same to Marian Hossa (as do other NHL players in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs). Delmon Young goes on a drunken anti-Semitic rant. J.R. Smith tweets a photo of his scantily clad lady in a hotel bed. Amar'e Stoudemire goes all knucklehead by punching out the glass casing of a fire extinguisher. Tiger Woods continually acts like a spoiled brat on the golf course. Roger Clemens' fiasco of a trial is playing out before us. And on and on and on. So, the question of the day: Could anyone ever imagine Mariano Rivera doing any of these things? Or getting himself in hot water or embroiled in any type of controversy or devolving into bad sportsmanship? Of course not. It would be shocking, like finding out that Abe Lincoln had a secret life that involved running a brothel and selling heroin to kids. The only explanation would be that we must be living in some type of bizarro alternate universe if Rivera engaged in any one of these activities. With the tragic accident before Thursday's game that may end the Yankee great's playing days, his career will now be picked over and admired, but the one thing that stands out about Rivera is his class and dignity (ok, that's two things).
How did he do it? How did he succeed as the greatest closer in the history of closers? He wasn't a maniac cut from the cloth of a Rob Dibble. There was no shtick to his game. No dinner and a show. He didn't come with an outrageous beard, signature mustache or a unique set of muttonchops. He didn't have swagger, nor were there any adrenaline-fueled high jinks (how is it possible for a closer not to have swagger or a crazed adrenaline rush?). All he did was calmly stand on the mound and throw the same pitch over and over again. And his saves were all met with a quiet handshake by his teammates and a leisurely stroll off the mound. No crazy gestures or fist pumps. No twirls or shouting. Maybe when you're that good it's easy to behave.
Rivera was as stately off the mound as he was on. He never needed to lower himself into any frat-boy or hip-hop crudeness or rudeness. He never attempted to be cool or ironic or appeal to any certain demographic. He was just himself, which meant he treated his teammates, team employees, the media and opponents with respect. When he failed, he did so graciously, as we saw when he laughed and tipped his cap to the Fenway Park crowd on opening day of 2005 after blowing a few playoff games against the Boston Red Sox the previous season. Maybe if he were more edgy he would have sold more jerseys or gotten more endorsements, but that wasn't Rivera. He was who he was.
Rivera is one of the most popular New York Yankees of all-time. He is even respected and liked by Yankee haters and his opponents. And he did it all with the simple qualities of kindness and class. So, it can be done. One can thrive and achieve and find glory, distinction and esteem while remaining a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who is considerate to all those around him. Rivera insists he'll be back next season, but you never know what will happen -- he is 42 years old, after all -- and It would be a shame if his career ended because of a fluky incident involving tracking down a fly ball during batting practice. But at least he gave us almost two decades of greatness. And he was the perfect example of a true professional. There's only one Mariano Rivera, but we could surely use more just like him.