On a sweltering Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., Major League Baseball welcomed its 2019 Hall of Fame class with the pageantry it has always exhibited.
One by one, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Harold Baines, Lee Smith and the late Roy Halladay, represented by his wife, Brandy, were presented their plaques and invited to speak.
But when it came to ending the event, there really was only one choice. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, with the most saves in MLB history, received that honor.
“[When you go last], you have the opportunity to relax and to think about what you’re doing and to attack what you’re doing,” Rivera told MLB.com after the ceremony. “In baseball, I had seven or eight innings to watch what the hitters were doing. And now, at this induction, I had five people to watch what they do and have the opportunity to watch how they start and, maybe if I had to correct something, to do it.”
Once he reached the stage, Rivera had no trouble keeping the 55,000 fans (the second-largest ever for the event) riveted. Rivera has always been known as much for his class and sophistication as his ability. And his speech was just that.
Rivera was the first player in the history of the Hall of Fame, which dates to 1934, to be a unanimous selection of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He was named on all 425 ballots, breaking the previous record percentage, 99.3, by Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016. Halladay and Martinez both received 85.4 percent of the votes, and Mussina received 76.7 percent. Candidates need 75 percent for election. Smith and Baines were inducted by vote of the game’s Veterans committee.
“After my career, I was thinking that I had a shot to be a Hall of Famer,” Rivera said on a conference call after his selection was confirmed. “But this was just beyond my imagination. I was amazed the way all this has been, through my whole career — and this being the pinnacle of every player that plays the game of baseball, to be unanimous.”
Among those in the crowd to honor Rivera were Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. They comprised what came to be known as the “Core Four”, the nucleus of many great Yankees teams. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, general manager Brian Cashman, Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams were also in attendance, Williams lending his stylistic guitar playing to the festivities.
Jeter, now the CEO of the Miami Marlins, is expected to be inducted in 2020, also in his first year on the ballot. It will be interesting to see if he gets the same respect from the writers as Rivera did.
Rivera was generous with his praise and thanks, making sure to acknowledge the fans and all of his teammates, coaches and trainers for helping him reach the point of being a Hall of Famer.
“Baseball is a team sport. You cannot do it alone. And this honor is the same thing. You cannot do it alone,” said Rivera.
“You guys (the fans) always pushed me to be the best. When I was at Yankee Stadium pitching, it felt like I was pitching with 55,000 people next to me throwing one pitch after another. You guys are the best and man, without your support, I cannot do it. You always pushed me to the limit.”
Rivera’s career ended in 2013 and his final moment on the mound was celebrated by a choreographed appearance from Jeter and Pettitte, who symbolically removed him from the game.
“My two brothers came in and took me out of the game,” said Rivera. “That moment was special for me. I was grateful to the Good Lord that allowed me to play in New York with the greatest fans and end my career the way I did, with my two brothers next to me and me hugging them and crying over them and being thankful for them.”
Mussina, another former Yankee, knows how significant Rivera was, not only to the Yankees, but to the game.
“He was the best in the game and the best that ever closed games,” Mussina told The New York Times. “And he did it for a long time and he did it with basically one pitch.”
Rivera became the Yankees closer in 1997, the year he perfected his trademark cutting fastball which handcuffed hitters from both sides of the plate. He ended his career with 652 saves and a 2.21 earned run average, the lowest in baseball history for anyone born after 1889 and with a minimum of 1,000 major-league innings.
“I tried to carry the pinstripes the best that I could,’’ said Rivera. “I think I did all right with that.’’