To fully understand the significance of what has finally occurred, one needs to time travel to 1936 when the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first class.
Sitting on that stage were four players still considered among the most remarkable to ever play: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson. A fifth, Christy Mathewson, had died in 1925 from tuberculosis resulting from being gassed during World War I.
Along with being generational greats, they also had one thing in common: None were voted unanimously into the Hall. Think about the absurdity of that. There were baseball writers back then who felt neither Ruth or Cobb deserved the honor.
Cobb drew 98.2 percent. Ruth and Wagner were named on 95.1 percent. Mathewson (90.71) and Johnson (83.6) trailed behind. Seventy-five percent is required for induction. So in real numbers, that meant nine writers didn’t vote for The Babe.
In the years since, 318 others had been enshrined, either by vote of the Baseball Writers of America or the sponsorships of various veterans committees. And none of them were unanimously selected, either. Think about the ridiculousness of that: Not Gehrig or DiMaggio, Mays or Mantle, Koufax or Seaver.
That all changed on Tuesday when Mariano Rivera, the game’s all-time saves leader and a man of distinct eloquence and humility, was named on 100 percent of the 425 ballots received for the Hall’s class of 2019.
Prior to Rivera, the highest vote percentage belonged to Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016, when he received 99.3 of the 440 votes cast.
“This was just beyond my imagination,” said Rivera. “Just to be considered a Hall of Famer is an honor, but to be unanimous is just amazing.”
Rivera will be joined by designated hitter Edgar Martinez (85.4) and pitchers Roy Halladay (85.4) and Mike Mussina (76.7). Martinez was in the 10th and final season of his eligibility.
Below that group was pitcher Curt Schilling (60.9) and the notorious pair, Roger Clemens (57.3) and Barry Bonds (59.1). The suspicion that each used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to boost their stats – Bonds is the game’s leading home run hitter – continue to serve as their scarlet letters.
As for Rivera, there might not have been a player as universally loved and fared in the game’s history. His characteristic calm was offset by his nasty dipping fastball which broke bats and hearts during his career.
He came from the simplest of backgrounds, a skinny Panamanian, the son of a fisherman, who was signed by the New York Yankees in 1990 for just $3,500. He was ignored as a Class A Minor Leaguer when left unprotected during the 1993 expansion draft that built the rosters of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.
The apocryphal theory was the Marlins were set to take Rivera. But when the Colorado Rockies selected Yankee catcher Brad Ausmus, fulfilling their quota for the expansion draft, New York no longer had to worry about losing him.
And his career began as a starter. He was so ineffective – a 5.51 ERA in 1995 – that George Steinbrenner, the cantankerous former Yankees owner, often threatened to trade him and almost did in 1996 to the Seattle Mariners. Ironically, the last hitter he faced as an MLB starting pitcher was Edgar Martinez on Sept. 5, 1995. He reached Rivera for an RBI single
Instead of giving up on him, the Yankees moved Rivera to the bullpen and it was there in 1997 he learned how to throw the cutting fastball that would become his bread and butter pitch. It didn’t matter when he threw it or who he was throwing it to. Hitters never learned to deal with it.
“What I attribute, I have to say, I attribute that to the Lord, to God, the Lord, because nobody taught me that,” said Rivera in 2009. “Nobody taught me that but God. Yeah, like you say, it’s been one pitch for my whole career almost. I started throwing the cutter in 1997, and since that year it has been one pitch, yes. But it does a lot of things. It doesn’t go in the same direction always, and it’s not always in the same spot. So I mean, I have to learn how to work with it and make it better. And that’s what I have done. But I attribute that to the good Lord.”
After serving as the setup man for Yankees closer John Wetteland in 1996, Rivera took over the role the next season when Wetteland signed with the Texas Rangers.
During his 19-year career, Rivera picked up 652 saves and helped the Yankees to five World Series championships. During the postseason, he had a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings and was 8-1. He saved 42 playoff games and was a 13-time all-star.
Rivera’s stats stand even taller when applied to modern day metrics. For instance, no pitcher who worked at least 1,000 innings in the game’s history has a better park and league adjusted ERA+ than Rivera’s 205, which is considered 105 points above average. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw is second at 159.
“Mariano was a fierce competitor and a humble champion, which has made him such a beloved baseball legend,” said Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner. “Success and stardom never changed Mariano, and his respect for the game, the pinstripes, and for his teammates and opponents alike makes this day such a celebration of his legacy. There will be many more great and talented relief pitchers, but there will never be another like him.”
After MLB took Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 out of circulation in 1997, Rivera remained among the few allowed to continue wearing it until they retired.
Rivera and Lee Smith, who was voted in this season by the veterans committee, give the Hall eight relievers – Hoyt Wilhelm (1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), Rich Gossage (2008) and Trevor Hoffman (2018). Until Rivera, Gossage’s 85.5 percent was the highest vote total ever garnered by a reliever.
“After my career, I was thinking that I had a shot to be a Hall of Famer,” said Rivera. “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.”