Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mariano Rivera's swansong

So long-time closer supreme for the New York Yankees Mariano Rivera is going to retire after this season, eh? Well OK, he's 43 years old, this will be his 19th season, he's won a few World Series along the way, and is also the all-time save leader. A very impressive career indeed. How he was able to be so successful over all those years while basically only throwing one pitch -- a cut fastball in the mid-90 MPH range -- will forever remain a mystery. But it worked, and good for him.

Still, something is wrong with this picture. Why announce his retirement now, on the eve of another long baseball season? Sadly, it seems that anymore pro jocks in most sports have a need to feed their egos one last time. It's not enough that they've made obscene amounts of money for playing a game over the years and, unless they're total boneheads, will live out the rest of their lives in luxury beyond the imagination of 99.9% of people on the planet. No, they have to have a "farewell tour" to go out in a blaze of glory.

No doubt, the public relations people employed by the Bronx Bombers will trumpet Rivera's final season at every turn. In Yankee Stadium, he'll get standing O's every time he comes in to pitch. His personal paraphernalia sales will surely skyrocket. Cha-ching. Over the course of the year, while on road trips, Rivera will be in every other ballpark in the American League, and if those particular home town fans don't wish to honor him -- rest assured the TV folks will find a way.

And my oh my, those same folks can come up with some off-the-wall stats sometimes in their rush to canonize yet another sports hero. Did you know the Yankees have an .850 winning percentage in games Rivera has appeared in? That sounds great, until one thinks about it. Rivera was/is a "closer". Closers only enter the game toward the very end when their team is ahead, and seldom will pitch to more than 3-4 batters. In other words, they inherit an advantage. No team puts their closer in when they're behind. Such mop-up duty is left to pitchers that "need a little work". In that light, that same .850 team winning percentage loses a bit of luster. And who sits around looking this stuff up anyway?

But we've seen it before. Brett Favre was a poster-child of farewell tours. All hail #4 on his last go-round. Oops. He's back again. Michael Jordan retired from basketball to play baseball, crashed and burned for a couple years in only the minor leagues, then went back to hoops.

And it's not just limited to sports. How many times have we seen an aging rock band on a farewell tour, only to rediscover themselves a year or two later and hit the road again for yet another one, more major cha-chings, and still playing the same songs? Obviously, we're suckers for that sort of thing.

To see how far the media-hype has gone, one only has to take note that Rivera attracted major attention when it was merely rumored an UPCOMING press conference to announce his retirement might come about. The actual conference itself will no doubt be yet another media circus. All this will have occurred just before -- Rivera goes out and plays another season. Amazing. And how about if he has a terrific year, changes his mind, and decides to come back for yet another campaign? Would he get another "tour"? Could happen.

The guy who got it right was Barry Sanders. In July of 1999, he had 4 years and $35 million remaining on his contract with the Detroit Lions. Still in the prime of his career, Sanders was also only 1400+ yards behind Walter Payton for the all-time NFL rushing record at the time, a mark he likely could have easily surpassed had be played only one more year. But Sanders was finally fed up with the Lions' losing culture, yet the team played hardball and wouldn't consider a trade (even though the Washington Redskins seemed willing and had multiple first round draft choices to offer). The Lions had backed Sanders into a corner. Either play for them, or don't play at all. To the surprise of many, Sanders called their bluff and simply walked away from the game entirely. No muss, no fuss, no press conference, and certainly no farewell tour. In the lowest of profiles, Sanders' retirement only became officially known through a mere fax he sent to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper at the time. It would be many more years before Barry would even discuss the matter publicly.

Though many Lions' fans were disappointed, or perhaps even outraged, Sanders having left them high and dry just before the team was entering it's pre-season phase in 1999, that was likely the result of the spin the Lions' PR folks put on it at the time. Their star running back had just taken a hike, and it couldn't be THEIR fault, right? So it must be his. All through the ensuing firestorm Sanders remained silent. That was class. Just like he had always displayed on the field.

It's too bad other athletes like Rivera can't seem to follow his example. When it's time to go, just go, and stop making such a big deal out of it. But in the end, the fault actually lies with the fans themselves.

Because they keep buying into it.


  1. John, while I agree with much of what you wrote, I have a different take on Rivera.

    Last year was supposed to be his final year, until he got hurt in spring training. He then decided he did not want to go out that way, so he is back this year. If he had not announced, every day he and others would have been hounded daily about it. I think it was more a case of putting it out there and get it out of the way, avoiding distractions for Rivera and the Yankees.

    As for Barry, I could be wrong but I don't remember any inkling about a possible trade until he had already quit. And the trade possibility was advanced by his agent, and never endorsed by Sanders. I think he didn't like football that much and figured he had enough. That is fine but the way he ended it, with the fax was not only low class, it was cowardly. He should serve as an example all right - an example of how NOT to retire.

    1. Al. I can appreciate your take on Sanders, and understand how many others, particularly Lions' fans, would see it the same way. Yeah, the trade scenario was only floated by his agent, but still... the Lions didn't even consider it. Whether or not Barry would have been open to it (he at least wanted out of Detroit) is anybody's guess. At the time, the Skins were halfway decent, and the Lions were about to enter their "great depression". In the end, the Lions got nothing back, save the signing bonus, which took 3 years. I still think the Lions should have at least explored the possibility. What did they have to lose? Sanders probably would have fetched at least a couple very high picks, and maybe that depression never would have happened. Who knows? It's really too bad, cuz if Sanders would have played another 4-5 years, he likely would have set the all-time career rushing bgar so high nobody would ever approach it. Ah well. Hindsight.

  2. By the way, Tiger won AGAIN. Very close to number one in the world again. The Masters right ahead.

    I think Tiger is very close to starting to dominate again. He is healthy and it looks like his new golf swing is now second nature.

    I hope McIlroy regains his swing and confidence. It would be must-see if he and Tiger go head to head in the majors with both playing at their best.

    1. Agreed on Tiger, and yep, can't wait for the Masters.