As a Red Sox fan, the many laws of sports kinship demand I hate Yanks closer Mariano Rivera. But the reality is, while I’ve watched him shutdown countless potential Sox comebacks, I’ve always respected him. Then the other day The Atlantic ran this article on his blown save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. This is the moment that shattered his aura of invincibility. When Rivera came into the game with the Yankees leading, the Championship seemed like a lock.
Whenever Rivera, often referred to as the Hammer of God for the merciless manner in which he retired opposing batters, entered a game in the eighth or ninth inning, baseball fans could justifiably guess the game was over and that the Yankees would win. Rivera was that good; he was the closest thing the sport had to perfection.
But then, Luis Gonzalez shattered that with a walk-off, broken bat RBI hit off Rivera to steal the World Series away from the Yankees, and bring it to Arizona.
They had vanquished the untouchable Rivera and the mighty Yankees. Though Gonzalez was a power hitter who had crushed 57 home runs that season, he understood power hitting was not the way to beat Rivera. So he cribbed a technique from little league and choked up on his bat. He would later tell reporters, “To be honest, that’s the first time I choked up all year.” The improvisation worked. The swing on which he connected with the ball resulted in a broken bat, but it also resulted in the hit that shattered Mariano Rivera’s veneer of invincibility.
Whenever I think about that game and the way Rivera lost it, a quote from sportswriter Brian Philips pops into my head: “Our sports culture may value winning over everything, but there’s nothing more epic than tragic defeat.” Rivera’s blown save, which prevented the Yankees from bringing a World Series trophy to a city in pain and proved the great closer fallible, was professional sports at its most tragically epic.
Perfection is the standard in sports. We know that anything less is failure. Because of this, no manner of athletic perfection is real, believable, or memorable, if not rooted in a very human grappling with failure. Kevin Craft here is not just saying that an athlete is more lovable because he has shown his foibles along the way to perfection; instead, he is pointing out that, without failure, fans are rooting for an abstract impossibility. While perfection may make a man a professional athlete, it is not until one blows a big game that the athlete becomes a man (or woman) of the fans.
“Athletes may dream about and actively pursue perfection, but perfection is only interesting in the abstract. Losing humanizes athletes in a way winning never can, and without a touch of humanity athletes risk becoming emotionless symbols with better physiques than the average person. Muhammad Ali had a more exciting and meaningful career because of his loss to and rivalry with Joe Frazier. The Larry Bird-Magic Johnson feud that captivated NBA fans in the ‘80s was so remarkable because both men lost at the hands of the other. Peyton Manning remains more likeable than Tom Brady in part because his postseason failures have been more compelling than Brady’s victories.
Had Rivera won that game he would have seemed almost too perfect. Blowing that save diminished his postseason ERA but not his greatness. It showed that even the best mess up once and a while. Rivera recovered from that loss and pitched very successfully for another decade. The next season his ERA rose by .40 points, but from 2003 to 2006 he maintained an ERA under 2.0 and continued to serve as an exceptionally reliable closer. He showed no sign of ill effects from that loss and won another World Series with the Yankees in 2009. This season, Rivera has saved 44 games and posted an ERA of 2.11, illustrating he could continue to pitch if he so desired. As he steps down, he leaves behind an enduring legacy—a legacy that’s great in part because of his most memorable failure.”