Thursday, October 10, 2013

Profile of an Alpha: Mariano Rivera

A living legend in the baseball world has retired. The moving ceremony that his grateful team put on for him was deserved in every sense of the word, for it was to bid farewell to the greatest player to ever play in his position. His brilliance on the pitching mound is something that will likely never be seen again. He not only dominated for 19 years, but also in the big spots in the postseason, where the pressure on an athlete is at its highest. Yet it was in these situations that he thrived the most. Throughout his run, he was not only a fierce competitor, but was also a sublime human being- one that everyone admired. I've said on this blog's "About" page that there are few contemporary famous men that I personally would want to emulate. Mariano Rivera is an exception.

Again, like most Alpha men (at least those that will be profiled on this blog), Rivera's current status of greatness- in his case as the best Closer in the history of baseball, seemed like a remote possibility when he was young. Mariano Rivera was born in Panama, a country with a 2012 GDP per capita of only $15,616. Rivera as you thus might expect, grew up in what seemed to be hopeless poverty. He was so poor that he could not afford a Baseball glove and had to use a milk carton as a glove.

One might think that Mariano Rivera, from when he was young, was determined to play baseball, not only because he had a passion for it, but also as a way to escape such desperate poverty, as professional sports have afforded the opportunity for many others. This isn't the case. It was not until he was nineteen that the prospect seemed to be a concrete one for him. Instead, he had for some years before he was discovered been following in his father's footsteps as a fisherman. When his boat capsized one day, he decided to choose a different career path- perhaps as a mechanic. It certainly wasn't a glamorous or high-status job, but it was an honest living. Then came 1990, the year that would change Mariano's life forever and set him on the path to greatness.

Spotted by one of the Yankees' scouts in the area, Herb Raybourn, who was impressed with his raw abilities as a pitcher, signed him to a $3,000 deal (in 1990 dollars). It would be perhaps the wisest and most cost-effective investment the Yankees had ever made.

Early Career:

Mariano Rivera performed impressively in his stint in the minors. And it was here that he met his enduring teammates- his fellow "Core Four" members, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, and Jorge Posada. It was the nucleus of a group that would go on to become one of the greatest and longest-lasting dynasties in the history of professional sports. As with Marlborough and Eugene, these high-status, great men complimented each other and became close friends throughout the years, allowing the accomplishment of far more than any of them could have done one on their own, despite their monumental individual talents.

This time period was also a cultural shock for Mariano. He'd never been away from his native Panama before, and had to learn another language. Being home sick, especially with limited communication options, can be a very hefty burden to carry, and many people fail to succeed in such adversity. However, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Mariano, being the winner that he is, didn't want to let it get away. He would eventually become fluent in English, enhancing his ability to communicate and build relationships. Mariano is also a proponent of people around baseball learning to speak multiple languages for this same reason. Many people, including myself, struggle with learning another language (I believe a large portion of the effort for Americans to become a multilingual people could be solved if schools would simply teach foreign languages at an earlier age, but that would be digressing). It is not essential, but it conveys significant advantages in a more globalized world, and should be pursued vigorously, especially when you are younger and have more time to study. This is a regret I continue to have (even though my circumstances for learning another language were never ideal- another digression).

Mariano Rivera got called up to the Major Leagues and made his debut as a starting pitcher on May 23rd, 1995. He would serve in an unfamiliar role- that of a starting pitcher. His results were not what he would have liked. He struggled in his first games, and the Yankees considered trading him multiple times. He and Derek Jeter were both sent down to the minors on the same day in 1995. The two young men cried, but there was resolution in their tears. Both were determined to make it back to the Majors and stay there. They would succeed in the next year- a comeback of epic proportions.

Making an Impact:

Mariano Rivera debuted as a full time relief pitcher as the 1996 season got underway. He acted as the setup man for then-Closer John Wetteland. With a blazing four-seam fastball that hitters often chased above the strike zone, Mariano thrived. He surrendered just one home run that year, with a 2.09 ERA. It was a common trope in 1996 that if the Yankees had the lead after six innings, the game was over. And indeed it was. The Yankees only lost three games if they were leading after six innings in 1996. Mariano finished third in the Cy Young voting that year, and won his first world championship. Then-manager of the Minnesota Twins, Tom Kelly, said of Mariano:

"He needs to pitch in a higher league, if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."

And he was just getting started.


A Blessing in Disguise:

After the 1996 season, John Wetteland became a free agent, and Mariano Rivera became the Yankees' Closer. It was that year that he discovered quite by accident what would become his most effective weapon- and possibly the greatest pitch that baseball has ever seen. The story is famous in baseball, but I'll tell it anyway. While playing catch with teammates, Marino's ball began to have cut action on it. He worked with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyer for a while to try to get rid of it, but found that he couldn't. Mariano then said that maybe it was just the way God wanted it to be. It was a prophetic statement.

Mariano Rivera's cutter has broken more bats than any other pitch in history. Famously, in the 1999 World Series between the Braves and Yankees, Ryan Klesko, batting against Rivera, broke his bat three times in the same at-bat. From 1997 onward, the cutter became Mariano's primary, and sometimes almost exclusive pitch. Throughout his career batters knew that the cutter was coming and still couldn't do anything about it. Of course the reason why the pitcher has the advantage over the hitter is first and foremost deception- the pitcher knows what pitch is coming and the hitter does not. Mariano's cutter was so good that it transcended this dynamic, rendering deception for the most part unnecessary.

Mariano was never a cutter pitcher before, but he embraced his new gift and used it to Hall of Fame success. It is a good example of the fact that the greatest gifts in life can occur unexpectedly. Don't be afraid to embrace them.

The Mindset:

Another thing that was crucial to Mariano's success and reputation was his mindset when he went on the mound, often in high-pressure situations at the biggest moments. No matter the pressure (and there was a lot of it), Mariano would not let anything break his reserve. He has said that if you overthink, your emotions will control your actions, and of course if that happens, you won't be at the top of your game. Are there any truer words than this?

Whether it be in sports, business, or socially, letting your emotions control your actions is a losing strategy in the long run. Had Mariano not controlled his emotions, his success in winning all those championships and achieving his immense prestige as a Closer would be seriously in doubt.

Mariano after game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, perhaps his best-ever performance

Dominance and Respect:

After 1997, Mariano established himself as the greatest closer in history, racking up 652 career saves with the lowest ERA after 1,000 innings pitched (2.21) and WHIP (1.00) in history. Despite such dominance, Mariano earned the respect of everyone in his profession throughout his years as an active player, and was well-regarded as a human being for his respect of the game, himself, and others.

I respect Mo more than anybody in the game. The guy goes out there, gets three outs and shakes Posada's hand. You appreciate someone who respects the game like he does, respects the people he plays with and against, and obviously his results speak for themselves. - Michael Young
The respect Mariano had earned throughout his career was evident in his final season. Many rivals that dreaded seeing him coming out of the bullpen were chomping at the bit to give him gifts and take photos with him. During his final All-Star Game, the league's biggest stars cleared the field for him to take in the glory alone, to a standing ovation from all the players, complete with "Enter Sandman" despite the fact that he was a visiting player. Mariano however, also gave back in his final year, meeting with obscure employees of teams and often giving them gifts in the process, to thank them for their contributions to the game. He also met with season ticket holders of the teams he visited and had conversations with them. The attitude displayed here is the reason why he received so much praise in his final year.

The broken bat chair, the Twins' unique gift

Mariano is a devout Christian, and so, with his religion as a guide, he probably realizes that man is a fleeting animal. He is not the center of the universe, and so should not act like it. This deference, respect, and professionalism that Mariano showed to his peers and to the world in general, earned him the admiration of all. It would be very easy for someone in such a position of dominance to act like an asshole- we've seen it too many times in the sports world and in other spheres. Mariano spurned such behavior, recognizing that strength comes from integrity. Not a bad word has ever been uttered about him.

His dominance on and off the field- of the competition without and the dark temptations that exist within all of us, are a rare combination, and may just earn Mariano the honor of being the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he is eligible in 2019. Only time will tell if this happens, but the legacy he's left to the game on and off the field serves as an inspiration to those that follow in his mighty footsteps.

Photo: slgckgc (wiki commons)
After the Game:

Now that he's retired, Mariano plans to be a full-time husband and father, and to give back to the community through his foundation, which benefits underprivileged children with an education and distributes the funds through local churches. He will build more churches for the benefit of local people, and is currently in the process of restoring one.

With Mariano's ability and attitude, I'm sure he'll be as great in his next phase in life as he was in the previous one.

Lessons from Mariano Rivera:

1. Languages are a key to the world. Some of your greatest friends- and potential lovers, may be out there waiting for you, but could you speak their language. They should be pursued vigorously, especially in youth.

2. What may seem to be the nadir of your fortunes could quite easily be the darkest time before the dawn of your glory. You must be persistent. All winners are.

3. Your greatest gifts may be ones that you underrate, or even do not wish for at first. Don't be afraid to use them.

4. Never, never, let your emotions control your actions- in any scenario and for whatever reason.

5. You aren't the center of the world. Don't act like it. No matter how great you become, don't become arrogant and slight those who haven't deserved your scorn. It not only enhances your own reputation, but you'll leave behind a better world in your wake. Mariano Rivera New York Yankees Retirement 2013 Closer Saves

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