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Jerry Ballgame weighs in on Mariano Rivera and the great Dennis Eckersley.

The recent season ending injury suffered by Yankee closer Mariano Rivera got me thinking back to April 11, 2005, Opening Day at Fenway Park, and the day I realized just what a class act he was.  MLB, in all it’s wisdom, had decided that it would somehow add to the TV ratings if they forced the Yanks to sit through the presentation of the World Series Rings, and be reminded of how close they had actually been to another championship. Rivera’s failure to hold the lead, and the Dave Roberts/Bill Mueller heroics, are of course etched in the memory of every member of Red Sox Nation. A major part of that memory is the instinctive attempt at a kick-save by Rivera as the Mueller’s shot back through the middle went by him into centerfield, resulting in the Charlie Brown-esque picture of the Mighty Mariano sprawled on the mound.

Now flash forward about six months to a sunny, but chilly afternoon in Boston, and picture both teams lined up on each foul line. As the Yankees are introduced there is, for the most part a few boos from the Sox fans, but a surprising number of cheers from the fans who have made the trip up from  New York and Southern New England. As you can imagine, Álex Rodríguez gets an energetic, and basically negative, reaction from the crowd for his swatting the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove in game six of the ALCS. But the biggest and most sarcastic cheer of the day was clearly saved for Rivera. His reaction was classic. He stepped forward, tipped his hat, and laughed. I thought that was so cool. I had to believe he understood the moment, and just went with it. I also think that when you have had as many high points as Rivera has, it makes dealing with the low ones a great deal easier.

Eckersley was one of the best closers of his era, and a good starter too. (V.J. Lovero/SI)

In a similar vain, I recently heard Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons talking about an interview he had done with Rivera during Spring Training in 2002. If you are a baseball fan, I’m sure you don’t have to be reminded about just how incredibly emotional the 2001 World Serious was, and the disappointment everyone felt when Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez won it with a looping single off Rivera. When Gammons asked Rivera how long it took him to get over that, he said, “I was over it by the time the plane landed in Newark. After all, I broke 3 bats…” I took that to mean that even when you are on your game and doing everything right, things don’t always turn out your way, but you can still take away the satisfaction of giving it your best shot. Not a bad philosophy for a closer, or anyone else for that matter, and one I assume he shares with Dennis Eckersley.

“Eck” is, to say the least, an interesting character who had more than his share of moments on the ‘Big Stage”. Some of the moments are memorable for less desirable reasons, but he never backed down or made excuses. It is said that after he gave up the 1988 World Series homerun to Kirk Gibson (for which Eck coined the phrase “walk off homerun”) he stood in front of his locker answering reporters questions, until there were no more questions to be asked. Eckersley bounced back the following year against the Giants, with a win and two saves for Oakland in the 1989 World Series.

As I said, Eckersley has an interesting and unique place in baseball. The only pitcher to win 20 games and also have a 50 save season, he won both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1992, and pitched a no-hitter in 1977. ‘Eck,’ who is considered by many to be the first of the modern closers, retired in 1998 with 197 wins, 390 saves, and interestingly enough, was traded by the Red Sox to the Cubs for Bill Buckner. Dennis Eckersley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.

Now that ‘Eck’ has been retired for a while, and  ‘Mo’ maybe through, I guess that leaves it up to ‘Pap’. Only time will tell….

Featured image courtesy of: (Kathy Willens/AP)

About Jerry Ballgame

The personification of "old school", Jerry Ballgame was born in the shadow of Dr. Naismith's peach basket, and baptized in that "Dirty Water." Designated by his "Uncle" Ted, to keep an eye on things, he's here to tell everyone what his view is like from the Hub of the Universe.