USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the prominent careers of the 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class.
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Everywhere you stroll in this little town, everywhere you look, every word you hear, is all about Mariano Rivera.
You can buy $110 Rivera jerseys, or $25 Rivera posters. You can buy autographed Rivera baseballs, bats, or wristbands.
The old movie theater in town even dedicated its marquee to Rivera: “Enter Sandman. 100% Unanimous’’
The bustling souvenir shops on Main Street are filled with Rivera memorabilia and shirts, with virtually every saying of your choosing:
“Cooperstown Welcomes Rivera.’’
“Thank You Mo.’’
“Mo Owns the Hall.’’
If you didn’t know any better, you might think Rivera is the lone player to be inducted Sunday into the Hall of Fame, instead of being flanked by Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith, Harold Baines and the late Roy Halladay.
Just a 3½-hour drive from Yankee Stadium, droves of fans have made the trip up to Cooperstown to see one of the greatest players to wear pinstripes – and the greatest closer in baseball history – become immortal.
“Pretty amazing,’’ Rivera said. “It’s so humbling. It’s still so hard to believe.’’
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Really, the only regret, Rivera says, is that one exceptional and extraordinary man isn’t alive to see it: Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in 1947, and made this day possible for Rivera.
“Mr. Jackie, that was the guy I always wanted to meet,’’ said Rivera, the last major-league player to wear No. 42, Robinson’s uniform number. “That man, as a minority, he gave us everything he had for us to come in. And he did it with class.
“So, for me to be a minority, and wear his number, is something special.’’
Rivera, who recorded a major-league record 652 saves, is the only player to be elected with 100 percent of the ballot. There will be others, maybe even former teammate Derek Jeter a year from now.
Yet, Rivera will always have the distinction of being the first.
“It took a one-inning pitcher to get a unanimous vote,’’ former Yankees reliever and Hall of Famer Goose Gossage said. “It’s not sour grapes. Mariano was a no-brainer. But you telling me that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and all of the great pitchers shouldn’t have gotten 100 percent of the vote?
“There are 100 guys that if they pitched just the ninth inning would have been unanimous. It’s not that big of a deal. Do what we did, and we’ll compare apples and apples. It’s almost forgotten how much the game has changed.
“It’s not a knock on Mariano – my God, Mariano’s accomplishments are fabulous – but it’s just so different now.’’
Still, even with Rivera entering games in the ninth inning 981 times, compared to 219 times in the eighth inning and just 46 times in the seventh, there was no one like him.
What separates him from all of the greats is his dominance in the postseason, yielding a 0.70 ERA, giving up just two homers, saving 42 games, and winning five World Series championships.
And he did it all on the biggest stage in New York.
“That’s the part that’s unbelievable,’’ said Smith, who has the third-most saves in baseball history. “To do what he did in that market, to pitch in that city, is the toughest thing in the world to do. I don’t know how he did it his whole career.’’
Even Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who was Rivera before Rivera – the first reliever to be used almost exclusively in the ninth inning under Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa – can’t fathom what Rivera accomplished.
“You know something, I can’t even put myself in the same category,’’ said Eckersley. “I’m not trying to be ‘Johnny Humble’ at all, but this guy is elite, really, more than anybody.
“Look at the numbers. Beyond the numbers, which are incredible. The postseason numbers are sick. I can even quote all of his stats. You’re talking about a 0.70 ERA over 141 innings in the postseason. That’s like the greatest year I ever had, times two, just in the postseason.
“You give it up in the postseason, you’ve got to live with that [stuff] the rest of his life. He doesn’t have to live with anything.’’
Well, there was the Sandy Alomar homer in the 1997 American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. The blown saves in Games 3 and 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, which triggered the historic comeback. And the blown save against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
And that was it.
“That’s part of the game,’’ Rivera said. “I understood those moments were going to happen. It happened in the World Series. Happened in the playoffs. Happened in the regular season. So I understood that. Just had to forget it and move on.
“You have to have a short memory. Good or bad.’’
Certainly, he helped manager Joe Torre get into Cooperstown with his dominance, and Mussina says that he’ll forever be indebted, too, knowing that if he left a game with the lead in New York, Rivera would make sure there would be that “W’’ next to Mussina’s name in the box score.
Mussina even told Rivera they will keep their tradition alive Sunday when they take turns speaking. Mussina will speak first, just as a starter would, and the last speaker, of course, has to be the closer.
“I told him to do what he did during the season,’’ Mussina said. ” ‘Just sit inside, wait for the seventh-inning stretch, and then come on stage. And I’ll do what I did when I pitched. When I’m done, I’ll leave, take a shower, and wait for everybody to finish.’ ’’
That won’t work at the Hall of Fame ceremony, of course, but you get the picture.
Rivera, just the second player from Panama to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining Rod Carew, will talk in English and Spanish. He will thank God, his family, the Yankees and of course, late owner George Steinbrenner.
“I know for sure he would be proud of me,’’ Rivera said. “He would say, ‘Kid, great job.’ He always called me kid.’’
Now, and forever, he’ll be called a Hall of Famer.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale