Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. His career numbers and impact on the game earned him an induction into Cooperstown the first time he was on the ballot. In 1997, 50 years after Robinson changed baseball forever, Major League Baseball retired his number 42 throughout the entire league.
There were 14 players currently wearing 42 when MLB decided to honor Robinson by retiring his number, allowing them to wear it through the end of their career.
In 2013, only one of those 14 are still wearing number 42 on the baseball diamond, Mariano Rivera.
Rivera was signed out of Panama City, Panama by the New York Yankees on February 17,1990 for $3,000. When the Yankees flew him to the states to get started on his professional career, Rivera had never been on an airplane, spoke no English, and by his own account, wasn’t even a pitcher.
He made his major league debut in a start against the Angels on May 23, 1995, giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in a 10-0 Yankees loss. A few weeks later, he was sent right back tot he minors.
Rivera was recalled by the Yankees later that June and would go on to make six more starts that year. His first relief appearance came on August 1, 1995, and no one could have foreseen the greatness that was about to proceed for the next 19 years.
Led by his infamous cutter, Mariano Rivera would start his ascent in the Yankee bullpen, garnering Cy Young votes as the Yankee set-up man in 1996 and finally claiming the closer job in 1997. As the saying goes, the rest was history.
With a week left to go in his career, Rivera is the most dominate reliever in a century of baseball. His 652 saves are better than future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman’s by 51. Rollie Fingers had 341 in his 17 years, Dennis Eckersley had 390 in his 24-year career, and Goose Gossage had 310 career saves, and each of those greats are already in Cooperstown.
Known as the “Sandman” for his entrance song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica that plays through Yankee Stadium when he comes jogging in from the Yankees bullpen to get the final three outs, Rivera has been a transcendent athlete during his time in the Pinstripes.
He is the only player in Major League Baseball to record the final out in four World Series, doing it in 1998, 1999, 2000, and the 2009. Rivera closed out 16 postseason series, and is the only player to be named Most Valuable Player in a World Series (1999), League Championship Series (2003), and All Star game (2013). Rivera set the standard for closer efficiency in his role at the back of the Yankees bullpen, essentially doing it all with one devastating pitch.
The Yankees are arguably the most polarizing franchise in American sports, but one thing nearly everyone can agree on is a mutual infatuation with Rivera, who did it with class and a smile the entire time.
If Robinson hadn’t done what he did way back in 1947, there is a chance that the greatness of Rivera wouldn’t be a tale that we tell our children for decades to come. Rivera will be the last player to ever wear number 42 for a Major League Baseball team, and I’m sure Robinson couldn’t be more proud, smiling down on his number for the last time in this closing week of 2013.
Rivera may not have impacted the game in the same fashion as Robinson, but his presence will surely never be forgotten, and baseball will miss him. There isn’t a better player, or man, to close the book on number 42 for the last time.