With Mariano Rivera's final season set to begin, we're about to endure countless testimonies to his supposed greatness.
Yes, Rivera is by all accounts a commendable human being, and he also has been a superficially outstanding pitcher over his 18-year career. However, the evidence suggests that Rivera in fact willfully chose to be a lesser pitcher than he could have been and, in doing so, he failed not only the Yankees but also all of baseball.
Consider Rivera's numbers from his rookie season of 1996: 107 2/3 innings, 2.09 ERA, 240 ERA+, 10.9 K/9. Now, consider his career numbers to date: 2.21 ERA, 206 ERA+, 8.3 K/9. At this point, you're no doubt asking: Why the steep decline from his rookie season. The answer is as simple as it is damning -- Rivera's self-defeating vanity project known as "the cutter."
After that outstanding 1996 season, Rivera, for reasons sufficient unto himself -- and as CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman (a Rivera apologist) recently chronicled -- developed the cutter that he'd use as a crutch for the remainder of his career. Rivera would, as you can plainly see, be a worse pitcher from that point forward.
Consider the following unassailable fact ... Rivera's numbers in 1996 -- 2.09 ERA, 240 ERA+, 10.9 K/9 -- suggest that, had he not betrayed the underpinnings of that, his finest season, then he would have ended his career with these numbers: 2.09 ERA, 240 ERA+, 10.9 K/9.
Was the addition of the cutter an act of abject selfishness on the part of Rivera? A better question is this: How can the addition of the cutter be thought of as anything other than an act of abject selfishness on the part of Rivera?
It remains a source of cynical amusement that Rivera has not yet been subjected to a 50-game suspension, seeing as how what he did -- develop the cutter out of a smoldering envy of what he saw in Ramiro Mendoza's sinker one day in 1997 -- is not qualitatively different from what Barry Bonds is alleged to have done -- undertake a regimen of PEDs because he was desirous of the attention received by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
The underlying affront is not the use of PEDs, in which Rivera has never indulged, but rather a prideful envy, in which Rivera has absolutely indulged -- to the detriment of his team and game. Does MLB want to continue treating symptoms rather than besieging root causes? If so, then by all means continue punishing the manifestation of envy rather than the envy itself. And what would happen these days if a player indulged in what Bonds is alleged to have done? He would be disciplined by MLB to the tune of a 50-game suspension. Why, then, has Rivera been spared such punishment? Why indeed.
I couldn't help but notice that Rivera's ERA in that abandoned season of 1996 -- 2.09 -- was the same as Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance's ERA in 1928. That, in turn, made me think of the bloop hit authored by Luis Gonzalez in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. So I posed the following question to a grizzled scout of imposing tenure: "If Rivera had thrown a legendary Dazzy Vance high fastball to Gonzalez instead of his cutter, would the Yankees have won the 2001 World Series?"
"Yes," he said.
At the end of the day, is not such selfishness condemnable? As the numbers above prove beyond dispute, Rivera could have been greater than he turned out to be if not for his insistence on developing and yoking himself to a pitch that satisfied his most regrettable urges.
So celebrate Mariano Rivera if you want, but do so knowing that your "hero" has been objectively bad for the game of baseball.
One final note: April Fool's and stuff!