No sport engenders more discussion than baseball as to who, historically, is best at what. So it’s a feat among feats that Mariano Rivera is regarded as baseball’s all-time greatest closer by pretty much everyone who has ever pondered, for five seconds, who that might be. Even Babe Ruth as a slugger doesn’t have Rivera’s kind of consensual clout.
But Ruth could spin a story, which puts the onus on Rivera to make something of his memoir, “The Closer.”
Yankees literature has never suffered from a shortage of ribald humor, outrageous personalities and Yogi Berra-style malapropisms (Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” combines all of that and more as one of the half-dozen best baseball books), but Rivera was known as perhaps baseball’s classiest act. He keeps up that reputation here, for the most part.
More surprisingly, Rivera emerges on these pages as a wordsmith — although that might have more to do with his writing partner, Wayne Coffey, who wrote the excellent “The Boys of Winter,” an account of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Still, the spirit of the work seems very much to be in keeping with Rivera’s low-key personality.
“The Closer” offers a fair amount of behind-the-scenes tidbits. We find out that Alex Rodriguez drove Rivera crazy, whereas Derek Jeter could well be a fairy tale prince (despite Rivera’s grousing that the shortstop’s early return from injury cost the Yanks a postseason run in ’13).
“I think he wants to be in the lineup so bad that it might be clouding his judgment,” Rivera suggests of Jeter, a thought he never would have shared pre-retirement.
But there’s more than just baseball in Rivera’s life: There’s also God. Scripture often crops up, and there are various stadium-centric miracles recounted, as when Rivera, as part of an alleged grand plan, is provided with his legendary cutter pitch during a game of catch. Behold, the cutter!
Rivera blows a save in Game 7 of the ’01 World Series, a gaffe that he concludes spares teammate Enrique Wilson — if the Yankees won, Wilson and his family were scheduled to be on a plane that crashed with 260 dead. “Our losing had saved his life, his family’s life,” Rivera offers.
The book vividly sketches out his origin story: a Panamanian kid, smelling of fish from working on his father’s boat, coming to America to begin what seems, from any perspective, a most unlikely baseball career. There’s real terror in the early pages as Rivera, without any command of the English language, gets a flight for Florida when he’d never been more than six hours from home.
He’s anxious, you’re anxious, and no matter what team you usually root for, you’ll root for Rivera in the early pages of “The Closer.” It’s the kind of baseball odyssey that leaves readers with a sense of the Homerian that later extends to the stuff of clutch strikeouts, “Casey at the Bat"-style grandeur and fallen records.
Of course, one could make the case that for all of his accomplishments, Rivera cost his team two likely World Series championships, in ’01 and ’04. Regarding the former, Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius kind of gets the blame, while Rivera attributes the latter loss to an overall team failure.
There is a lot of talk in this book of predestination and fate. But no matter if that’s not your thing — it’s dead easy to skip over those bits as if they were a seventh-inning stretch before getting back into the beer and Cracker Jack guts of all of this, which is to say, the baseball talk and the life of a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Fleming writes for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated and is author of the forthcoming book, “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss.”
Mariano Rivera With Wayne Coffey
Little, Brown: 288 pp., $28