Rich Schultz/Associated Press
Put 425 people of any stripe in one room, ask them to agree that the Earth is round, and my money is on severe disagreement leading to at least one fistfight. Maybe two. It’s too bad, but it’s the way of the world today. Tell me you love M&M’s, and I’ll tell you why they suck.
So put a National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in front of 425 voters and…
Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history, on Tuesday became the first unanimous Hall of Fame electee in history. Count them: 425 ballots, and the legendary Yankees closer closed on every single one of them.
How in the world did this happen? Why him? Why now?
Hallelujah, break out the party balloons. Not a single voice of dissent.
Politicians, entertainers, citizens of the planet, take note: It can happen.
“After my career, I was thinking I had a good shot to be a Hall of Famer,” Rivera said on a conference call with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America shortly after the election results were announced. “But this was just beyond my imagination.
“Just to be considered a Hall of Famer is quite an honor, but being unanimous…it’s amazing.”
It was the first time it happened in the 83 years since the inaugural Hall of Fame vote in 1936. Crazy, right? But true. There were 11 voters in ’36 who saw the name of Babe Ruth on their ballots and thought, “Nah.” Same year, four voters shook their heads no on Ty Cobb.
In 1966, 20 voters snubbed Ted Williams. In 1962, 36 declined to vote for Jackie Robinson. And three years ago, three among the 440 voters figured even Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t good enough for a first-ballot nod.
I’ll be honest: Because of this quirkiness over the past century, there was a part of me hoping that this nonsense continued and at least a couple of writers declined to check the box next to Mo’s name. See what I mean: a contrarian around every corner. I figured no way would Mo be unanimous simply because there are people out there who can’t wait to tell you how overrated the closer position is.
That’s why Rivera’s receiving 100 percent was so stunning: It’s a heck of a lot easier to diss a guy who, for most of his career, worked one inning a night than it is to look past a guy like Griffey or Mickey Mantle (yep, 43 people didn’t vote for him in 1974) or Willie Mays (23 left his box blank in 1979) or Cal Ripken Jr. (eight votes from 100 percent in 2007). Even for non-everyday players, it’s much easier to rationalize a no for Mo than it is to balk at Pedro Martinez (49 voters ignored him in 2015).
Over the years, the reasons were plenty. Some voters distinguished between a “first-ballot Hall of Famer” and everybody else and, as such, routinely withheld votes from all but the top-drawer guys when a new name debuted on the ballot (ridiculous—if a guy is a Hall of Famer, he’s a Hall of Famer, period). Some harbored personal grudges (not many, and in a perfect world nobody would, but voters are human and imperfect). Some were simply out to lunch.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Meantime, there’s this: Rivera’s unanimity came at a moment when the traditional closer is being de-emphasized in baseball. Analytics has led us to the point where many now agree the best way for a team to proceed is to build a strong bullpen, mix and match and use the best arm—a Rivera, say—at the point in the game deemed the most important. Could be the ninth inning, could be the seventh inning.
All this should point toward non-unanimity come Hall of Fame election time, except for one undeniable truth: Rivera’s body of work over 19 summers and autumns made him, easily, the greatest ever to play his position.
Greatness comes in different shapes and sizes, and maybe as the game shifted away from speed and toward power in the 1920s some preferred Ruth over Cobb, or vice versa. Maybe in recent years on the mound you liked Randy Johnson’s sizzle while others appreciated Greg Maddux’s craftiness. Different strokes, different folks—understandable.
You can argue the greatest shortstop or center fielder of all time, and cases can be made for many. But talk closers, and the subject starts and closes with Rivera.
He was phenomenal, producing an all-time record 652 saves while helping to pitch the Yankees to five World Series titles. He was the epitome of grace under pressure in October. And throughout, every hitter he faced knew how he would work to extinguish them: He would throw his cutter, and then he would throw it again, and then he would throw it again.
The story of how he developed that cutter has the same mystical quality that has enveloped Rivera all these years. It was in 1997 in Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium, and as Rivera threw with his catch partner, Ramiro Mendoza, his ball suddenly started to move. Mendoza became angry because he thought Rivera was messing with him. Turned out, he wasn’t.
“A gift from God,” Rivera called it.
The rest of baseball had never seen anything like it. Manager Jim Leyland once told me there were three years during the Yankees’ run of dominance in which Rivera was the “MVP of all of baseball.” Joe Maddon added that when he was managing in Tampa, there were many times in ninth innings facing Rivera when the Rays would look at each other in the dugout and joke about how badly Rivera was tipping his pitches.
Unspoken punch line: Everybody knew the cutter was coming, and they still couldn’t hit it.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
During his retirement tour in the 2013 season, I spent a full week with Rivera and the Yankees for a profile, and one of the greatest things happened off the field: As he visited each city for the final time, he sent word that he wanted to meet with a group of behind-the-scenes folks from that club, just to talk to them and thank them for their part in the game. In Seattle, I watched him meet with a group of young people interested in careers in sports. He told me later one thing that really hit him during these meetings—which were all his idea—was that he didn’t realize how much he meant to people outside of New York.
“All of those things, I’m learning,” Rivera told me. “How baseball touches people. People’s lives. Different backgrounds. Different people. Cultures. We’re united because of baseball.”
I thought back to those moments when word came that Rivera’s election was unanimous. How cool. How momentous. And, given this particular man and everything he’s done—everything—how fitting.
“He is the measuring stick,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson told me that week. “He’s the measuring stick for relievers, for greatness, for clutch performance.
“He is the measuring stick for the Yankees organization.”
And now, you can add the Hall of Fame to that measuring stick, too. It’s perfect, in every way.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.