During my thankfully short commute to work each morning, I listen to sports talk radio. With the commercial interruptions, I can usually enjoy anywhere from 8-12 minutes of updates, interviews and competitive commentary. It is mindless entertainment, and the fact that it is Mike and Mike on the dial makes it even more mind numbing. Afternoon sports talk personality Steve Czaban calls the show “Same and Same” because of Mike and Mike’s annoying habit of agreeing with one another on the vast majority of their opinions, and that moniker is spot on. I don’t enjoy the show much, but it is sports talk, and the commute is short. Changing the station would be too onerous a task so early in the morning. I need to focus on the road.
This particular morning, the news was that the great Yankee closer, Mariano Rivera, posted his 600th career save last night, placing him one behind the all-time MLB leader, Trevor Hoffman. Congratulations to the last player in the history of the game who will ever wear the legendary #42. Mike and Mike then had a cursory discussion about whether or not the face of Rivera would deserve to be carved into the imaginary New York Yankee Mount Rushmore of players.
Now that debate interested me even though I was raised as a Hater. My loathing of all things Yankee is well documented, although I have noticeably softened my anti-Yankee stance as age has softened my middle. Today, I can not only tolerate the Yankees, but I can give them grudging respect. That grudging respect started with the age of Willie Randolph, and has since grown thanks to guys like Jeter, Rivera, Posada and O’Neill. I will continue to hate (yes, hate) Roger Clemens, again a well-documented stance of mine. The Yankee arrogance lives on, but I don’t take it as personally as I once did.
Back to Mount Rushmore…
Remember, Mount Rushmore can only accommodate 4 faces. Conventional wisdom, and the wisdom with which I agree, states that Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Mantle are immovable from the list. Those 4 names are synonymous with the sport of baseball, and with America itself. Babe Ruth’s last name has morphed into an adjective that describes greatness (“a Ruthian effort”). DiMaggio was married to one of the most iconic starlets of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe, and Simon and Garfunkel immortalized the nation’s longing for his heroics in song. Lou Gehrig had his own disease named after him. Mickey Mantle? Has there ever been a name better suited for baseball greatness than the name Mickey Mantle?
So what does that mean for Rivera? One can easily argue that the Atlanta Braves win 4 straight World titles if Rivera is their closer in the 1990s. He was lights out (or “Enter Sandman”) for 18 years, causing opposing managers to play 8 inning game strategies. He forced the other teams to play the Yankees differently because he was in the bullpen. And he did it essentially with one pitch – a cut fastball. No one sawed off more lumber from hitter’s hands than #42. A broken bat should be called a “Rivera” from now on. But does he stand alongside Joe DiMaggio? That’s a tough one.
Today, I say no. My reasoning has nothing to do with on field accomplishments, although it would be difficult to so honor a player who does not take the field every day, and even when he does, it is only for an inning or two at most. I believe that Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle transcended the game in a way that Rivera has not achieved, and will probably never achieve. Times have changed. Those 4 ruled the world when baseball was America’s unchallenged national pastime. Modern athletes in the 24/7 media environment are exposed as all too human, while the players from yesteryear could be larger than life superheroes without the constant glare of super slo-mo analysis of their every twitch. To be perceived as truly iconic, you need to withhold something of yourself – there needs to be some mystery. Those days are gone in a New York tweet.
The next argument, and the argument that I will be more sympathetic to, will involve Jeter. Does Jeter end up on the imaginary New York Yankee Mount Rushmore? There’s a guy with a shot to join DiMaggio. All he needs to do is go on a 57 game hitting streak.
In the immortal words of Chief Brody of the Amity police, “We need a bigger mountain.”
Editor's Note: Yes, I know, all you Yankee fans, that the NY Mets Mount Rushmore has Tom Seaver all by himself, but hey, it's a young franchise.