Monday, May 7, 2012

Best in Position

My pathological dislike of the Yankee Empire is no secret; however, there are a number of players and former players associated with the NY Death Star that I nonetheless respect and admire for their accomplishments and/or character.  Mariano Rivera is one of those men.  While I have cursed his flawless efficiency on occasion, I cannot hate the man.  I cannot watch him practice his craft without some measure of awe.  He is a professional.  He is a role model.

For this reason, I read about his freak knee injury with some sadness for him and for the game of baseball.  If his ACL injury does accelerate the date for his inevitable retirement, that will be a tragedy.  Without dissent, he is/was the greatest relief pitcher of all-time.

There are precious few athletes in any sport that can make the claim of being inarguably the very best, without peer, in their specific role.  Rivera can make that claim.  There have been great relief pitchers in the history of baseball.  Bruce Sutter was great.  Eckersley was great.  No one is better than the last man to wear the iconic #42.  I have not heard anyone argue for another candidate at his position.

Jerry Rice was the greatest wide receiver in the history of football.  This is without question.  Was he the greatest football player ever at any position?  That cannot be said without a fight, but when the category is wide receiver, the discussion can only be about second place.

Bobby Orr was the greatest defenseman to ever lace up hockey skates.  Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin, Nicholas Lidstrom – all very good, all Hall of Famers.  No one did what Orr did as a defenseman.  Period.
For me, this is where the list the Inarguably the Greatest Ever ends.  Rivera, Orr, Rice.  That’s it.

There are some close honorees. 
Babe Ruth.  He was an All-Star pitcher before hitting 714 home runs, a statistic that is even more staggering the more you consider it.  In 1927 when he belted 60 homers, that total was more than all the other American League teams hit COMBINED.  To this day, a gargantuan effort is known as a Ruthian effort.  When your name becomes an adjective, you have arrived.  The question, however, is whether or not Ruth is inarguably the greatest outfielder in the history of baseball.  When you add fielding to the equation, I think other names creep into the conversation.  Few talk about Ruth’s ability to throw out runners or steal bases himself. 

Michael Jordan.  Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, and he also had 55 rebounds in a game.  Magic Johnson could play point guard or center.  Kareem scored the most points.  Russell won more cahmpionships.  MJ could be the greatest ever, but you will not make that contention without a fight.

Wayne Gretzky.  The man scored 92 goals in a single season when the previous record had been 76.  He totaled 212 points in a season when this year’s scoring champ will lead the league with barely more than half that total.  When you argue that Gretzky was the greatest ever at his position, many will agree – but no one who is from Pittsburgh.   The current owner of the Penguins has a loyal and vocal following.

There is a case to be made for Jim Thorpe as Inarguably the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century.  Ali can enter into the discussion as the greatest heavyweight.  Inarguably?  Not quite at that level.  It is a tough standard to reach.

So here’s to Mariano Rivera.  He is the greatest relief pitcher of all-time.  No one can dispute that.  This fact makes it all the more pleasing to me that I watched Rivera blow a lead against the Washington Nationals in June 2006 and lose the game, 11-9.  Very few can say they saw Rivera blow it...except for the millions who watched him choke away Game 7 of the 2001 World Series because of his own fielding error.

OK, I couldn’t resist that last part.

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