New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera announced on Thursday that he “intends to retire” at the conclusion of the 2013 season. Rivera will go down in MLB history as the best relief pitcher to ever play the game, and quite possibly the best pitcher period.
A 12-time all-star and five-time World Series champion, Rivera will leave behind a tremendous legacy. He’s currently the active ERA leader with a mark of 2.21, and his microscopic career postseason ERA of 0.70 ranks as the lowest in history. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer will undoubtedly be honored by the Yankees next season with a number-retiring ceremony. And on that day, when Rivera will feel like he’s on top of the world, I’ll be thinking about the lone black mark on the veteran’s storied career.
On April 15, 1997, MLB honored the legendary Jackie Robinson by retiring his number 42 across the entire league. The well-deserved tribute was due not only to Robinson’s Hall of Fame career numbers, but also to acknowledge the tremendous hurdles that he overcame in becoming the first African-American to play in the majors. In announcing the league-wide retirement of Robinson’s jersey number, Commissioner Bud Selig included a grandfather clause that allowed for a handful of players to continue wearing the number as a show of respect for Robinson. Several players took advantage of this clause, most notably Mo Vaughn, Butch Huskey, and Rivera.
Now here’s where I take issue with the great Yankee pitcher. Both Vaughn and Huskey originally chose to wear number 42 for the sole purpose of honoring Robinson. So it made perfect sense that they should be allowed to continue doing so. Rivera, on the other hand, was oblivious to the connection between Robinson and number 42 when he was issued the number as a rookie back in 1995. He’s admitted as much. To Vaughn and Huskey, the number represented an April day way back in 1947 when the color barrier was finally broken and African-Americans were allowed to play baseball in the major leagues. To Rivera, the number meant nothing. And that’s why he should have given it up.
When MLB decided to honor number 42 by removing it from circulation, Rivera should have switched without hesitation. He had no attachment to Robinson or to the number. The fact that he held onto the number, to me, seems selfish and largely ignorant to its importance. Rivera, a native of Panama, shouldn’t be criticized for failing to recognize the significance of number 42 when it was issued to him, but he should be held accountable for failing to give it up two years later.
Though I may be in the minority with this opinion, I think there are two factors to consider when assessing whether or not my disapproval of Rivera is warranted. First, if Rivera had been traded or left via free agency, would he have had any problem changing numbers? I seriously doubt it. And second, what if number 42 had been issued to someone like Jack McDowell or John Wetteland (both of whom were also new to the Yankees in 1995) rather than Rivera? What if it was one of those guys who decided to keep the number? Would that change your perspective?
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)