Mariano Rivera defined an era of Yankee greatness and helped change the way we think of an entire franchise

No matter how hard you tried, you could not hate these Yankees. Even when they were dominating baseball, going to the World Series six times in eight seasons, they did it all with such class and dignity and professionalism that all you could really do was appreciate how they represented what we want professional athletes to be.

They arrived within a month of each other early in the 1995 season, first Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, and then Derek Jeter. Eighteen years later, they’re still together, as always doing and saying the right things, representing the Yankees the way George Steinbrenner wanted them to be represented.

(Bernie Williams was beginning his fifth season when Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera made their debuts. Jorge Posada would be called up in September of that 1995 season.)

When Joe Torre was hired a year later, the largest pieces were in place, not just for a group that would win the World Series four times in their first six seasons together, but a group that seemingly did everything right. They made the pinstripes stand for more than just winning games. In both victory and defeat, they understood that it was important to conduct themselves in a certain way, and as much as the 16 postseason appearances in 17 seasons, that will be their legacy.

At a time when the Yankees offense has been gutted by free-agent defections and injuries, it’s popular to pick them to finish at or near the bottom of the American League East. Yet for those of us who’ve been around for the entire ride, that’s a tough sell. No matter how many players the Yankees have lost, it’s easy to believe in them when you walk into that clubhouse and see Rivera, Jeter and Pettitte still wearing the uniform.

Rivera is expected to announce on Saturday that the 2013 season will be his last. He has always said he wanted to go out on his own terms while he was still capable of performing at a high level. His legacy will be threefold:

  • He’s the greatest closer in history.  He’s No. 1 in saves (608) and games finished (892), second all-time in WHIP (.9978) and  eighth in appearances. In 96 postseason appearances—96!!!!—he had a .070 ERA. He got the final out of the World Series four times and blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 Fall Classic.
  • He became one of the faces of the game at a time when baseball’s popularity soared, with record-setting attendance and revenues and parity.
  • He carried himself in a way that ought to be the blueprint for all of us.

The Yankees will be diminished when he’s gone, and so will all of Major League Baseball. It’ll be interesting to watch the next chapter of his life unfold because he has so much to offer whatever his next pursuit turns out to be. He’ll surely continue to contribute to the Yankees in some way, either as an instructor or a talent evaluator or someone GM Brian Cashman can use as a sounding board.

He’s one of the rare people about whom there has never (as far as I know) been a negative word spoken. He’s a role model for people inside the game and out. And he performed at the highest level possible and was critical in his team’s success. As legacies go, there’s not one better than that.

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