Setting the Stage for Rocktober
On September 15, 2007, the Colorado Rockies 76-72 and 6 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West with 14 games left to play. They were only 4 1/2 behind the San Diego Padres for the wild card, but would also have to leapfrog the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They had a shot, but needed a strong finish to get there.
Not only did the Rockies finish strong, but they virtually ran the table, putting together a 13-1 record that led to a one game playoff with the Padres for the NL West title. All everyone remembers now is the drama of that Game 163, and a questionable call at the plate where Matt Holliday scored and gave the Rockies their second playoff appearance in franchise history, and their first since 1995. Lost in the miracle was the tear Todd Helton went on to help carry his team to the title.
From September 16 until the conclusion of the one-game playoff with the Padres, Helton put up a ridiculous .377/.458/.639 slash line. He hit safely in 14 of 15 games. While it certainly wasn’t a one-man wrecking crew (Holliday, Brad Hawpe, and Garrett Atkins were also out of their minds in September), Helton was money down the stretch. I’m not a proponent of Hall of Fame cases based solely on clutch performances but if you are, Helton’s huge run down the stretch in 2007 cannot be ignored. —Mike Gianella
The Retirement Annoucement
If Rivera’s retirement/farewell tour is celebrating greatness, then Kotsay’s retirement celebrated persistence. I don’t remember much about his career, other than being with a different team every couple years, then finding out he was still with San Diego. But him getting to announce his retirement, all while owning a major-league locker, stood out for me.
Dozens of players walk away from the game or retire as an unwanted free agent, including players far better than Kotsay. (Magglio Ordoñez, for one.) But then I looked closer at his career. For 17 years, he stayed with major-league teams right until the very end. After being called up at age 21, other than rehab games, he never saw time in the minors again. He was never optioned back down. Hey, you did it. Even if I can’t remember exactly what you did. —Matt Sussman
DARREN OLIVER (Hasn't officially announced retirement)
Retirement, Part One
Darren Oliver retired with a 5.07 ERA, a few games over .500, a few wins shy of 100. Not a bad career, but not a memorable career, and a relatively short one—he was just 33 when he last threw a pitch in the majors. A little more than a year later, the Winter Meetings were held near his hometown, so he went to have a drink with some friends. A couple of Mets employees convinced him to think about pitching again, he signed a minor-league contract, some guys got hurt, and here's what he's done since then: a 2.96 ERA over eight seasons, his 100th win, and postseason appearances in six different seasons. If he retires for real this time, he will have made it to just a week shy of his 43rd birthday, and nearly doubled his career earnings, to about $50 million. So, yeah. The most memorable moment of Darren Oliver's career: that drink he had after he thought he was retired. —Sam Miller
JASON GIAMBI (Hasn't officially announced retirement)
Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS
The most exciting game I've ever attended produced, conservatively, five signature moments, and all of them occurred in the final four innings. There was Grady Little's decision not to pull Pedro Martinez after three straight hits with one out in the eighth. There was Jorge Posada's two-run double in the next at-bat, which tied the game and made Little an ex-manager. Then there were two memorable pitching performances: Mike Mussina coming on in relief of Roger Clemens in the fourth and throwing three scoreless innings in his first-ever appearance out of the bullpen, and Mariano Rivera pitching a perfect ninth, 10th, and 11th (then collapsing on the mound at the end of the game). And you might remember what Aaron Boone did.
But Giambi's often-overlooked contributions were just as important. He took Pedro deep twice, once on a changeup in the fifth and once on a fastball in the seventh. Both were solo shots, and when he hit them it looked like they might both be meaningless. But as it turned out, those homers—as much as Posada's double or Boone's walk-off—represented the margin of victory in a 6-5 game.
All of ALCS Game Seven is viewable on YouTube, but I couldn't find Giambi's bombs alone online, so I've GIF'd them here:
Game Six of the 2003 World Series
Except for a dark year in 2011, Andy Pettitte has been a Major League Baseball player for as long as I’ve been a conscious human being. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is Pettitte’s shellacking at the hands of the Braves in the opener of the 1996 World Series. I didn’t understand the rules of baseball yet, but I knew something bad was happening to Pettitte, and I didn’t like it.
As I learned to appreciate the nuances of the game, though, my bond with Pettitte went far beyond sympathy. He taught me the importance of pitching deep into games despite not having your best stuff. Hell, his move to first base inspired some less-than-legal pickoff tinkering of my own. I could never throw very hard, or snap knee-buckling curveballs, and I was never the best player on my team. But I was reliable, and nobody had more to do with my development than Andy Pettitte.
Still, I always wanted to see my major-league doppelganger win the kind of glory heaped on Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Great as they are, I believed Pettitte had just as much to do with the Yankees late-90s success as they did. When Game Six of the 2003 Series rolled around, I was sure Pettitte’s opportunity had arrived. And by some incomprehensible stroke of luck, 10-year-old me would be there to see it in person.
Pettitte pitched as well as I’d ever seen him pitch that night: over seven innings, he scattered six hits—five of them singles—and three walks, allowing only one earned run. The only problem was that Pettitte’s opponent, an electrifying Josh Beckett, was even better. The Yankees needed three measly runs to prolong the Series, but they struggled to get on base all night, failing to score the entire game.
Back then, I didn’t know what it was like to lose a loved one or face real hardship. Watching the Marlines pile on top of the Yankee Stadium mound was losing that loved one, and the only thing worse than the irony of “New York, New York” blaring over the speakers was knowing that Andy Pettitte was never going to reach superstardom.
Jeter and Mo were those kids who could mash home runs even in Little League, and I was Pettitte, always there and always contributing, but never equally adored. —Nick Bacarella
The Houdini Act in Game Four of the 1996 ALCS
Rivera had already won the world over by the time of the 1996 playoffs. He had pitched wonderfully in the 1995 AL Division Series, throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings at the Mariners in three appearances, and then followed it up with one of baseball’s greatest relief seasons. His 4.6 WARP in 1996 remains not only his highest season total ever; it’s more than double any other season’s figure for him, by BP’s measure. My favorite stat of his from the many available in his 1996 line is: one home run allowed (to Rafael Palmeiro) in 107 innings.
But for me, Rivera’s elevation from absolutely great to the level of demigod happened in Game Four of the 1996 ALCS between the Yankees and the Orioles (the one that began with the infamous Jeffrey Maier interference “home run” catch). This was the year the Orioles loaded up and hit 257 home runs, third all time. Pretty much everyone in the lineup was a long-ball threat—it was the famous Brady Anderson 50-homer year.
The Yanks led the series two games to one and took a 5-4 lead into the eighth inning at Camden Yards. They opened it up in the top of the inning with three runs, the big blow a two-run homer by Darryl Strawberry off of Armando Benitez.
Rivera came out for the bottom of the eighth, having already worked a hitless seventh. But the first three batters all reached on singles, and although this is going back a long time, my memory is that none of the three balls were hit hard. One was an infield hit. So the tying run was coming to the plate with no outs. Three batters earlier, New York looked like a cinch to take a commanding 3-1 series lead; now the potent Orioles were a home run away from tying the game and putting the whole series back into doubt.
So what did Rivera do? He treated the Orioles’ threat the way Harrison Ford treats the threat posed by the guy with the sword in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He struck out Chris Hoiles. As I recall, one of these pitches was straight cheese up around Hoiles’s eyes, and he couldn’t lay off. Then he struck out Brady Anderson. Then he got Todd Zeile to pop out. Inning over.
At that moment, I decided Rivera wasn’t just a great young reliever. I decided he could probably do just about anything. The Yankees won the game, and the game after that, and went to the World Series and won that, too, their dynasty and Rivera’s formally commecing at the same time. The next year, Rivera became the Yankees’ closer, and you know the rest. —Adam Sobsey
The Bases-Loaded Walk During Save no. 500
If we’re allowed to be a little over-the-top here—and what about Rivera’s farewell caravan hasn’t been over-the-top?—it was the defining moment of the season when the New York rivalry was as lopsided as could be. Rivera and the Yankees were on their way to a fifth and 27th championship, respectively, in 2009. Meanwhile, the Mets had just coughed up the NL East two straight years and Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme can be blamed for much of the club’s embarrassment, was just one day away from being sentenced to 150 years in prison.
On a Sunday night in Queens, the Yankees needed four outs from Rivera, whose save odometer was on 499. He was due up sixth the next inning, so no big deal if you don’t double-switch, right? Not exactly. Rivera, to that date a lifetime 0-for-2 hitter, ended up having to hit with the bases loaded and two outs, and to the delight of all the Yankees fans in the crowd, this was the result.
The Blown Save in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series
There really was a time when Mariano Rivera was automatic in the postseason. It happened to coincide with grade school for me. Between the 1998 ALDS and Game Six of the 2001 World Series, Rivera made 39 appearances in the postseason. He pitched 56 innings, garnering 23 saves. He allowed six walks and four runs—a 0.64 ERA. He blew no saves and lost no games, while winning four. Staying up late on a school night and watching the Yankees jump on a pile with Rivera in the middle of it became a yearly ritual.
And so, in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, the stars seem to be aligned for the Yankees in the eighth inning, when Alfonso Soriano put the Yankees ahead with a homer. Rivera came in to pitch the eighth, and I knew then—I knew—that the Yankees had won the Series again. I mentioned this at least twice to my mom, who was stopping in periodically as my dad and I watched. (Dad agreed with my deterministic assessment of the game at that stage. He assured my mom, “When he comes in, the game’s over.”)
Mom isn’t much of a baseball fan, but she’s absorbed some of baseball’s wisdom. She reminded us of the classic Yogi-ism, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Mothers just know.
The experience of watching Superman fail that day changed the way I watched sports forever. It was a rite of passage into sports adulthood—a sports bar mitzvah. And it made me appreciate just how difficult his job was, and how much he meant to the Yankee dynasty that fell apart that November night in Phoenix. Twelve years later, we’ve seen how resilient he was, and is.
Far from being a dark mark on his record, Rivera’s loss in 2001 made me understand his greatness. —Dan Rozenson
Being the Last Great Bridge Reliever
You have to give Mariano Rivera credit for being the greatest closer of all time, but in 1996, Mariano Rivera might have been the best bridge reliever of all time. It's a role that doesn't really exist any more, but that year, it was commonly Rivera's job to pitch two innings (usually, the seventh and eight) to get the game to Yankee closer John Wetteland. That year, he threw 107 1/3 innings. To put that in some perspective, it's a small handful of relievers who have pitched 100 innings in a season in the last 20 years (hi there, Scott Sullivan!) and not at all since 2006 (Scott Proctor). And he did okay that year with a 2.09 ERA, a WHIP under 1.00, and 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. At the time, I remember being mesmerized by the idea of having that sort of option available in the bullpen. When he enters Cooperstown in five years, the tagline will be "He saved 650 games!" I'd much rather remember what amazing things he might have done (and how the game might have been different as a result) if he had, instead, been used in that bridge role for his entire career. No matter how you slice it, he's been a fantastic pitcher over the years, and a classy guy. Despite the fact that he regularly crushed my dreams as a kid, as a fan of the game of baseball, it's a shame to see him retire. Good luck with whatever's next, Mo! —Russell A. Carleton