Mariano Rivera’s dominance would play in any era

It was long ago established that Mariano Rivera’s cut-fastball was the greatest pitching weapon of the modern era. If you want to know why the Yankees’ closer is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend – and why not a single writer could think of a reason to keep Rivera off the ballot – look no further than the pitch that could skid like it’d been caught in a wind-shear. With few exceptions, no one in the span of Rivera’s 19-year career consistently solved the demon that came to life at the 58th foot.

But what if we went back in history to test Rivera’s dominance? What if the Bronx’ ninth-inning terminator was matched up against the some of the very superstars already enshrined in Cooperstown? And we’re not just talking about living Hall of Famers. Let’s bend the continuum of time travel and imagine Rivera versus the greatest of any generation. Put Rivera in front of the 1927 Yankees. Or sling-shot him to the summer of 1941 to stop Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

Could he? We like Rivera’s chances, considering he’d arrive with a pitch never seen in past eras. The debate cuts to the very core of our love affair with baseball – pitting legends against each other and playing What If. There’s no wrong answer of course, so let’s select five Hall of Famers from different eras and see which ones prevail against the reliever no one wanted to face between 1995-2013.

Rivera vs. Babe Ruth

Let’s be fair to the Bambino and allow him to at least watch Rivera warm up. Give him SOME idea what’d be waiting for him. And to fully level the playing field Ruth would need access to modern training facilities and techniques, not to mention a better diet. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine his long, complicated swing catching up to Rivera’s signature late movement. Ruth’s bats weighed anywhere from 38 to 42-ounces, which were effective against the 75-mph fastballs of his era. But they would simply be too heavy to match the velocity of Rivera’s 90-plus cutter.

Nevertheless, Reggie Jackson is one Hall of Famer who believes Ruth would’ve prevailed against Mariano.

“Great is great in any era,” Jackson once told me. “Remember, Ruth was a superior athlete; he could pitch as well as he could hit. Talent like that transcends time. That’s why I think he would’ve figured it out.”

Rivera vs. Joe DiMaggio

Joltin’ Joe’s swing was a billboard of grace and athleticism, still beautiful to watch on YouTube even now. But he nevertheless expressed concern towards the end of his career about a new pitch opposing hurlers were experimenting with – the one that looked like a fastball but with a late sliding motion. The birth of the slider occurred in the early 1950s, just as DiMaggio’s skills were diminishing, so maybe it was just old age taking hold. But if the nascent slider was a problem, imagine trying to handle a cutter like Rivera’s.

Rivera vs. Roberto Clemente

The most beloved player in Puerto Rico’s history had all the necessary skills to go to war with Rivera, including a funky, front-foot approach that allowed him to wait longer than traditional-style hitters before committing to a pitch. That would’ve no doubt helped against Rivera’s cutter. But Clemente’s biggest advantage might’ve been his legendary stature.
Rivera often spoke of his admiration for the late Pirates’ slugger – not just because of his 3000 hits or four batting titles or career .317 average. It wasn’t just numbers that made Clemente a history-maker. To Spanish-speaking players like Rivera it was Clemente’s legacy as a pioneer, flourishing in an industry that was primarily white at the time. Clemente’s commitment to charity, which ultimately took his life, also endears him to Latinos to this day.

All of which is to say: Rivera might’ve been intimidated by Clemente, even if it was just for a moment, or a pitch, or just long enough to hang a cutter. You never know.

Rivera vs. Rod Carew

This is the kind of matchup that gave Rivera problems in his career – facing hitters whose swings were short and meticulous, able to adapt to any change in trajectory. Think: Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs and then add Carew to this list and it’s possible Rivera would’ve struggled. Carew, a five-time batting champion, struck out only once every 10 at-bats in his 19-year career. That’s saying something, considering his playing days overlapped with a golden era of pitching in the 60s and 70s in the American League, boasting the likes of Catfish Hunter, Mickey Lolich and Jim Palmer just to name a few.

In his best season in 1974, Carew batted .364 and whiffed only 55 times in 616 at-bats. He choked up ever so slightly, which it made his swing that much quicker, able to flick away quality two-strike pitches at will. Carew could hit to all fields, too. It wouldn’t have been crazy to imagine Carew moving up in the box on Rivera, getting to the cutter before it moved. Other hitters tried that approach with little success, but if anyone could’ve made it work it would’ve been Carew, the iconic line-drive machine.

Rivera vs. Reggie Jackson

Sorry, Mr. October, but you would’ve had no shot. Your swing, albeit powerful, was too long and otherwise sabotaged by an up-and-in cold zone Rivera would’ve exploited. Remember the historic showdown with Bob Welch in the 1978 World Series and how effectively Jackson was tied up by inner-half heat. Still, you’d have to say this much on Reggie’s behalf: ego alone would keep the plate appearance alive; Reggie would foul off several pitches against Rivera, refusing to succumb, delaying the inevitable.

But Jackson would ultimately have no answer for that buzz-saw of a cutter. In fact, it’s likely Reggie would’ve ended up with a broken his bat in his hands.

Featured Image: Mariano Rivera Instagram