To Red Sox fans, Mariano Rivera wasn’t just a great pitcher but also a good sport
The biggest hit in Red Sox history was Bill Mueller’s game-tying single off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
The Sox, facing elimination, won the game on David Ortiz’s home run in the 12th inning and didn’t lose again that season. They finished off their historic comeback to stun the Yankees, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals for the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1918.
That hit, a sharp single into center field, started a bonfire.
Rivera faced the Sox 13 times in postseason games and allowed only two runs over 19⅔ innings. But Red Sox fans treasured that 2004 breakthrough and gave Rivera a mock ovation at the 2005 home opener at Fenway Park.
Most players would have ignored it. Rivera grinned and tipped his hat to the crowd. Then the cheers grew genuine for a pitcher even the most caustic Sox fan had to admire.
In 2013, when Rivera appeared at Fenway for the final time after announcing his retirement, the crowd cheered loudly again after a ceremony that including presenting him with a number 42 from the left-field scoreboard.
“I’ve always liked to pitch in Boston,” Rivera said at the time. “The games were always important when we played the Red Sox and the fans were good. I hope I earned their respect.”
As Rivera approaches the doorstep to the Hall of Fame, his connection to the Red Sox is undeniable. When the announcement is made at 6 p.m. Tuesday, the old stories will be even more meaningful.
“That game in 2004 was really special because we got to him when we had to,” Ortiz said. “Mariano is one of the greatest players of all time without a doubt and the best closer ever, in my opinion. I don’t think there will be one person mad that Mariano is in the Hall of Fame, not even a Red Sox fan.
“That guy was special and he was even better as a human being. I’m so glad to see him going to the Hall.”
That Rivera will be elected is a given. The only question is whether he will be the first unanimous choice or better the record 99.3 percent Ken Griffey Jr. received in 2016.
Of the more than 200 public ballots charted by Ryan Thibodaux, Rivera has been selected on every one. Rivera’s record 652 saves and 2.21 earned run average over 19 seasons are unassailable credentials.
Rivera was a bedrock player on five World Series champions, a 13-time All-Star, and had a 0.70 ERA in 96 postseason games. The Yankees were 78-18 when Rivera pitched in the playoffs, and he converted 42 of 47 save opportunities.
The polling data also suggests that former Seattle Mariners star Edgar Martinez will get the necessary 75 percent in his final year on the ballot. The late Roy Halladay could join Rivera as a first-ballot honoree.
One of Rivera’s former teammates, righthander Mike Mussina, also is trending in a direction that will lead to Cooperstown, if not this year, then eventually.
Ortiz, who becomes eligible in 2022, was 13 of 38 (.342) against Rivera in his career with four extra-base hits. But Big Papi never felt comfortable at the plate against Rivera’s legendary cut fastball.
“Mariano wasn’t fun to face. He was nasty,” Ortiz said. “You knew what was coming but that didn’t mean you could hit it.”
Ortiz held up his right hand and demonstrated how Rivera’s cutter would start on one plane than dive at the plate.
“You’d be waiting for it and it would disappear,” he said. “Like I said, nasty.”
Eduardo Nunez, now a Red Sox infielder, came up with the Yankees and played four seasons with Rivera. As a young Latino player, Rivera was somebody who helped guide his career.
“He was so humble,” Nunez said. “He always loved the game and was always looking after the young guys and giving advice.
“Sometimes it’s tough when you’re young and you make an error or you’re struggling. He was one of the guys, he and [Derek] Jeter, who would say something and make you feel good.”
Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers faced Rivera once in his career, on June 12, 1999.
With the Yankees leading the Florida Marlins, 5-4, with two outs in the ninth inning, Hyers came up with a runner on first. He fell behind, 0-and-2, then grounded to third base.
“I don’t remember it. I’m glad I made contact,” Hyers said. “I faced him a few times in spring training when he was still a starter. He had an electric arm. It looked so easy for him.”
Mitch Moreland was 3 for 11 against Rivera in his career, all while he played for the Texas Rangers. Even though he knew what pitch was coming, it was always an uncomfortable at-bat.
“It seemed like he almost baited you with it,” said Moreland, who is now with the Red Sox. “He would throw one and, all right, I saw that one pretty good. The next one would break in on you 8 inches. It was amazing how well he was able to do that with essentially one pitch.
“He was the best all-time at what he did.”