Rivera a Wonder

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

As of last night, on a clear, chilly fall night in the Bronx, the Yankees became World Series champs for the 27th time in their storied history. How grand it was to see Mr. November, Derek Jeter, win his fifth ring. To stop worrying about Alex Rodriguez as he smashed his past of fading post-season. To admire the entirely likeable Andy Pettitte who commands the mound like a dependable, quiet giant. Matsui, Posada, Texeira, Damon. They're bursting with talent, brimming with heart, driven with focus. They're a heck of a team and it was a heck of a Series.

And I'm certainly not the only one who stands most in awe of their superstar reliever Mariano Rivera. The Rivera stat sheet blows your mind but Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley puts it most succinctly: "He's the greatest relief pitcher that ever lived."

"Mo," as his teammates and fans call him, is calm, cool, classy, humble, and deeply confident. Add to that two rather outrageous facts. One, after all these many years in the Bigs (he signed with the Yankees way, way back in 1990), Rivera has basically constructed a mountain of criteria for his Hall of Fame career on one pitch. The Rivera repertoire is monolithic, built on cutter after cutter after cutter. No sliders, no curves, no knuckleballs. The cutter is a version of a fastball, although not as speedy…in Rivera's case, about 90-91 mph. It doesn't have as much motion as a slider, but does break just as it reaches home plate….in Rivera's case, a movement of about a foot. Referring to Mo's superlative results with just one pitch, inning after inning, year after year, Yankees Captain Derek Jeter, who's known Mo since he was 18 years old, says he doubts anyone will ever do what Mo's done again.

The second WOW at the top of the WOW Rivera list is that he'll be 40 in about a month. Much has been said about Brett Favre just having turned 40 and you're surely not going to find me understating the accomplishment of successfully quarterbacking in the rugged NFL at that age. But, even though quick, aggressive 300-pound defensemen are hunting you down and you do have to throw accurately to the precise corner of an end zone, you're not relying on your aging eyes to throw a small, 5-ounce object 60-some feet to a 2-foot window. Any aging world-class athlete will tell you that it's not the legs that go first. It's the eyes.

I'm sure you've seen many a dignitary throw out the first pitch of a game and not come close, not within yards of home plate. To hurl a light ball so hard that your arm droops a good couple of inches longer than the other after a few years at such a small target is hard to appreciate but let's look at it from the batter's point of view.

Not only is the batter tracking delivery velocity of this tiny object, but he's dealing with angular velocity, too, or the speed in degrees at which the ball travels through your field of vision. The Rivera cutter travels at more than 500 degrees per second. A typical human can only track moving objects up to about 70 degrees per second. Add to this the fact that it takes longer to swing a bat than it does for a pitch to go from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt. It is commonly known that hitting a Major League pitch is the most demanding of all athletic skills. Well, then it serves reason that throwing that elusive pitch, much less with 40-year-old eyes under the lights of a night game, is equally as challenging.

Let's put it this way. Elite pitchers are the freak talents of the sports world. And Mariano is the elite among the elite.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Six of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium yesterday in New York City. Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images



Diana Nyad