Knowing how to close

October 15, 2013

I’m a longtime baseball fan — particularly a New York Yankees fan — and as the regular season has come to a close and the playoffs have begun, I find myself thinking back with a little bit of sadness that I’ll no longer be able to see the best relief pitcher in history perform, the great Mariano Rivera.

Of course like most Yankees fans, I’m sorry to see Rivera retire but thankful as well for the many wonderful years of entertainment and World Series championships to which he’s contributed.

His career has been remarkable in many ways, not the least of which being the fact that he played all 19 years for the same team. And not only did he perform at an especially high level throughout, but he’s also always been modest and especially classy in the way he’s handled himself over his career. In fact, when it comes to earning respect from his peers and from fans, it’s that quality of having great sportsmanship and humility that has probably meant as much as Rivera being a great pitcher that has earned him respect from so many.

To give an example, there was the time back in 2005 when Rivera and the Yankees visited the Boston Red Sox — their biggest rival — at Fenway Park. The year before Boston had beaten New York in an incredible playoff series in which they came back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win, with Rivera blowing a couple of saves along the way (unusual for him).

Early the next year New York went to Fenway and during the introductions they all booed the Yanks as usual. Then when they introduced Rivera the Red Sox fans gave him a standing ovation. It was a reference to his having blown those saves and struggling versus the Red Sox, and the fans were giving him kind of a mock cheer — sort of like they were saying thanks for losing to us.

How did Rivera respond? Well, he just smiled real big and tipped his cap, being a good sport and recognizing what the Red Sox fans were doing.

When the Yankees visited Fenway for the last time this year, they had a big ceremony honoring Rivera, just as happened in all of the other ballparks. You could see on the faces of the players and the fans — I’m talking about the Boston players and fans — they didn’t just respect him… they really loved this guy!

How many players — even the great ones — who are retiring get anything like that?

This idea of respecting one’s opponents is an important one, something Rivera’s career kind of helps teach us insofar as his opponents all respected him, but he, too, often showed respect for those against whom he competed.

Rivera was incredibly successful, but he blew some saves once in a while. It’s just like in poker where sometimes you can be a better player but can still lose to an opponent who isn’t as good. That’s why people watch baseball, because there are surprises. And that’s one reason why people play poker, too, for the surprises. I had a lot just yesterday in fact… a lot of runner-runners!


But it’s that element of the unknown that inspires some to have humility about their accomplishments — the fact that you can be best and still sometimes lose. It also can inspire respect for the game itself. In fact, it probably should.

In poker sometimes you’ll see a good player lose to a less-skilled one and react differently. That is, rather than respect the opponent, the better player will say “You’re so horrible, you’re going to lose all your money” and so on. Or even players who win sometimes will fail to show respect to opponents they are beating, and thus fail to show respect to the game.

But think about Rivera striking somebody out to save another game. He never would say afterwards “Hey, go back to the minors!” He was always humble and always respected his opponents as well as the game. That’s what a real champion is — a class act who understands how good he is but also how his own abilities didn’t mean he shouldn’t respect those against which he competed, too.

So many baseball fans will say “Boy, I wish I had gotten a chance to see Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.” I think before long people will be saying the same thing about Rivera, which is why I’m glad I did get to watch him — the best closer in baseball — for his whole career.

Chad Brown is a member of Team PokerStars Pro


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