By Greg Bates
During their illustrious careers, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez got to know each other well from 90 feet apart.
The two faced off 19 times and it was blatantly one-sided on who won the battle. And it’s pretty surprising to find out Martinez was the dominant one. He went 11-for-19 (.579) with two home runs and six RBI. That’s the highest batting average ever for a major league hitter with 10 or more at-bats against Rivera.
So, when Rivera and Martinez sat five feet away from each other during a press conference to announce the newly-elected MLB Hall of Fame Class of 2019, the first question that was asked by a media member was geared toward Martinez’s success against the greatest closer in the history of the game.
“Edgar, why was it, I guess, easy to face Mariano?” the media member asked.
“He said it was easy,” joked Baltimore Orioles/New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, another of the member of the hall Class of 2019, who sat between Rivera and Martinez.
Rivera piped in: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I have to say something. Was it that easy, Edgar?”
“No, that was tough,” Martinez said.
“He said it was easy,” chimed in Mussina.
Martinez set the record straight. “You know, facing Mariano always was a challenge,” Martinez said. “I might have some numbers, good numbers, but you know, when you come in late in the game to face Mariano, you know that it’s going to be a challenge. You know, every at-bat, even if you get a hit, it doesn’t feel like you’re getting a hit. It’s tough. He’s one of the best in the history, and his consistency through the years is like the best ever. You never feel comfortable.”
The guys were certainly comfortable enough with each other to share that candid, hilarious exchange. That was one of the lighter moments during the MLB Hall of Fame and Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) press conference held at the St. Regis hotel in New York City on Jan. 23.
Along with shutdown pitchers Rivera and Mussina and a pure hitter in Martinez, late pitcher Roy Halladay, who played with the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, were all chosen by the BWAA to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this July.
“Hallmarks of the Class of 2019 are its diversity, its dominating pitching and its pure hitting,” said National Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson during the press conference. “When you consider the four players whom the writers elected yesterday and include Harold Baines and Lee Smith, the Hall of Fame roster has now been bolstered with six bona fide superstars, including two starting pitchers who went deep into games, two closers who dominated, and two guys who were completely pure hitters who helped open games up. The four players elected by the writers are richly deserving when you consider each one’s body of work.”
Prior to this year’s class, there are 323 Hall of Fame members. Never before had a player been a unanimous selection on the ballot – not Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson or Ty Cobb. Not until this year.
Rivera, in his first year on the ballot, became the first player in MLB history to be included on all 425 ballots of Hall of Fame voters.
“It was an amazing feeling, a great feeling knowing that you were voted 100 percent,” Rivera said. “It was – I couldn’t comprehend it. But at the same time, I was grateful for it, so thank you guys. Thank you very much.”
Rivera, a 13-time All-Star known for his nasty cutter pitch, transcended the closer position during his 19-year career, all with the Yankees. “Mo” finished first in all-time saves (652) and games finished (952). Rivera, who is the last player ever to wear Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, had a career ERA of 2.21, which is the lowest in baseball in the last 90 years. His stats were even loftier when it hit the postseason – helping the Yankees win five World Series championships all the while notching 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA.
Coming from Panama, the Yankees signed Rivera as a shortstop. When he changed positions, he didn’t know if pitching would work out for him. Well, the switched ended up working out OK.
“I just wanted to have the opportunity to be able to play the game that I love,” Rivera said. “And sure enough, I mean – I played all positions before, but at the end, the good Lord had a position for me already picked, so I just had to follow it, and he allowed me to play and pitch well, although I hated to pitch before. I fell in love after that. But it was amazing. I mean, taking the opportunity to learn a new position and doing it and learning how to do it and being successful doing it, I was grateful. The game, it was more meaningful to me than before.”
Martinez had a phenomenal 18-year career, all with the Mariners. A seven-time All-Star, he is the franchise’s all-time leader in runs (1,219), doubles (514), walks (1,283), RBI (1,261), extra-base hits (838) and total bases (3,718). Martinez was a career .312 hitter, won two batting crowns and had a .356 average in 1995. He added 2,247 hits and 309 home runs.
But Martinez wasn’t a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. In fact, this year marked Martinez’s 10th and final year on the ballot. After registering 70 percent of the vote in 2018 – over 75 percent is the magic number – he received 85.4 percent of the vote this year.
Martinez played 1,403 of his career 2,055 games as a designated hitter. He didn’t know if switching from third base to DH was going to be his ticket to a better career in baseball.
“The DH, I think at the beginning, I felt like this might not be something – definitely I fought it,” Martinez said. “At the beginning, I didn’t want to be a DH. At the beginning, I thought, I don’t want to be, let’s say, put in the situation where if I don’t have a good year, then my career could be short, could end. And that was a little bit concerning to me. But at the same time, I looked at the reasons why I was given that choice. I was hurt, and I came from a few injuries. First were my knees, then my hamstrings, then the shoulder, and Lou (Piniella, Mariners manager) told me, I just need you on the field. I need you to be in the lineup. And I couldn’t fight against that. He was right, and I’m glad I did it. It worked out. I had a great year in ’95, and from there, I ended up having a great career.”
During Mussina’s 18-year career, he was the epitome of consistency. He tallied 15 or more wins and racked up 200 or more innings 11 times, earning Cy Young Award votes nine times, and he was among the top five American League pitchers in earned runs on seven other occasions. “Moose” had a career record of 270-153, which is 117 games over .500. Mussina, who played the first 10 seasons for the Orioles and the final eight with the Yankees, finished with 2,813 strikeouts, placing him 20th on the all-time list.
Mussina, who was in his sixth year on the ballot, finally got his wish to enter the Hall of Fame.
“I’m just really surprised that I’m even here this year,” Mussina said. “It caught me off guard quite a bit. But everybody’s support from the first year, and I want to say thank you to the 20 percent that voted for me the first year. That kept me on the ballot so I could work my way up slowly.”
Getting into the Hall of Fame is one thing Mussina can cross off his list of “almost” accomplishments during his career.
“I did a lot of almost things, I think, people would say,” said Mussina, whose Hall of Fame plaque will not have a team logo. “I had a couple almost no-hitters – I had a couple shots at no-hitters, a perfect game. I won almost 20 a couple other seasons. I almost won the World Series. I almost didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame. (Laughter.) But I did. Yeah, that’s my almost story. I can live with the other almosts because I get to sit up here now.”
Halladay, in his first year on the ballot, was about as dominant as they come as a starting pitcher. He played in both leagues, throwing in his first 12 seasons with the Blue Jays and final four years with the Phillies, and finished with a 203-105 record. Winning 66 percent of his decisions ranks “Doc” 20th best in the history of the game. Halladay won two Cy Young Awards, had five 200-plus-strikeout seasons, logged 200 or more innings and led the league in complete games seven times. For his career, Halladay had 67 complete games, which is the most since he debuted in 1998.
Halladay, who like Mussina won’t have a logo on his Hall of Fame plaque, threw only the second no-hitter in postseason in 2010.
Halladay’s election into the Hall of Fame comes 14 months after his untimely death. He was killed when a plane he was flying crashed into the Gulf of Mexico on Nov. 7, 2017. He was just 40 years old.
His fellow Hall of Famers reminisced on stage during the press conference about what made Halladay a great pitcher.
Rivera said he and Halladay were talking in the outfield about pitching in 2008, and Rivera taught him the grip for his cutter.
“Actually, he was throwing the pitch, and Derek (Jeter) and all the hitters from my team were mad at me,” Rivera said. “As a matter of fact, I got fined by our kangaroo court because Halladay was so good against us, and they blamed me. I said, ‘You guys didn’t hit the ball, not me.’”
Mussina thought his counterpart Halladay had tremendous stuff. Martinez, who hit .444 lifetime against Halladay, always remembers the movement Halladay put on the ball.
“He could move it in two directions,” Martinez said. “He could sink really hard, would use both sides of the plate, and also would cut it, and he will throw a breaking ball, too. Pitchers that can do that is very difficult.”
Halladay had Hall of Fame type stuff, just like Rivera and Mussina. And just like Rivera and Mussina, Martinez had success against him.
All four guys will now be forever linked together for the Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
“Guys, you’re now teammates forever on the greatest team ever assembled, the Hall of Fame team, giving you all lifetime contracts,” Idelson said. “You can’t go anywhere.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.