Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Metallica -- "Enter Sandman" (1991)

Exit light 
Enter night 

I remember walking into a record store in 1991 and purchasing Metallica's eponymous fifth album.  I didn't know anything about Metallica.  But I had heard "Enter Sandman" a few times, and that was all it took.  (The use of the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer resonated because I remember being creeped out when I was taught that prayer as a child.  Believe me, no kid wants to say "If I should die before I wake" just before his mom and dad turn the lights out and close the bedroom door.)

The young sales clerk took a look at me and said, "You don't really look like a Metallica fan."  No sh*t, Sherlock.  (That was 20 years ago -- when I was a sprightly 39 years old.)

Since 1999, "Enter Sandman" has been the theme song for Mariano Rivera, who is universally regarded as the greatest closer in the history of baseball.  It's played on the Yankee Stadium public-address system every time he leaves the Yankee Stadium home bullpen to enter a game.  When that happens, it is nearly always "Exit light, enter night" for opposing batters.

Rivera is a quiet, reserved man who is deeply religious.  He is largely indifferent to the song -- he didn't choose it, and he says he doesn't really pay attention to it when he enters the game.  But the ominous song has become indelibly associated in the minds of baseball fans with Rivera's Yankee Stadium appearances.

As I write this, "Exit light, enter night" has an entirely different meaning.  A few days ago, Rivera was shagging fly balls prior to a Yankees-Royals game in Kansas City when he fell awkwardly, twisting his right knee.  

A few hours later, an MRI showed that Rivera had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus (knee cartilage).  His 2012 season was over.  The shock and sadness felt by his manager and teammates when they learned of the diagnosis was striking -- he is the senior Yankee and a greatly loved and respected clubhouse figure.

Despite his announcement the following day that he plans to come back in 2013, he will be 43 years old when the season starts, and there are no guarantees that he will be an effective pitcher after the required surgery.  It may be "Exit light, enter night" for Rivera's career.

Here's a video of Rivera's last "Enter Sandman" entrance prior to the injury.  Will it  prove to be the last one ever -- or will he return?

Whether he plays again or does not, there's no real argument that Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever.  

Inning for inning, he's clearly the greatest pitcher of the last century -- period.  His career earned-run average is the best of any pitcher who pitched after 1920 (when rules changes resulted in a dramatic upsurge in offense).  He has given up fewer baserunners per inning than any other pitcher of the last 100 years.  He has given up fewer home runs per inning than any active pitcher.  And he has the best fielding percentage of any active pitcher.

What's more remarkable is that his playoff and World Series stats are significantly better than his regular-season numbers.  

Rivera has an 0.70 ERA in his 96 postseason appearances.    That number is impossible for a baseball fan to wrap his or her mind around.

It would be unthinkable for the best pitcher in the league to do that even if he pitched exclusively against the worst team in baseball over the course of a career.  But losing teams don't get to the postseason -- Rivera's 0.70 postseason ERA was achieved in 96 appearances against the best teams in baseball.

Rivera lost only one of those games -- thanks to an error and a broken-bat blooper over a drawn-in infield.  

That loss came in game 7 of the 2001 World Series.  My younger son was seven years old at the time, and I woke him up to watch the final inning of that game.  The Yankees had won the Series in each of the three previous years thanks in large part to Rivera's flawless pitching, and it was inconceivable to me that they would lose that game once Rivera came in to close.

Here's a video that summarizes Rivera's storied career:

Mariano Rivera is essentially a one-pitch pitcher.  He rarely throws anything other than a cut fastball, or "cutter."  Every batter knows what's coming, but it doesn't matter -- they still can't hit it.

Rivera's cutter is one of the great mysteries of life.  I can't think of anything -- except the behavior of women -- that is more unfathomable.  

When it became clear that words alone were insufficient to explain how he throws it and why it is impossible to hit, baseball writers turned to computer simulations and other high-tech tools.  I have studied many of these explanations, and I am no closer to understanding the phenomenon than I was 15 years ago, when Rivera became the Yankees closer.

Players must have been out of baseball for five full years before they can be elected to the Hall of Fame.  Has Mariano's countdown to baseball immortality begun?  We may not know the answer to that question until next season begins.  But whether his unprecedented career is over or not, he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  

No one has ever been elected to Cooperstown unanimously.  (Tom Seaver got 425 of 430 votes, which is not quite 99% -- that's the closest to date.)  But if any player deserves to get 100% of the votes, it's Mariano Rivera.  

Here's "Enter Sandman":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:   

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