There should be a hotline for former star athletes to call. They would use it just for emergencies, just for those moments when they have this interesting thought but are not sure if they should make that thought public. For instance, before doing an interview like this with Newsday, Goose Gossage might call the hotline.
Goose: So, I’m thinking about talking again about how you can’t compare Mariano Rivera to relievers of our time.
Hotline: Don’t do it.
Goose: No, this time I’m going to talk about how great Mariano Rivera is, you know, how he’s a great guy. I mean, I’ll say it over and over again.
Hotline: Don’t do it.
Goose: “No, it’s OK, I’ll keep saying that Mariano Rivera is great, really great, but you can’t say he’s the greatest because he’s used in a different role than guys from our time, you know, like me. But he’s really, really great and all, it’s just that just guys from our time, you know, like me, would have been just as great if we were used the Mariano way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while he’s super great, he might not be any better than guys from our time, you know, like me, if Rivera had been used the way we pitch. But he’s great.”
Hotline: “Don’t do it.”
There is no such hotline, sadly… The reason I think it was unfortunate is, well, there are actually two reasons, one obvious, the other perhaps less so.
The obvious reason is that it diminishes Goose Gossage to talk this way. Goose Gossage was a great pitcher. A truly great pitcher. Gossage is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely remembered, he does not need to go around telling people how great he was or how he wasn’t used the way pitchers today are used. I think it cheapens him to do so, especially when he uses the beloved Mariano Rivera for effect. Rivera has been gracious and classy and respectful. Gossage shouldn’t use him as a prop… If Gossage was using the platform to fight for the Hall of Fame causes of other great relievers of his day—Dan Quisenberry, John Hiller, Sparky Lyle, Lee Smith, etc.—that would be one thing. But you don’t get the sense from Goose’s proclamations that he’s all that interested in new people joining him in the Hall. This kind of talk about Rivera is self-serving and should be beneath him.
But the second reason, the less obvious one, is why I wish Gossage would quiet down: When Gossage talks about Rivera like this, it’s only human nature to start making some comparisons. And Gossage won’t look good in the comparisons…
For Rivera to match Gossage in the basic numbers, he would have had to pitch 278 more innings—all those multiple innings that Gossage pitched—and he would have to allow 201 more (a tidy 6.51 ERA). He would have had to walk 350 or so batters in those innings, while allowing 42 home runs. And he would have had to do all that in a much lower scoring run environment. I’m guessing here, of course, but I think he could have managed it.
And as far as the ease of pitching one inning—Gossage has called it easy in the past—the Goose pitched exactly one inning 249 times in his career. His ERA in those outings: 3.75…
Gossage’s greatness stands the test of time. He was part of the bridge that took us from the 1950s and 1960s, when relievers were used sporadically and like pawns on a chess board, to now, when closers are celebrated and paid like kings. He was of his time, and that’s a good thing. If he had been used like a modern closer, sure, he probably would have more saves, but he might not be in the Hall of Fame. He might have been like Jeff Reardon or Billy Wagner or John Wetteland—great pitchers who lit up the sky and then burned out in their mid-to-late 30s.
You know, if you just want to talk saves, Gossage does suffer. He blew 112 of the 432 save opportunities he had. Rivera has blown only 73 of the 681 chances he’s had. It’s not an entirely fair comparison, Gossage’s save opportunities were different from Rivera’s. But it’s a comparison we make because Gossage can’t just say “Mariano Rivera is a great and timeless relief pitcher” and leave it at that.