STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, the baseball post-season is not quite settled. The Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays will fight for the final playoff spot in a game tonight. The post-season of the New York Yankees is settled: There is not one. The Yankees failed to make it into the playoffs for only the second time in the last 19 years. And that means one of the most successful careers in baseball history has ended. Mariano Rivera has officially pitched his last game. And with that exit, NPR's Mike Pesca has this remembrance of his signature pitch: the cut fastball.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Poignant, professional and poised: These are the words of praise that have been laid at the feat of one of the game's greats. And Mariano Rivera earned those words. There is another set of adjectives that likewise obtain: Feared, devastating and nigh-un-hitable. Those words apply not just to pitcher, but to pitch.
ROB NEYER: I think it's the most dominant pitch of all time.
PESCA: Rob Neyer is co-author of the "Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" and the baseball editor of SB Nation. He ranks Mariano Rivera's cut fastball - or cutter - above, say, Nolan Ryan's fastball or Sandy Koufax's curve for one reason: like a finely marbled steak, it needs no accompaniment.
Every hitter knew the cut fastball was coming, knew it traveled about 93 miles an hour, knew it was indistinguishable from a fastball until it seemed to break a bit to the right at the last second, and knew he had almost no chance of hitting it. Here's Rivera breaking the saves record as called by Michael Kay of the YES Network.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME)
MICHAEL KAY: Strike three, ball game over, Yankees win. And it's perfect, because the greatest closer in history now has the most saves in history.
PESCA: Rivera was a fine pitcher before he even acquired the cutter. His first save attempt came in 1996, before the cutter was even born.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME)
JOHN STERLING: Well, here's the Yankees' secret weapon, ready to close a game. Mariano Rivera comes in. We'll give you his numbers and, boy, they're about as good as you'd ever want a pitcher's numbers to be. He's 3-and-0, and he's been spectacular.
PESCA: There you heard Yankee Radio announcer John Sterling refer to Rivera's spectacular numbers. Rivera was, even then, a great set-up man. But soon, he would acquire one of the most lethal weapons the game has ever seen. Rivera developed the cutter by raw luck. He was playing catch, and found if he held the ball in a certain way, it had this late break. Huh. He relied on the pitch on the way to 13 All-Star Game appearances, five World Series victories, and certain entry into Cooperstown.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
PESCA: These cheers that Yankee Stadium rained down on Rivera in his last appearance on Thursday in the valedictory lap around so many parks in baseball. That is all eulogy for the man. But for the pitch, it is a sadly tinged elegy.
NEYER: We've never seen a cutter than good, and we might never see another one. Because it seems to be some sort of freak of nature that sprung from his body, his arm, and apparently, it can't be taught.
PESCA: Sports are supposed to be meritocratic - well, meritocratic among those blessed with unbelievable size, strength and arm speed. As Yogi Berra once said, baseball's 90 percent mental, the other half physical.
The cutter explodes the Berra Equation. Call it luck, alchemy or providence, but there was an otherworldly element to the Rivera Cut Fastball. It seared through the Major Leagues, through hundreds of bats, and through page after page of the record books from 1997 through 2013. As almost every hitter of this generation can tell you: It will be missed.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.