Jim Henneman: Mariano Rivera’s Deserving … But A Relief Pitcher Is First Unanimous HOF Selection?

Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be a normal Hall of Fame election if there wasn’t a little controversy, and this year is no exception.

Granted, Mariana Rivera being the first player ever elected unanimously is only a little controversy, but nevertheless it’s worthy of consideration. After all, it’s been 79 years since they started this exclusive little fraternity and the fact that someone who is in effect a part-time player was accorded this honor is … well, to be honest, it’s a little baffling.

I mean, there’s been a few legitimate candidates along the way and let’s be honest, if it was going to be a Yankee so honored in this generation, who would’ve guessed it would be anybody other than The Captain, Derek Jeter, who becomes eligible for the first time next year? I’m thinking the pressure is already building for a repeat performance — and let’s face it, Jeter being the first unanimous pick wouldn’t have bothered the even most sincere pinstripe haters.

OK, that last line was an exaggeration, but you get the idea. After all these years of asking, “How could you not vote for (fill in the blank) for the Hall of Fame,” we’re trying to figure out how there wasn’t an everyday player somewhere along the line deserving of the honor.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt Rivera has been the very best at what he does — which most of the time is pitch the last inning. He was the best of all time and a no-brainer when it came to the Hall of Fame. But he was a “closer,” a relief pitcher for gosh sakes, the least used player on any team.

As great as Rivera was, the fact remains that he pitched 100 innings just once in 22 years and only one other tie time did he reach 80. The bottom line: During an average year, it works out to fewer than four innings a week. To be sure, there’s often not much room for error, but it’s not exactly a taxing workload either.

I count a lot of relief pitchers and closers among my friends (at least I did), but the bottom line is this is not even a position. It’s an assignment, an important one to be sure, but still it’s a backup role that depends on how others do their job.

Rivera was the first box checked on my ballot, without any hesitation, and honestly it wasn’t exactly a shock that he went in unanimously — because you would be hard pressed to find anyone else even close to being in his class. This despite the fact that a heavy percentage of the voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America believe the save rule is at best a too charitable statistic.

To be honest, I was among those who believed there would never be a unanimous choice, if for no other reason than it’s almost impossible to get 75 percent of a group, any group, to agree on just about anything. I was OK with that and a part of me wishes that it was a debate that could last for the foreseeable future.

But it didn’t. And while I think it would have been much more appropriate if an everyday player had been the first unanimous choice, the only real controversy is about the role Rivera played, not the man, who is as humble and genuine as they come. There was never a hint of controversy surrounding Rivera — and won’t be now — and his honor is well deserved.

But it would’ve been more fun talking about why it wasn’t unanimous than it is discussing why it was.

As promised every year, my complete ballot for this year — with discussions for another day: In addition to Rivera and the other three inductees, Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina, I also included Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Fred McGriff, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield and Billy Wagner.

Disagreements are not only accepted, but expected.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com