The Bridge to Mariano
Once upon a time, there was a man named Jeff. A man named Jeff and a man named Joe. Well, maybe you already know how the story begins.
The Great Mariano Rivera, the Hammer of God, had been banished to the bullpen, a failed starter. But John Wetteland welcomed him with open arms.
“You hand the ball to Buck,” Wetteland explained. “And Buck hands the ball to me.”
“Thank God for that,” said Mo.
But on October 8, 1995, Game 5 of the ALCS, Mariano handed the ball to Buck, and Buck handed it to Jack McDowell.
A man named Jeff. Jeffrey Allan Nelson had an idea. And a man with an idea is a powerful thing. Nelson was sitting in the Mariners bullpen during this, the first night of the Yankees Dynasty. Instead of celebrating his team’s victory, Nelson lost himself in thought. If only Wetteland had followed Mariano. What if bullpen roles were rigidly defined? No way would the Yankees give up runs! Bullpen roles so defined that the Yankees can forfeit wins by adhering to meaningless statistics used only in rotisserie leagues, arbitration cases and in deciding the Rolaids Relief Man Award!! Mmm, Rolaids.
Within a month, Joe Torre replaced Showalter as Yankees manager. Another month, and Nelson was shipped to the Bronx. The rest, as they say, was history, as they say.
In 1996, Nelson pitched in a team-leading 73 games, Rivera became the best reliever in baseball, and the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years. And Wetteland won his Rolaids Relief Man Award.
But Wetteland left New York, and here’s where the story gets interesting.
Jeff pitched his plan to Joe.
Step 1: Assemble the best group of position players and starting pitchers in baseball so that the bullpen doesn’t really matter.
And so it was. Joe Torre commissioned the building of a bridge. The Bridge to Mariano. Jeff was the architect, but he recruited his childhood friend Mike Stanton to help him build. Together, alternating shifts, they built the bridge. And what a bridge it was. It had aqueducts and arches and triangles and suspensions and all that stuff that makes bridges not spectacularly collapse. Quieter than the Bridge on the River Kwai. More flip than the Flipper Bridge. It was the most important bridge in the history of bridges. From 1997-2000, Stanton pitched to a 4.17 ERA and Nelson pitched to a 3.08. Their pitching was fine, and not much was made of it at the time. But what a bridge! How can you blame them for being pedestrian relievers when they were so busy building a fucking bridge?!?
Alas, in 2000, Jeff was passed over from the All-Star team by Joe, and upon leaving the Yankees, Nelson bitterly decreed, “Tear down this bridge.” Mariano was left bridgeless.
“Thank God for that,” said Mo.
The Yankees Dynasty crumbled with the departure of Nelson. Who could have known that the guy pitching 70-80 slightly leveraged innings per year could have been so influential? But as it turned out, Jeff was more than baseball. Jeff had pioneered, engineered and maintained the Bridge to Mariano. And Jeff left the bridge in ruins.
Upon Jeff’s departure, trolls could be seen patrolling the remains of the Bridge to Mariano. Yes, the trolls were the only ones who had realized the importance of the bridge. To the trolls, Jeff had been more than a decent relief pitcher. Old Nellie had also been blessed with the ability to try to pick a runner off first when there was already a runner on third! The gall! The ingenuity! There was once a dream that was the Yankees Dynasty, the trolls thought. And we fear that it will not survive the offseason. The trolls sought the bridge’s resurrection.
The Yankees acquired better relievers in those later years, having led the Majors in WPA in the decade since, but nary a relief man could pay the troll toll. Not a Flash, not a Proctor, not even the Rules Joba could recreate the Bridge to Mariano. For Farnsworth’s fastball flew forever straight. The eighth inning! And the dulcet melodies of the rotation beckoned Hughes. The eighth inning! Who can be the bridge to Mariano? The eighth inning!!
Years from now, when the Yankees struggle to find Mariano’s successor; most fans will miss the Greatest Closer of All-Time. But let this serve as a reminder; the trolls were right. Bullpen is principal to victory, yet Rivera was never key to the bullpen. It was always the Bridge to Mariano.
So we march on, analysts against the trolls, traversing an endless bridge to nowhere.