The best pitch in baseball history was a freak accident—or divine intervention, depending on who you ask. The Mariano Rivera moment I remember most, more than any game he ever played in, was an interview he did with ESPN’s Buster Olney. Olney asked him what made that cutter so much better than everyone else’s.

“Because,” Rivera told him, “nobody taught me the cutter but God.”

The story goes like this: 1997, the youngster was tapped to be the Yankees’ new closer. He didn’t have the stuff to be a starter, but he had a great fastball. Before a game at Tiger Stadium, Rivera reared back to throw that four-seamer, same grip and motion as always, but right before it got to home, it started to move. He tried again, and it dipped. Another time, it darted. Ramiro Mendoza, the bullpen catcher at the time, told Sports Illustrated he remembered thinking, “Is the ball scuffed? What’s going on here?”

He was never able to throw it straight again. Rivera says that at first, he had no idea where the ball would go. He and Yankees coaches tried everything to tame the pitch. Nothing worked, so Rivera eventually said, “Let’s let it happen.”

What happenedwas that Mariano became the best closer in baseball history, and yesterday, the first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When he came in the ninth inning, all hope that someone could topple the Yankee machine was lost. That’s what all the great closers do.

But the thing about Rivera that made him the greatest, the thing that struck me as a little kid, was the simplicity of it all. Pitchers are known for the arsenal of pitches at their disposal. The game of baseball ultimately comes down to a hitter trying to figure out what a pitcher is thinking and vice versa. It’s a bluffing match.

Rivera played his cards in an open hand. He was Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory come to life. He threw the same pitch almost every time (89 percent to be exact). He ran out from the bullpen to the same song every game. He wore the same number, even after it was retired by every team in the league. And from the time he says God taught him how to throw a cutter in 1997 until he retired in 2013, he even looked the exact same too. The results, of course, were always perfect.

Growing up watching him, I always wondered why batters couldn’t catch on. Then, one day I was watching ESPNwhen Rivera told Olney the origin story of the pitch, and I think of it every time Rivera comes up. A gift from God? The craziest part of that story is that it makes sense as much sense as anything else. How else do you explain this stat, which should be the first sentence on his new plaque in Cooperstown:

While Mariano Rivera was on the mound in the postseason, fewer men scored an earned run than have walked on the moon.

Your move, NASA. 

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