Closers: Own Your Role

(This is the fourth in a series on wisdom from baseball co-written with Mark Stanifer.)

New York Yankees. A lot of people love them. A lot of people don’t. I live just south of Tampa.

Love them or not, their history of great players is remarkable. So much so that they have their own greatest players list that could rival all other teams combined. Google “Yankees Greatest Players,” and you’ll see.

In most of those lists, the name Mariano Rivera appears at least in the top ten, some even higher. Writer Anthony Maimone placed Rivera number six. Here’s part of his explanation:

“There is no question that Rivera is the greatest closer MLB has ever seen. The real debate is whether or not he is the greatest pitcher of all time. The fact that is even a question shows the extreme dominance Rivera has had on the competition stretching his 19-year career. There has never been a pitcher as dominant as he has been, and there may never be one again.”

If you pull up the Wikipedia article on baseball closers, guess whose photo illustrates the article. Of course he does. Why? He set the bar (652 career saves), the standard (served the role for 17 years), basically defined the role (precise control, smooth motion, composed demeanor). Others before him might disagree that Rivera is the greatest closer ever, so that brings up the question: what exactly makes a closer great?

The greatness begins with acknowledging what their job is. They are the relief pitcher called in to get the final outs in a close game when their team is leading. To be great, a closer has to be reliable, very business-like, and certainly able to handle big pressure. Tony La Russa, a manager considered a developer of the role of the closer, said this:

“It is important that relievers know their roles in the situations which they will be called into a game. Sure, games can get away from you in the seventh and eighth, but those last three outs in the ninth are the toughest. You want a guy who can handle that pressure. That, to me, is most important.”

They know their role. I would add, not only does a great closer know their role, they also own it. They are part of a pitching staff of roughly 15 pitchers. The starting rotation usually consists of four to five pitchers, so the rest of the staff are relievers. But the closer, everyone knows what his job is. That pitcher must know his role and own it.

Most likely, that player didn’t grow up through little league, high school, and college thinking he was going to be a closer. He probably dreamt of being the star pitcher, the horse, the leader. Whether by choice or force, he now finds himself in the closing role. And to be great, he has to own it.

When it comes to owning your role, one of the best instructional writings available is actually found in the book of 1 Corinthians. Paul writes about the body of Christ in chapter 12. Using the body analogy, he says we all have a designated role to play by being part of a body. So if you are the ear, you have to own being the ear; you can’t decide you won’t without the body becoming dysfunctional. Every part must know their role and own it if the body is to function as it should, to be in winning form.

  • You want to be great at work? Know your role on the work body and own it.
  • You want to be great at home? Know your role in the home body and own it.
  • You want to be great in the community? Know your role in the community body and own it.
  • You want to be great in God’s kingdom? Know your role in the kingdom and own it.

Mariano Rivera played for the same “body” his entire career. His owners knew they wanted him and would do what it took to keep him. As a result, he has ridiculous amount of records and is considered one of the greats of the most celebrated team in all of sports. This was made possible because he found his role, and he owned it.

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