By E. Martin Nolan
I really like food. I like eating food, I like cooking food, I like the idea, at least, of growing food. And I like these things to be excellent, or as excellent as possible. Some people think of food as a practical thing, and that makes total sense. It’s calories, right? You need energy, you intake fuel. That makes sense, and even a foodie would admit that sometimes you just need to shove it down and get on with your day. But I don’t want to live with practicality and utility as a rule, at least if it’s possible to avoid that. Van Morrison agrees: “you gotta fight everyday/ to keep mediocrity at bay.” Vann’s point is my point: mediocrity will get you by–sure that BK burger will get you through–but mediocrity, when it’s not absolutely necessary, is corrosive; every bit of it we accept is another moment of potentially inspiring excellence we miss. Every bit of it breeds dullness, dullness breeds complacency and complacency breeds, well, fill in the blank.
That’s why Nick Lidstom matters, and that’s why Mariano Rivera matters. Lidstrom announced his retirement today, and Rivera may or may not be forced into retirement after tearing an ACL earlier this season. Rivera’s five months older than Lidstrom, but Lidstrom entered the NHL 4 years before Rivera broke in with the Yankees. Rivera wasted no time, though, posting a 2.09 ERA in his second season, setting the pace for the next 16 (career ERA: 2.21, that’s sick). Anyone who has ever rooted against the Yankees (this is the main reason people watched playoff baseball all through the aughts, right?) knows the sinking gut feeling of inevitability that develops when Mariano takes the mound with a late lead. Even if he comes in to close in the 7th, the other team is hopeless, knowing exactly the pitch Rivera would kill them with–cut fastball just barely tailing away, every time. Even hating the Yankees, and extending that hatred to a system that allows a team’s riches to determine their chance of winning, you had to be in awe of that guy. He was simply the best.
Lidstrom’s records are widespread. Many begin with “first European to…” but here’s the one that gets me: of the top 20 all-time defensive point leaders, only five began playing after 1986, when the goal-happy era in the NHL was finishing. Only two began their careers in the trap-leaden nineties: Sergei Zubov and Nick Lidstrom. Zubov is 19 on the all-time point list. Lidstrom is six, and everyone ahead of him entered the league between ’79 and ’82, when the league was first instituting its controversial if-a-player-hits-the-net-the-goalie-must-let-it-in and no-defense (AKA, the “Paul Coffey Rule”) policies. Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies, and it should have been nine. It took him three runners-up finishes before the NHL finally accepted that a Swede was far and away the best D-man in the game. Then he won six of the next seven Norris Trophies.
Lidstrom and Rivera’s greatness is well-established. You don’t need further proof of that. But there’s one other quality they share: both have been incredibly understated, humble and devastating in their excellence. Rivera, in that Yankee way, was never flashy. Like Lidstrom–whose Red Wings were long the hockey equivalent to the Yankees–casually breaking up a 3-on-2 with a nearly-imperceptible poke-check, or suddenly appearing in the slot to get a feed and quickly bury one of his patented top-corner snapshots, Rivera went about his business of destroying lineups like he was some unnaturally devoted bureaucrat checking names off a list (I just had an image of Death as a bureaucrat with a Yankees hat on in my head). Neither changed the game they dominated, they just played it way better than anyone else. And neither produced very dramatic or incredible highlights because neither ever needed to resort to dramatics; Lidstrom was always in position, and Rivera was usually in control of the at-bat. It was sometimes hard to appreciate these athletes because they made it look so easy. You had to remind yourself that of all the great players out there, despite all the talent and dedication money could buy, none of those other guys could quite do it like that. And yet, it was those other guys who had the big fastball, the big centre-ice check, that fueled SportsCenter’s endless highlight lust. Rivera and Lidstrom, they were almost too good to keep pointing it out; their excellence eventually became repetitive, and because they erred so infrequently, and because their methods were so remarkably subtle and well-planned, there was hardly ever a deviation to point out; there was hardly ever a dramatic recovery they had to heroically pull off.
I know, this is a straight-up fan post. I am simply gushing right now. But these are the kind of athletes–or performers, craftsmen, artists–who give back way more than you pay them in attention and reverence. Excellence matters, in and of itself, and having these men as models of such–and to have them achieve their excellence with such grace and humility–is of priceless importance to a society as devoted to sports as ours. Hell, Lidstrom’s retirement even moved Drew Sharp (!) to run a half-way decent column in today’s Detroit Free Press (talk about lifting up your teammates…). The same can’t be said for Mitch Albom: “Captain Nick hands in the stick. Parting is such Swede sorrow.” Where’s my puke bag? Of course, we all know the rub-off effect of excellence has its limits, and that most of us remain closer to Mitch than to Nick, but Mitch provides us a mediocrity (at least in his sports writing, he seems like a very good, caring person aside from that) against which Lidstrom’s greatness stands out like a prime cut next to ground beef. If Lidstrom or Rivera were sports writers, they’d be Michael Lewis, Mordecai Richler or David Foster Wallace. (UPDATE: both Mitch and Drew came through with very decent pieces in Friday’s Free Press. Nick’s bringing out the best)
And so, I would like to thank Nick Lidstrom and Mariano Rivera simply for being as good as they were. Watching them over these past 20 years has been like how I imagine drinking a fine red wine for dinner every night would be: eventually you just accept it as a level of excellence that is possible to permanently maintain, and, more importantly, to aim for. I hope we do get Mariano back for one more year, to get one more taste of something decidedly not mediocre.