Appreciating Mariano Rivera
I’ve grown up with Mariano Rivera. He’s been with the Yankees for just about as long as I’ve consciously been a fan. He and Derek Jeter have consistently been my two favorite Yankees and when Rivera sat the Mets down in the ninth inning the other day, Rivera became the second pitcher to ever record 500 saves.
While Trevor Hoffman has nearly 70 more saves than Rivera, it’s unlikely that Mo will retire with the all-time saves record. But there also won’t be any doubt that Mariano Rivera will be remembered as the best closer of all time. He won’t admit to such, but there may not be a pitcher in all of baseball history that has dominated at such a high level for such an extended period of time than Rivera. He pitched through the steroid and live-ball era and still has managed the lowest ERA+ (by far) of pitchers with more than 1,000 career innings.
But more impressive than his utter physical domination of the best hitters in the world is the professionalism that defined Rivera. He never showed anyone up, but simply went about his job as best he could. And if he failed he didn’t throw a tantrum of cry, he simply showed up the next day and went back at it. Each save has ended in a handshake, not a shakedown.
Closers are a strange breed of baseball player. They’re often overlooked until they fail. The shelf life of closers is not long. Closers are often starting pitchers converted because they lacked a sufficient arsenal to go through a lineup multiple times. And eventually, the one or two good pitches that a closer has are mastered by the league’s hitters and that closer’s done. 689 different pitchers have saved a major league game since Mariano Rivera’s first save. 73 of those only saved one game.
Mariano Rivera has saved 500 (now 502) games throwing one pitch. The devastating cut fastball. The pitch runs in on lefties and makes righties give up. Former Boston manager Kevin Kennedy said of Rivera in 1996, “He went through us in the seventh and eighth inning like he was facing little leaguers”. Batters know what pitch is coming, how fast it’s coming, what it’s going to do and they still flail as if stricken with blindness.
Rivera’s nerves of steel and superhuman cut fastball have allowed him to become not only a regular season hero but a postseason legend as well. His 34 postseason saves are more than double the guy behind him and his 0.77 postseason ERA is unparalleled by any other pitcher.
It’s only fitting that his 500th save was something pulled straight from a storytale. The Yankees lead their crosstown rivals, the Mets by a score of 3-2 heading into the Mets half of the eighth inning. Yankee reliever Brian Bruney came on to relieve Phil Hughes and walked two of the four batters he faced. With the go-ahead run on base, manager Joe Girardi summoned his ultimate trump card, Mariano Rivera.
Rivera trotted in and calmly stared down Met catcher Omir Santos and ran the count to 2-2 before Santos fouled off a pair of nasty cutters painting the outside black. Rivera missed off the outside corner to fill up the count before freezing Santos with a cutter headed for his knees, but ultimately caught most of the plate.
Rivera had kept the Yankees ahead, but had three more outs to get. But not before something else. Playing an interleague game in a National League park meant the pitchers had to hit and due to a double switch, Rivera’s spot would be up sixth if the Yankees mustered any sort of offense in the top of the ninth.
It’s a fairy tale career, remember? The Yankees would muster.
Jorge Posada would single and Melky Cabrera would ground into a force out. Brett Gardner walked, Johnny Damon lined out to right and Derek Jeter stepped to the plate with a base open and the pitcher, Mariano Rivera, due to hit next. Joe Girardi would send Francisco Cervelli to the on deck circle to try and fool the Mets into thinking he was going to pinch hit, but Rivera would hit. Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez started pitching to Jeter, who had to stifle a grin.
The Mets would eventually figure out that a pitcher with two career plate appearances would bat next and intentionally walked Jeter to get to him. Rivera would stride to plate with the bases loaded and his team up one run. He took two balls and then watched two strikes find the zone. He fouled the next pitch off and then watched ball three go by. With a two outs and a full count, K-Rod missed up and in and Rivera had his first career RBI.
The man is the greatest closer in the history of the game, dead or alive and is probably the most consistent player in any sport, ever. And he’s smiling after driving in a run bigger than probably any other professional accomplishment he’s ever had. He threw a comical glance at Jeter as the two men ran the bases simultaneously for the first time in their fifteen year union.
Mark Teixeira would strike out as the next batter so Rivera was stranded on first and ready to finish off save number 500. After two quick outs to begin the Mets half of the ninth inning, Daniel Murphey smacked a single to left. But Rivera’s very next pitch was grounded weakly to second and a moment later, Rivera had become the second man to save his 500th game, and the first to do so and drive in a run in the same game. Naturally, Rivera’s celebration began with a handshake and a hug from his ultimate teammate, Derek Jeter.
Rivera is now 39 and will eventually end his illustrious career. But it won’t be this year. It’s been fifteen years since Rivera threw his first pitch, and he’s still mowing through major league hitters as if they’re 12-year old kids swinging too-heavy bats in hopes of looking tough.