In the bottom of the eighth at Citi Field on Sunday night, with runners on first and second and two outs, the game promptly ended. The gleefully wide eyes and pumped fist of the 10-year-old in front of me was all I needed to see: Mariano Rivera was walking through that door. That moment of excitation, of victory assured, is one every Yankee fan has gotten to know intimately for 13 years now; it is one I, and every fan of a Major League Baseball team not named the Yankees, have never really experienced.
Mariano Rivera has now saved 500 games in the Major Leagues, which is a pretty crazy number when you sit down and really think about it. Closer is one of the slipperiest positions to define in pro sports. In theory, it consists of one of baseball’s simplest and most elemental tasks: Work one scoreless inning. Because of this, there are plenty of bad pitchers that have been serviceable closers.
But in practice, closing also requires an incredible mental fortitude, one that doesn’t shy from the pressure of the game and the season on its shoulders, one that welcomes and even needs that intensity. It is why the tantalizing concept of closer-by-committee does not work in practice. And it is why so many closers suffer from Benitezitis, a case of being so good from April-August and so bad once the calendar flips to September.
Perhaps the best testament to the position’s difficulty is the fact that its two greatest practitioners—Rivera and Dennis Eckersley—each blew the biggest games of their respective Hall of Fame careers. The failures that could have—should have?—felled them as they did so many other of their colleagues (an off-the-top-of-the-head list includes Donnie Moore, Mitch Williams, Mark Wohlers, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Brad Lidge) have instead become interwoven into the tapestry of their greatness. Like Jesus at Gethsemane, it was the revelation of Rivera’s fallibility that cast an even brighter light on what he accomplished in spite of it.
How good is Mariano Rivera? Rivera is so beyond reproach that Yankee fans forgive him for blowing Game 7 of the World Series. Rivera is so beyond reproach that no Yankee fan cares that Rivera may be the reason they didn’t win six consecutive titles from 1996-2001. Rivera is so beyond reproach because he, more than Derek Jeter or Joe Torre or Paul O’Neill, is the reason the Yankees won four of five to begin with.
(N.B.: This paragraph reads better if you imagine Tim Kurkjian speaking it.) In the four postseasons that ended in Yankee titles, Rivera made 36 appearances, pitched 54 2/3 innings, and allowed four earned runs. That is an ERA of 0.66. He allowed 33 hits and seven walks for a WHIP of 0.73. Eleven of those outings were perfect, and 26 of them called for more than three outs. No closer has gotten as many eighth-inning outs in the playoffs as Mariano Rivera. In those 36 games, he recorded three wins, no losses, and 19 saves.
And as dominant as those Yankee teams seem in retrospect, their hallmark during those years was coming back in the late innings. The Yankees came from behind in the final three innings 13 times in those postseasons; they broke open tie games in an additional four. When the bullpens of the opposition faltered, Rivera was always there to make sure they paid for it.
Rivera has done it all despite the fact that he has only one pitch: a cutter that has a legitimate claim to being the best single pitch in baseball history—far better than Santana’s changeup or Ryan’s fastball or Koufax’s curve. You know what pitch Mariano Rivera is going to throw, and like Parkman against Vaughn, you can’t hit it anyway.
Finally, what places Rivera on a pedestal several rungs over his contemporaries is a maddening consistency. I would quote statistics to prove how off-the-charts great Mariano Rivera is in certain situations, but he is that off-the-charts great in all of them. He is no better against righties than he is lefties, no better when he only needs three outs, no better with a three-run lead than one.
Oh, sure, there have been a spate of closers that have, at times, inspired confidence within their respective fan bases and coquettishly grinned at greatness. The list of All-Star closers that have been Rivera’s contemporaries is long (45 other names in all) but far from impressive. It includes one player since deceased (Rod Beck), one serving time in a Venezuelan prison for attempted murder (Ugueth Urbina), two that shared bullpens with Rivera (John Wetteland and Tom Gordon), one who started the All-Star Game the following season (Derek Lowe), two Devil Rays (Lance Carter and Danys Baez), and a whopping four different closers from the Milwaukee Brewers (Bob Wickman, Francisco Cordero, Dan Kolb, and Derrick Turnbow).
There have been luminaries among them, from Eric Gagne, he of the 84 straight saves, to John Smoltz, just as good a closer as he is a borderline Hall of Fame starter and the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to another Eckersley. But Gagne and Smoltz, and Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez, all good closers, have yet to or failed to produce day in and day out anything resembling the long-range consistent success of Mariano Rivera.
And that brings us to the one contemporary who can challenge Rivera for that title of “Best Closer Ever,” the only man ahead of Mo on the all-time saves list, and quite possibly, the fifth Brewers’ closer to make that All-Star team since Rivera made his first in 1997: Trevor Hoffman. But although Hoffman has a seemingly unassailable 572 career saves, his record in games that actually matter is nothing short of appalling. (Sorry, Padres fans and Sports Illustrated, but the evidence against Hoffman in this regard is long: There’s Game 3 of the ’98 World Series, Game 1 of the ’98 NLCS, Game 3 of the ’96 NLDS, the end of the 2007 season, the 2006 All-Star Game, etc.).
Comparing Rivera to Hoffman is like comparing Christmas to Hanukkah: The only difference is one is great while the other sucks.
Rivera’s run as Yankee closer will celebrate its bar mitzvah this year, and it is now reasonable to argue that he has been better at his job for longer than anyone else in (modern) baseball history, where greatness tends toward the ephemeral or the enhanced.
Exit light, enter night. The Ultimate Sandman is on the mound.