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In Mariano Rivera’s time with the New York Yankees, he has established himself as the greatest closer of all-time, and one of the all-time great Yankee players in history. His regular season stats and durability are more than impressive, but it is his postseason dominance that will always set him apart.
In the past 2 weeks, he reached a milestone of 600 career saves, and then tied and broke Trevor Hoffman’s all-time record with saves 601 and 602. 602 came in classic fashion, as he jogged out of the bullpen to the familiar tune of Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Not many athletes can say they changed the way people view a song, but when I hear the intro to Enter Sandman, I automatically think “game over” (even if it is just my roommate’s alarm clock at 8 a.m.). He threw 13 pitches, 9 of them for strikes, broke a bat and struck out the final batter. He didn’t throw up his arms or dance around, he just smiled and hugged his teammates, one by one. That’s Mo for you: he finished off the game without breaking a sweat, and the smile was about the most emotion you’ll see from him outside of winning a World Series title.
His post-game comments further exemplified why he is so loved by fans. He didn’t flaunt it, or say that he is the greatest. He said things like “I can’t describe that feeling, it was priceless” and “I never thought I’d be doing this for so many years.” He praised God, thanked his family, his teammates and the fans. When asked if he considers himself the greatest closer of all time, he responded with “I would never say that.” I just hope he knows he is the only one who won’t. The best and most telling thing that he said on this memorable day was this: “We won, and that’s the most important thing.” And that’s what being the greatest closer in history is all about.
When it comes to being called the greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera has held this title for years, even though he didn’t become the all-time leader in saves until this week. The save is a unique stat in that it can essentially only be achieved if the closer’s team wins by 3 runs or less, as most closers today only pitch one inning at a time. For a closer to become the all-time leader in saves, it is pretty clear that he must pitch for a good team, be healthy and really good at pitching the toughest inning of the game. Mariano Rivera has all three of these categories locked up.
One comparison that must be looked at is Rivera vs. the man whose record he just broke, Trevor Hoffman. Trevor Hoffman is certainly a fantastic closer, but let’s not waste our time here. The only question is how big of a gap there is between the two of them, not if Hoffman is actually better. Rivera’s career regular season ERA is 2.22, while his postseason ERA is a stunning 0.71 in 94 appearances. Trevor Hoffman matches up with a 2.87 career regular season ERA, and a 3.46 in a mere 12 postseason appearances. Rivera only had one postseason series where his ERA was over 3.46. The real question here is if the difference between Rivera and second place bigger than the gap between any two at any other position in any team sport? Maybe. Quarterbacks, shooting guards, 1st Basemen, goaltenders all have some kind of argument over how close the guy in second is, and there is a truly great player on the list after 1st. Not for baseball closers. Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice and Mariano Rivera: that’s a list of players that have dominated their position in sports like no other. Pretty damn good list if you ask me.
Trevor Hoffman isn’t an all-time great in the way that Rivera is, and there is no one with anywhere near the track record that Rivera has in the playoffs. It’s not close, and it is almost awkward how big the gap is. We always want to have an argument, a one versus two, a question. But I am sorry; there just isn’t anything to question here. Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time, bar none.
A better question, since we need to have one, is where does Mariano Rivera rank on the all-time Yankee list? And where does he stand in comparison to Derek Jeter? It is very tough to compare a closer from this era of baseball to the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, as closers (the way they are used today) were more or less non-existent until the 1960’s. Since Mantle, Rivera has arguably been the best Yankee player, with his only competition being the current captain himself.
Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig are a step above the competition, and are clearly the 3 best Yankees of all-time. The next group is 5 guys: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. It is just about impossible to judge these players against each other. DiMaggio, Berra and Ford played their entire careers on the Yankees (except for Berra’s final season), and at least one of them was on the team from the mid 30’s through the late 60’s (except for when DiMaggio fought in WWII). DiMaggio won 9 World Series titles, Berra won 10 and Ford 6. Berra and DiMaggio each had 3 MVP’s, while Ford won a Cy Young, all awards that neither Jeter nor Rivera have earned. Every Yankee fan knows that we measure greatness in postseason success, and that is the main reason why Berra and DiMaggio come in next on the all-time Yankee list.
After establishing the top 5 Yankees in history, we need to settle the battle between Jeter and Mo. They both have been here every step of the way since 1996, each have 5 championships, and are each known for putting fear into opponents during the postseason. Pretty much everything you can say about Jeter you can also say about Rivera, but Derek Jeter has the edge here. He plays every day, and he will be the face of this era of the New York Yankees when it is looked back on in years to come. Mariano Rivera is great, but Derek Jeter gets the nod as the 6th best Yankee in history.
It’s hard for me to judge players that I have never seen play, but when it comes down to it, Mariano Rivera has been the most important pitcher in baseball over the past 15 years. Baseball is a different game today than it was in the 1960’s, and when you combine the emphasis on the closer, and his postseason dominance, it becomes clear that I would rather have Mariano Rivera on my team than Whitey Ford. The dude dominated hitters in the steroid era, is one of 3 pitchers in history with a career WHIP of less than 1.00 and he did it all with one pitch. ONE PITCH! As far as I’m concerned, he would break Babe Ruth’s bat twice before striking him out. Mariano Rivera is the 7th best Yankees of all time, and he is the best pitcher the franchise has ever seen. His cutter will go down as one of the best pitches in baseball history, and his postseason brilliance will forever make him the greatest closer of all-time.