Rivera's work as a closer unmatched by anyone at any other position
NEW YORK -- Unless the Yankees defy the odds and the Gods, the unparalleled career of Mariano Rivera has one week remaining; so it's about time somebody put him in his place. He is the king of the hill, top of the list and A No. 1, not necessarily in that order. The signature Sinatra song that has followed each of Rivera's 488 games finished in the Bronx provides those rankings. And who are we to dispute Ol' Blue Eyes?
Mine is merely one of ninety-twelve thousand assessments that have Sandman ranked higher than Eck, Sutter, Goose, Quiz, Izzy, Rollie, Rags, Billy Wags, Johnny Franco, Teke, Turk, the Terminator, the Exterminator, Dick Radatz, Joe Table, that fabled hot dog chucker at Shea, Ed Glynn, Earl's favorite Stan "The Man" Unusual and all the other guys who have been put in charge of happy endings.
Some parts of what follows can be argued, but there can be no closing arguments. No. 42 is No. 1. Even if his regular-season saves total didn't exceed the combined career totals of Joe Nathan (338), who ranks second among active pitchers, and Gossage (310), Rivera would qualify as the best based on his stunning postseason resumé.
At this point though, with Mo in the ninth inning of his career, there is more area to consider, more to measure and more to say about his incomparable career. Try on this premise: Mariano Rivera has performed more effectively in his role -- specialized and limited as it has been -- than any other baseball player has performed in any role. He's been more effective as a closer than Ozzie Smith was as a shortstop, than Rickey Henderson was as a basestealer, that Greg Maddux was as a starting pitcher or Henry Aaron was as a run producer.
It does sound a bit over the top, and the apples-and-oranges argument can be applied. How can scoreless innings pitched in relief be measured against the offensive grandeur of the Babe or the Wizardry of Ozzie or Cobb's .367? But measured in terms of reliability, Rivera is unlike anyone who has played the game. Whether Joe Torre or Joe Girardi summoned him from the Yankees' bullpen, the manager routinely anticipated success. "Wait and see" hasn't happened often in the Yankees' world since 1997. Neither Joe foresaw doom or gloom or even a modicum of resistance after they'd summoned Rivera.
"It never should have reached the point it has," Joe Torre said years ago, "because what he does shouldn't be taken for granted. But when he doesn't get the job done, you feel justified in being surprised."
What Torre, and then Girardi, routinely have anticipated when they've brought the world's nastiest cutter to the mound has been some level of dominance -- a broken bat or two, a strikeout here or there, a zero, a save and, most of all, a victory.
Of what other player has that sort of expectation existed? Dennis Eckersley was essentially automatic, but not for the extended period Rivera has been. Teddy Ballgame batted .406 -- and made a lot of outs -- in 1941. With Babe Ruth, the chance of a strikeout was far greater than the chance for a home run. What might Ozzie, Brooksie, Mazeroski or Andruw Jones have done with a glove that would have repeatedly secured success?
That Rivera was looming often was more than enough to prompt an opposing manager to adjust his thinking. You better score in the seventh or eighth because, with Rivera available, scoring in the ninth was out of the question.
Torre recalled an incident when he was managing in an All-Star Game in Atlanta in 2000. Darin Erstad of the Angels, hoping to avoid being removed for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a one-run game with his team leading, asked Torre "Who's pitching the ninth?"
Torre said: "Mariano Rivera."
Said Erstad: "Then we have enough runs."
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A greater compliment came from Girardi on Sunday morning before the rousing salute to Rivera at The Stadium. "He's mastered his craft as well as anyone I've ever seen," is how the manager put it. And it can't be put any better. Girardi's point was absolute, his words left no room for debate. Just as well, there is no need for debate.
Of course, it's understood that the closer role, particularly as it has been redefined since the days when Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle regularly pitched in the seventh and eighth innings, comes with an enhanced chance for success. In most cases, a lead is in place before a closer is summoned. His challenge most often is to achieve three outs before the opponent can tie the score -- or worse. Merely three outs, but they routinely are the most challenging three outs of the game.
Rivera has been up to the challenge more than anyone. Baseball is said to be a game based on failure. It is -- for the guys swinging the bats. For Rivera, it's a game based on others' failures.
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Rivera's standing in the game has been established for years. We know where he stands, but among what others does Rivera stand? Personal preferences follow: an all-time team that would have had scant need of a closer.
Catcher: Johnny Bench
First base: Lou Gehrig
Second base: Rogers Hornsby
Third base: Mike Schmidt (with a nod to Eddie Mathews)
Shortstop: Honus Wagner (with a nod to Ozzie Smith)
Left field: Joe DiMaggio
Center field: Willie Mays
Right field: Babe Ruth (with a nod to Henry Aaron)
Designated hitter: Ted Williams
Bench: Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Rickey Henderson, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente
Starters: Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Bob Feller, Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell