Earlier today, Mariano Rivera set the all-time saves record, eclipsing long-time San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Rivera, in his 16th season with the Yankees (and 15th as their closer), figures to add to it if he can stay healthy, and surely will be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires.
Now, I’m firmly in the ‘saves are overrated’ camp. All 27 outs in a game are equal, and it doesn’t make sense to save your best pitcher(s) for a hypothetical situation an inning or two ahead. But, that’s not Rivera’s call to make, and he’s done what has been asked of him at an elite level for a decade and a half. Even disregarding saves, Rivera has some impressive accomplishments:
– His career WHIP is 0.99, an incredible achievement. He also averages 8.2 KO/9.
– In his 16 years of relief pitching, he’s had a WHIP of 1.1 or greater only twice.
– In 94 career playoff games, he averages 7 KO/9, has an era of 0.71, and a WHIP of 0.766.
– He has appeared in at least 45 games every season since 1996, never missing a substantial part of any season. It’s rare for a pitcher to stay so (relatively) healthy so long.
– That consistency is remarkable. Anyone who plays fantasy baseball will tell you how erratic relievers are from year to year.
– His 94 career playoff games are roughly equivalent to adding a season and a half to his workload over 16 years. That he’s remained healthy and consistently excellent is also remarkable.
One of the neat things about Rivera is that he will be the last player to wear the number 42, Jackie Robinson’s number. In tribute to Robinson, MLB decided a number of years ago that every team would retire the number, meaning that no other player (except those wearing it at the time, who were grandfathered in), would ever wear it. Rivera is the last one, and his on-field impact is a fitting tribute to a man who wasn’t just a pioneer, but a great ballplayer.
As an aside, one of the things I enjoy about soccer is how certain jersey numbers carry a significance, and are considered an honor to wear. For example, goal scorers are issued the number 9 (Newcastle United calls it the Shirt of Legends), and the number 10 jersey is an honour reserved for playmakers and leaders on the field. Wouldn’t the ultimate tribute to Jackie Robinson be to do something similar with the number 42? That only players who had accomplished great things got to wear it? For example, in addition to Rivera, the Cardinals could have Pujols wear 42, Roy Halladay would be Philly’s 42, and there would be discussion right now about whether Justin Verlander deserved the #42 jersey. It would also make for a fun term when discussing truly great players, arguing whether or not a player was a ’42’. Anyway, I digress.
I’ve appreciated Rivera’s talent and performance since he broke into the majors. The first time I saw him was in a relief appearance in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, when he toyed with Seattle Mariners hitters and pitched 3.1 scoreless innings. He’s been a part of some of the most memorable moments of the past 15 years, amazingly in a losing role for some. He blew a save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, which seemed unfathomable at the time. As a Red Sox fan, I have fond memories of him giving up the tying runs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing him pitch in person. I caught a Yankees-Mariners series at Safeco Field in 2009. Seeing Rivera warm up then walk in from the bullpen gave me chills. Later in that series, he was part of a great moment at the ballpark.
One of the things I enjoy most about seeing games live is the little things television doesn’t pick up. Watching players (teammates and opponents) interact, the way players move and shift defensively, and seeing the impressive feats some can pull off in batting practice are a highlight of any visit to the park. After the Sunday afternoon game, where the Mariners won comfortably. After the game, all the unused relief pitchers (including Rivera) left the bullpens and walked back towards their dugouts. Along the way, the Mariners bullpen stopped Rivera, surrounding him and chatting with him for a few minutes:
I can only imagine what they asked him, but this gesture struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. There would only be a handful of players who would be treated in this way. When I think of Rivera and his achievements, the numbers come to mind, and tell most of the story. But the reaction of a handful of opponents, the last, and one of the best to wear number 42, says a lot about what he means and what he’s accomplished too.