Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Simply That Great

It is a record that, if it were set by someone of lesser stature, would not be taken nearly as seriously. When Trevor Hoffman broke Lee Smith's all-time saves record with his 479th career save in 2006, there wasn't half the acclaim or fanfare as there was this time. Why? Because Mariano was lurking. He was always lurking. He lurked upon the all-time saves mark in the same way that he has lurked upon opponents down by a few runs and running out of outs. When Mo polished off a 1-2-3 ninth inning against the Twins on Sept. 19 for his 602nd career save, there was a sense that the record had finally arrived where it belonged, where the world had expected it to end up for the better part of a decade.

And despite what the talking heads on ESPN will tell you, he hasn't "done it all with one pitch the whole time." In the early days, Mariano didn't even have the famed cut fastball; what he had was a four-seam fastball that he could pump up to 97 MPH and a two-seamer that dove right off of your bat if you were too geared up for the heat. By the end of the '90s, he had perfected the cutter and was breaking bats at such an alarming pace that you'd have thought he owned stock in Louisville Slugger, even forcing Ryan Klesko back to the dugout 3 times in a single at-bat in the 1999 World Series. But do not let the allure of Mo's cut fastball fool you. The guy is a pitcher, not a thrower, and he works both sides of the plate as well as anyone. Case in point? Look at the final out of the 602nd save again. A major portion of his strikeouts in recent years have come exactly like that one, a lefty caught looking over the outside corner just because he's so primed for the cutter on the inner half.

The save statistic often gets dismissed by baseball fans and media-types as a function of luck and the modern game's ever-increasing dependance on the bullpen. Saves meant more when Goose Gossage was getting 8 and 9 outs at a time in the '70s, they say, when a guy like Goose or Rollie Fingers would enter games at any point from the 5th inning or later when the starter began to tire or run into trouble. The modern closer is more of a vulture, they say, a compiler of a stat that is based more upon the 24 outs the rest of his team got than the 3 that he got himself.

And you know what? They're not totally wrong. There have been dozens of flash-in-the-pan closers in the past 30 years who have put up a season or two of big save totals. The 40-save plateau has been reached 132 times since 1983, and a few of the esteemed men to do so include Jeff Brantley, Joe Borowski, Danys Baez, Bryan Harvey (10 bucks if you can tell me when he played and who he played for, I didn't even know), and Jose Jimenez. Hell, Derek Lowe once put up a 42-save campaign for Boston and hardly anyone remembers him as anything besides a starting pitcher. As trivial as closers can seem in the regular season, it's the exact opposite in the postseason. Ask the 1996 Braves, 1998 Padres, 2006 Mets, or 2009 Angels how they may have ended up had it not been for their respective "superb" closers faltering at crucial moments. On the other hand, ask the 2008 Phillies if their run through October would have been possible had it not been for Brad Lidge not blowing a single save the entire season.

But for all the closers who have come and gone and eventually been booed off the field, there is one Mariano Rivera. He's been stockpiling the saves for the New York Yankees since 1997, when he took over the closer's role for good after a dynamite 1996 season (2.09 ERA, 130 strikeouts in 107.2 innings, 3rd in AL Cy Young voting), in which he was the most lethal component of a bullpen that carried the team into and through the World Series. He has been in the top 5 of AL Cy Young voting five times, unheard of for a relief pitcher. And not only has he done it for 15 years, but he's been at his best in October: 42 saves and a ridiculous 0.71 ERA for his career in the postseason. And of those 42 postseason saves, an astounding 31 have been appearances of 4 outs or more.

However, when painting the picture of Mo's legacy, I tend to point to three crippling postseason moments that would permanently scar the careers of mere mortals. The Yankees were 4 outs away from clinching the 1997 ALDS against Cleveland when Sandy Alomar Jr. went yard off of Rivera, tying the game and eventually sending the series to a Game 5, which the Yankees lost. Then there was the matter of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, into which I refuse to further delve. And of course, there was the 2004 ALCS Game 4, in which Mo had the chance to finish off a Yankees sweep of the Red Sox, which of course, didn't exactly pan out. (Ill-informed critics will also point out that Mariano also got a blown save in Game 5 of that ALCS, but it came in cleaning up Tom Gordon's 8th inning mess and anyone who watched that game will tell you Rivera did a heck of a job only letting one run score while he was on the mound.)

Why do I choose to point out Mariano's lowest moments? Because it speaks to the rest of his résumé that he can have experienced such monumental failures yet still be considered hands-down the best closer of all time. It takes a serious body of work in order to overcome such things, and Mo has almost rendered them back-burner fodder. He has 5 rings and has been on the mound for the final out of the World Series four times, all while pitching under the New York fans' lofty expectations and media microscope that has chewed up and spit out countless individuals. He is an ace up the sleeve, a game-changing factor long before he steps onto the field. Opposing managers, especially when there is more on the line, are faced with shortened games when #42 is sitting in the bullpen, often forcing their late-game decision making into the earlier innings.

Mo is larger than life, even if drawing attention to himself or away from the team's successes is the last thing he'd really want. His entrance to "Enter Sandman" has made him as synonymous with the song as Metallica himself, even though Rivera himself is indifferent to the song. His methodical, evenly-paced jog from the bullpen to the mound is as intimidating as the drums that would precede an approaching 17th century British infantry unit. It's like walking the Green Mile in reverse, in fact it's the Green Mile is jogging toward you. His entrance, his delivery, his mannerisms, his performance - they've all been so consistent and brilliant over the years that one really may believe that he's a robot. Come to think of it, the word "inhuman" may actually be the best way to describe Mariano Rivera if you are only given one word. I remember seeing him for the first time on the mound at the Kingdome in the 1995 ALCS against Seattle, getting crucial outs late in Game 5. Back then there was definitely the premonition that the Yankees had something with this guy, but not a soul could have predicted or expected the next 16 years. We have witnessed, and are lucky enough to still be witnessing, the best ever. Mariano is simple, Mariano is great. Mariano Rivera is simply that great.

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