The career stats speak for themselves: 2.21 ERA, .998 WHIP, 1119 Ks, 608 saves … and that’s just the regular season.
There have been closers who have had better single seasons, but absolutely none who have had a better career than Mariano Rivera. On Saturday, Rivera, 43, the undisputed greatest closer of all time, announced that this would be his final season.
Rivera not only defined the position he plays, but he also did it on the biggest stage and in the most pressure-filled situations. He has shined the brightest when the heat was on. His postseason stats are remarkable. In 141 innings, Mo has a 0.70 ERA and 42 saves. In all those playoff innings, he has given up a grand total of two home runs, the last coming in 2000. He was the 1999 World Series MVP and the 2003 ALCS MVP.
Game seven of that 2003 ALCS against Boston is one of my favorite Mariano Rivera moments. Mo made the Aaron Boone game-winning home run possible by holding the Red Sox scoreless for the final three innings. The image of him crumpling to the mound in elation and exhaustion still brings a smile to my face.
Joe Torre, Rivera’s manager for many of those postseason appearances, said Rivera basically made his career. It’s hard to argue with that. Torre always seemed to have an itchy trigger finger when it came to calling on Mariano Rivera in a close game, postseason or otherwise. Who could really blame him? Torre had the greatest weapon in all of baseball at his disposal.
Yet for all Rivera’s amazing accomplishments, the best barometer of his greatness comes not from looking as his biggest successes, but from looking at some of his biggest failures. In 1997, the year he took over the closer role for the Yankees, he gave up a home run to Sandy Alomar Jr., which cost New York game four of the ALDS against Cleveland. The Yankees ended up losing the series. Rivera could have dwelled on that loss and never become the best in the business. Instead he came back in 1998 and pitched to a 1.83 ERA with 36 saves. He was instrumental in the Yankees’ World Series championship that year, not allowing an earned run during the entire postseason and recording six saves.
For me, one of Mariano Rivera’s most heartbreaking blown saves came in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The Yankees looked poised to win their fourth World Series title in a row when Mo gave up a bloop single to Luis Gonzalez that scored the winning run. What looked like a pre-ordained, feel-good moment for a city that had endured the tragedy of September 11th turned into a devastating loss.
When it was all over, Rivera stood at his locker and answered every single question posed to him. He didn’t sneak out the back and evade reporters. He didn’t blame anyone. He didn’t get snippy. He spoke to the media with the same soft humbleness in defeat as in victory, and he did it while Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stood angrily glaring at him and the rest of the team.
That moment sums up Mariano Rivera. At a time when professional sports has become even more about “look at me and how awesome I am,” he quietly goes about his work. There are no wild fist pumps or chest thumpings or little celebratory jigs. He just takes the mound and lets the best cutter the game has ever seen do the talking.