Mariano’s Saving Grace

Mariano Rivera was never supposed to be the man he is today. He was never supposed to appear in 12 all-star games or win five World Series. He was never sup­posed to be just the fourth relief pitcher in the history of baseball to be named World Series MVP. He was never sup­posed to be the all-time leader in postsea­son saves. Most of all, Mariano Rivera was never supposed to be the all-time leader in regular season saves or the best relief pitcher of all time.

In February of 1990, the New York Yankees signed a skinny 20-year-old kid from Panama City, Panama who had moved from shortstop to pitcher just a year earlier to an amateur free agent con­tract. The reliever, who could throw just 85-87 miles per hour at the time, was Mariano Rivera, a fairly unknown player who was qualified as a fringe prospect at best. In the early 1990s, however, Rive­ra made his way up through the system, eventually becoming a true prospect for the big leagues.

On three separate occasions, Rivera almost left the Yankees organization. In 1992, while Rivera was playing Single-A Minor League ball for Fort Lauderdale, the Yankees elected to leave his contract unprotected for the 1992 expansion draft. The league’s two new teams, the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, needed to fill their empty rosters but, thankfully for New York fans, Rivera went undrafted. Twice in 1995, Rivera was nearly traded away by George Steinbrenner and the Yankee management. Again, things turned out well for the Bronx Bombers, and neither trade went through. The decision to keep Rivera in the Yankee organization legiti­mately shaped the postseason for years to come.

Eventually, Rivera’s velocity shot up to 95-97 mph, and the prospect of his play­ing in New York became far more prob­able. In 1997, after helping the Yankees to a World Series the previous year, the Mariano Rivera who everyone holds in such a high esteem today was truly born. In a bullpen session, Rivera noticed his fastball kept moving sharply to the left. The hard cut in on left-handed batters’ hands became what we now know as the famous “cut-fastball” that has been called “the single best pitch ever in the game” and “the best out-pitch in baseball.” Once Rivera toned the rest of his arsenal, he be­came one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball and has led the Yankees until the present day.

On Monday, Rivera added to his al­ready illustrious list of accolades by fi­nally passing former San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers closer Trevor Hoffman for first on the all-time list with 602 saves. On an 0-2 count, the skinny kid from Panama City caught Minnesota Twins first-baseman Chris Parmelee look­ing with the signature cutter that had got­ten Rivera all the way from save No. 1 to save No. 602. Though he was already con­sidered by many to be a better closer than Hoffman, the fact that Rivera now holds the record adds even more significance to his legacy. Now, undeniably, Mariano Ri­vera truly is the best closer in the history of baseball. Rivera in his sport is equiva­lent to Jerry Rice at wide receiver, Wayne Gretzky at forward and Michael Jordan at guard. Like these great players, it’s widely accepted that he is the greatest of all time at his position.

What should not be lost in Rivera’s ac­complishment on Monday is the legacy of the man whose record he eclipsed. Hoff­man’s 601 saves came with the Marlins, Padres and Brewers during a career in which the closer went to just one World Series. Playing on such mediocre teams for the majority of his 18 seasons makes Hoffman’s accomplishments all the more meaningful. In addition to being number two among all-time save leaders, Hoffman holds six MLB records and has been to seven all-star games. What is more tell­ing of Trevor Hoffman than all the acco­lades, however, is his Lou Gehrig award in 2006. The Lou Gehrig award is given to the player who best exemplifies Gehrig’s legendary character and integrity both on and off the field. In the annals of baseball history, Hoffman will be remembered by many as being number two to Mariano Rivera, but he will be remembered by all as one of the most admirable people in the history of the sport.

For Rivera, this is a moment of tri­umph. He, however, would be the first to tell you that the most important thing is helping his team get back to the World Series in 2011. In addition to the personal success, Rivera has been the most effective pitcher in the postseason when it really matters. You can bet that he’ll be ready to go for trip number 16 to the magical land of October baseball. It might make this year’s playoffs a little more excit­ing, knowing that Rivera is still throwing cutters in the 9th inning. Well, maybe not if you’re a Red Sox fan.

Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected].