Mariano Rivera just broke the all time regular season saves record when he recorded number 602 against the Minnesota Twins. Since then I have seen a number of comments and tweets stating that Rivera is now the “undisputed” best reliever of all time. It is important for me to point out that he already held that title prior to getting the record breaking save, and anyone who felt otherwise clearly hasn’t been paying attention.
Albert Pujols is commonly referred to as a once-in-a-generation type player; the type that comes along every few decades and establishes new standards of baseball awesomeness. These labels are generally reserved for players who not only produce monster numbers on the field, but also represent what is good about the game off it. The fact is that is that Rivera is also a once-in-a-generation and most people have never realized it.
Rivera is a no-brainer first ballot Hall of Fame player after he retires. It remains to be seen where his final numbers will end up, but he is already far and away the most dominant relief pitcher of all time. He has pitched in an era where the closer rarely records more than three outs in a game, but that does not diminish his accomplishments and legacy. It is incredible to say, but if anything, Rivera is underrated for what he has done in baseball.
The numbers only tell part of Rivera’s story. At the age of 41 (soon to be 42) he has pitched in 1039 regular season games, posting 75 wins, 602 saves, and a 2.22 ERA. In 17 seasons he has given up a total of 65 home runs; 11 of which came in his first 67 professional innings. He has made 12 All-Star teams, been part of 5 World Championship teams, and 9 additional post season teams.
Rivera has been even more impressive in the playoffs, going 8-1 with 42 saves and a 0.71 ERA in 94 games. Most remarkable about all of these accomplishments is that he has done them all with primarily one pitch, a smile on his face, and reputation as the kindest and most gracious man in baseball.
The most indelible memory I have of Rivera is from Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2005. The previous postseason he uncharacteristically blew three save opportunities against Boston in the ALCS, where the Red Sox made their historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit. During the Opening Day ceremonies the entire Yankee roster was individually introduced, and when the announcer came to Rivera, the crowd cheered and gave him a standing ovation for the role he played in helping the Red Sox capture their first World Series title in 86 years. In one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship I have ever seen, Rivera laughed, took of his cap, and acknowledged the ebullient crowd, proving that he is every inch the classiest man in baseball.
Sadly, Rivera is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Although he is on the wrong side of 40, there is no indication that he and his magnificent cutter are anywhere close to being finished. Even though he is “only” a relief pitcher, he belongs in baseball’s pantheon with the likes of the Mays, Mantles, and Ruths as some of the greatest of all time. Although he has always gotten a lot of attention by playing for the New York Yankees during his entire career, if you think about all he has done and the legacy he will eventually leave behind, you should realize that he is not only one of the best players to ever play the game, but also one of its best people.
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