As you know by now, Mariano Rivera surpassed Trevor Hoffman as MLB’s all-time saves leader earlier this month. It was a notable feat, to be sure, but in a game that values numbers and milestones so highly, it was a decidedly muted occasion relative to, say, Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron or Cal Ripken Jr. passing Lou Gehrig. Undoubtedly, that’s partly because the value of the “closer” is still widely debated, and therefore saves are a dubious, if not altogether laughable, stat. But more than that, Mariano earning his 602nd career save did next to nothing to change the way we think about him or how he’ll be remembered — his legacy, as it were.
I say that in sheer reverence, of course. Mariano Rivera was already the greatest closer — certainly since the closer’s role has taken on its current shape, and probably ever — and everyone knew that. He would have been the greatest closer with or without this distinction, the way Ted Williams is the best hitter despite not hitting the most homers or owning the highest batting average. Just to be clear, there are plenty of stats to support Mo as the greatest closer, if we wanted to take it there. We could fall back on his 38.6 career WAR, for example, which is roughly nine more wins above replacement (in 287 fewer innings) than the next closest reliever, Goose Gossage.
But the point is, we don’t need to refer to those numbers.
When I think about Rivera’s greatness, about boiling it down to something simple and human, I’m reminded of a tweet I read a year or so ago. I can’t remember whose tweet it was, so if you read this piece and want to lay claim to it, by all means. The person tweeted something like: “There is no greater comfort in fandom than having Rivera take the mound in the ninth inning.” I’m pretty sure time and my mutable memory have conspired to tweak that a bit, but nevertheless that line summarizes Mariano Rivera’s greatness more than 603 career regular-season saves, 42 postseason saves, ~40 WAR, 2.76 FIP, that hellacious cutter or whatever other measure you want to use.
When Mariano Rivera enters a game to close it out, he instills in everyone — his team, manager(s), fans and, yes, his fantasy owners — a sort of confidence that the subsequent three outs are all but a formality. Of course, Mo has had his down moments. Game 7 of the 2001 World Series is the most obvious. Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS isn’t far behind. The Matt Franco Game is a personal favorite of this Mets fan. But what he has done is survive the inevitable losing battle against the law of averages and forge ahead with his own confidence, and everyone else’s trust in him, intact. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t always perfect; no one is, after all. It only mattered that we expected him to be perfect, and thought him fully capable of achieving that, every time out.
And that, for practical purposes, is really the thing that separates Mo from the other great relievers, of which there have been so many. No matter the pitcher, year, team and situation, all stoppers, however brilliant their respective stretches, gave their fans that momentary pause when they entered the game, that maybe this would be the day that they just didn’t quite have it. Maybe Hoffman’s changeup wouldn’t be quite as deceptive. Maybe Nen’s slider wouldn’t fall off the table. Maybe Wagner’s speeding bullet would be a little bit easier to square up.
No one ever thought that about No. 42 and whether his patented cutter would bite. And on the days when it was catching too much plate, and some team managed to escape certain defeat, no one questioned whether he’d be back to normal next time out. And that’s the indefinable thing that renders the saves crown redundant, if not irrelevant. The number — 603 and counting — tells us what we already knew.