Why the Yankees Are the Greatest, Pt. 19: Mariano Rivera

Perry ArnoldSenior Analyst IFebruary 19, 2009

Enter Sandman. Now batters can go to sleep.


Yankee fans have become accustomed to hearing the throbbing beat of Mettalica’s lullaby when the bullpen door opens in the eighth or ninth inning in the Bronx.


With one pitch, a devastating cut fastball, Mariano Rivera has dominated the American League and post season baseball for most of the past fifteen years.


Rivera was born in Panama on Nov. 29, 1969 and grew up using a milk carton as a baseball glove. But he honed his skills to a level that would bring him to the major leagues by 1995.


Although Rivera had been a shortstop in his native country, in 1990 a Yankee scout happened to be present when Rivera volunteered to pitch in one game. It was all the scout needed to see to suggest that New York sign the kid as a pitcher.


In 1992 Rivera had a major set back while in the minors when he needed Tommy John surgery to repair his injured right elbow. After that season the expansion draft occurred to fill the roster for the new Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.


Because of his surgery and rehab, New York decided not to protect Rivera in the draft and in what has to be one of the most fortunate circumstances for the Yankees in the past fifty years, neither of the new teams drafted Rivera.


He rehabbed successfully and continued to pitch in the Yankee minor league system as a starting pitcher. When he first came to the majors with New York he started 10 games in 1995. He won five games and lost three and had a less than impressive ERA at 5.51.


By 1996 Mo had been converted to just a relief pitcher and he acted as set-up man for Yankee closer, John Wetteland.


The Yankees won the World Series that year and much of the credit had to go to the two relievers who were able to shorten every game the Yankees played.


If the starters could get the Yankees into the seventh inning, Rivera and Wetteland were almost a sure bet to close things out. As the set up man Rivera finished ’96 with a 2.09 ERA.


And in the ’96 post season he was even better. He appeared in two division series games against the Rangers and gave up no runs. He appeared in two championship series games against Baltimore and gave up no runs.


In the World Series against the Braves, Mariano pitched in four of the games and had an ERA of 1.59, as the Yankees came from behind and won their first championship in eighteen years.


Mo became the closer in 1997 as Wetteland went to Texas. And Mo was immediately spectacular. Although the Yankees were destined not to return to the Series that year, it could not be blamed on Rivera.


In his first year as closer, Rivera earned 43 saves and had an ERA of 1.88. It was only the beginning for Rivera.


Over the course of his career in New York he has pitched in 841 games in relief and amassed a total of 482 regular season saves in fourteen years.


And his combined ERA over that period is 2.29. In eight of his seasons he has had an ERA less than 2.00.


In the post season, Rivera has been even better. During his time in New York, the Yankees have made the post season every year except one, last year, 2008. They have played in six World Series, winning four of them. And everyone must acknowledge that Rivera is a major reason for that success.


In the post season, Rivera has appeared in 76 games.  He has 34 saves and a combined ERA of 0.77. No other pitcher in post season history has garnered those numbers.


For many years players and fans alike have marveled at the fact that Rivera has had so much success when he relies almost exclusively on one pitch, a riding cut fastball that is especially devastating to left hand hitters.


Many left handed batters have come away from the plate with only part of a bat after facing Rivera as his cut fastball saws them off just above the fists.


As great as he has played, Rivera has also been a great teammate and a great example. He shows very little emotion whether winning or losing. His most flamboyant emotion when he has successfully closed out another game is usually his very large smile as Jorge Posada hands him the ball after the Yanks have won.


Rivera has also been a great presence in the Yankee bullpen taking young pitchers under his wing and sharing his knowledge of the game. It would be very hard to find any controversy that has surrounded the Yankee closer during his time in New York.


Following the 2007 season Rivera was a free agent. But he had made it clear he wanted to remain a Yankee. He was disappointed that the Yankees had not agreed to renegotiate his contract during the season, but eventually he came to terms with the team on a new three year contract that would pay him $45 million.


His reputation as the greatest closer of all time has some very reputable supporters. Dennis Eckersly, a Hall of Fame relief pitcher has said that there is no doubt that Rivera is the greatest reliever of all time.


And Trevor Hoffman, the only man in baseball history to have more saves than Rivera, has also said that “Rivera will go down as the best reliever in the game in history.”


Others have noted his ability to calm the fans and his teammates when he is called on to close out a game. His success has been so consistent that there seems to be little doubt when he comes in to the strains of “Sandman” that the Yanks are in good hands.


The calming effect has not always worked just as no human being is ever perfect. While Rivera may be as close to perfect as any relief pitcher has ever been, he has had some failures that broke the hearts of Yankee fans.


The most crushing disappointment came in the seventh game of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The Yankee had made it to the Fall Classic for the fifth time in six years. It was even more special than some years because the Series came shortly after the terror attacks of 9-11.


The New York team seemed destined to bring the crown back to the city that was still in mourning. The Yankees were ahead in the final game when Mo came in to pitch in the eighth.


He shut out the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning and had one out in the ninth. Yankee fans were certain that they would enjoy their 27th title. But Luis Gonzalez looped a single into center field and Mo had blown the save and the Series.


Almost as disappointing was his post season performance in 2004. In fact, to many Yankee fans, it may have been worse than losing the 2001 World Series. This loss came at the hands of their most bitter rival, the Boston Red Sox when it seemed certain the Yankees would return to the World Series.


Mariano had had a brilliant regular season in 2004. He had appeared in 74 games, had 53 saves and an ERA of 1.94.


In the ALDS against Minnesota he was even better.  He pitched in four games and gave up no runs. Next the Yankees faced Boston in the championship series.


But tragedy struck for Rivera when two of his relatives were electrocuted in Panama. Despite attended the funeral he flew 2200 miles back to New York to be on hand as the series began. And he pitched in Game 1 on the same day as the funeral and earned a save.


Rivera would come back the next night, pitch very well and earn his second save of the series. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Yanks. They would also win game three to take what was historically an insurmountable lead. No one in the history of baseball had ever come back from three down to win a playoff series.


But in Games 4 and 5 Rivera blew saves and allowed the Red Sox to draw closer to the Bombers.  Although Mo would not be responsible for the losses in Games 5 and 6, neither he nor Yankee fans could believe that he had blown two games in a row to give the Bosox a chance.


Boston would go on to annihilate the Yankees in the final two games at Yankee Stadium. The chowder heads would finally win a World Series after an 86 year drought and much of the blame had to go to Rivera.


But his success through the years is unparalleled.  He is the last player in the major leagues to wear 42 which was retired universally in honor of Jackie Robinson.


When Rivera has finished his career with New York, there is no doubt the Yankees will retire his number 42 and place a plague on the wall in Monument Park to honor Mo.


And there can be little doubt as well that Mariano Rivera will be a first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame. Rivera is just one of the reasons the Yankees are the greatest team in the history of baseball.