For eight innings in Seattle it was just a throwaway game on a Tuesday night. Robinson Canó hit a beautiful home run early on, A.J. Burnett was perplexingly effective with eleven strikeouts in six innings, and the Alabama Hamma pitched a perfectly imperfect inning in the eighth, loading the bases while striking out the side.
And then came the Great One.
He jogged in from the bullpen just the same as he had more than a thousand times before, not looking towards the mound but instead at the path that lay before him. One stride at a time, one save at a time. There was nothing different about this appearance except for the number attached. He came to the mound with 599 career saves, and since we like the round numbers more than the crooked ones, people were paying attention.
Every player, coach, and trainer in the Yankee dugout found a perch on the rail as the Great One took his warm-up tosses and prepared to face his first batter, pinch-hitter Wily Mo Peña. Peña struck out on five pitches for the first out, bringing up Ichiro. It’s looking like Ichiro will finish this season short of 200 hits for the first time in his career, but you never would have guessed that after watching this at bat. He took a ball and then a strike, exaggerating his bailout as if he were looking to drive a cutter over the fence in right. Perhaps noticing this (or failing to realize he was being set up) Russell Martin called for the fastball on the outside corner, and Ichiro pounced on it, neatly directing it between third and short as if he were hitting it off a tee.
Someone named Kyle Seager came up next, but his part in this narrative lasted just five pitches before he struck out and exited, bringing up Dustin Ackley. Ackley took ball one, then ball two, but suddenly Martin was jumping out of his crouch, the Great One was kneeling, and Martin was rifling a throw to Jeter, looking to nab Ichiro as he attempted to steal second. Ichiro was out, and Rivera had save number six hundred.
As soon as Jeter made the tag, the cameras cut back to Rivera, who was walking stoically down the mound towards his catcher just as he had 599 times before. In the days and weeks leading up to this, Rivera had spoken often about how neither this milestone nor the record that will come with his next save means anything to him, since he focuses only on winning. But sometimes people don’t understand the impact or importance of what they’ve done until they see how it affects those around them. When his teammates reached him, every single one of them embracing him and congratulating him, Rivera finally allowed himself to enjoy the moment.
Grumpy statisticians have dismissed the save as a misguided attempt to quantify the contributions of an overrated position, a pitcher who doesn’t get the most outs, simply the last handful. But more than any player on the roster, a closer is completely dependent on his teammates. A dominant starting pitcher can rise above poor hitting or shoddy fielding to lead his team to a win, but a closer can’t even get into a game unless the rest of the teammates have performed well enough to put the team in position to win. Equally important, the team cannot be successful in the end unless the closer gets those final, most precious outs.
There’s nothing new in any of that, but it points out that this record doesn’t belong only to Rivera. If you look closely you’ll see the fingerprints of John Wetteland, Bernie Williams, Jim Leyritz, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Jeff Nelson, David Cone, Scott Brosius, David Robertson, Joe Girardi, Andy Pettitte, and countless others. Was Rivera great because he played for the Yankees or were the Yankees great because he was in their bullpen? It’s impossible to rip one half of that question from the other, but one thing is clear.
Mariano Rivera is the best there ever was.
[Photo Credits: Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images; Elaine Thompson/AP Photo]