Sunday, September 18, 2011 Updated: September 20, 12:18 PM ET
Save No. 602 cements Mo as No. 1
By Wallace Matthews ESPNNewYork.com
For a team with such a long and proud history of success, there aren't a lot of New York Yankees atop baseball's hallowed all-time records lists.
Babe Ruth was the home run king for more than 40 years, but he's been deposed now for nearly as long. Rickey Henderson, a Yankee for five seasons, is the all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored, but only 326 of his 1,406 steals and 513 of his 2,295 runs came in pinstripes.
But now, there is one Yankee name that sits atop an all-time records list and viewed from the vantage point of a press box seat in 2011, it will probably remain there for a long, long time, and maybe even forever.
Mariano Rivera's 602nd save gave him sole possession of the top position in a category that has become vital to the modern game, and, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi said last week, "put the final stamp on him as the greatest closer of all time," as if he needed the mundane validation of a number.
(He is also the all-time leader in the relatively new metric of "Adjusted ERA+" with a career score of 205, dwarfing his runner-up, Pedro Martinez, at 154).
But having that number gives Mariano Rivera more than just quantitative validation of his greatness as a closer. It also cements his claim to another rightful position, that of Greatest Yankee of His Era.
Because unlike Rickey, every one of those 602 saves, and probably every one that follows, has been earned as a Yankee, for the benefit of the Yankees.
And unlike other individual accomplishments, particularly in offensive categories, every one of Mariano's saves necessarily resulted in what is undoubtedly the most meaningful stat of all -- a win for his team.
I realize that many will lean toward Derek Jeter, who since 1996 has been the face of this franchise and a leader to rival Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle, as the greatest Yankee of our era. He has publicly represented this team as well as anyone could hope to while playing and living in the glare of the unforgiving media spotlight of New York City.
And it is pretty much impossible to quantify the relative worth of a closer versus a shortstop, or to determine how many championships the Yankees would have won between 1997 and 2010 with a closer other than Mariano Rivera. Or, more likely, a series of closers, since other than Trevor Hoffman, the great former San Diego Padres closer Rivera just eclipsed, how many other men have been able to perform this job at this level for this amount of time?
The answer, of course, is none.
But as great as Jeter has been and is -- and 3,000 hits is as much an undisputed stamp of greatness as 600 saves -- there has not been one minute of his extraordinary career when he was considered the best player at his position for any particular season, let alone for all time.
With Mariano, it is hard to remember a moment when he wasn't.
And now, in his 17th season, it has become routine for men so cautious they would be reluctant to admit the earth revolves around the sun to declare Mariano Rivera the G.O.A.T., an acronym coined by Muhammad Ali that stands for -- you guessed it -- Greatest of All Time.
Which player, in any sport, has dominated his position for as long as Mariano Rivera has?
Asked if he could come up with another athlete in any sport so universally agreed to be the best to have played his particular position in the history of his sport, Mark Teixeira suggested, and then quickly dismissed, both Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky.
"Now there are arguments over Jordan versus LeBron, and in 10 or 15 years there might be arguments over Gretzky and Sidney Crosby," Teixeira said. "But with Mo, there simply is no argument."
Asked how long he thought Rivera's saves record would last, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, flatly, "Forever. It will never be done again. No one can have the type of success that he's had on a yearly basis for as long as he's done it and stay healthy. It's just not gonna happen again."
Saving an average of 40 games per year for 15 years is comparable, and in ways superior, to averaging 200 hits or 40 home runs a season for the same time period simply because just about every day, a batter gets four more chances to do it.
A closer, by the nature of the job and the game, may not get a chance for three days, four days, a week. Or, he may appear to have a chance only to see it evaporate just before he's about to go into the game, or he can be dozing off in the bullpen when suddenly, the game gets close enough to require his services.
So much more of what he does depends on the performance of his team and his teammates. A bad team isn't going to afford many save opportunities. A very good team, in the habit of winning games by wide margins, may not, either.
So to perform at the level Rivera has for so long has required not only talent but a heightened level of preparedness and an ability to achieve superior focus and concentration, sometimes at literally a moment's notice.
Rivera's value to the Yankees has run far deeper than simply the ability to get the last three outs of a game. Just the specter of him in the bullpen causes teams to alter their entire approach to game, because they know if they aren't leading after eight, odds are they be won't be winners after nine.
This is how likely a team was to beat Mariano Rivera over the past 10 seasons: In 423 save opportunities, he was successful 385 times. He failed 38 times. His success rate was 91 percent. That meant that once James Hetfield began playing the arpeggiated opening line of "Enter Sandman," you had less than a 1-in-10 chance of averting defeat.
"He's the only guy in baseball who can change the game from a seat in the clubhouse or the bullpen," said Alex Rodriguez, an opponent for his first nine seasons and a teammate for the past eight. "He would start affecting teams as early as the fifth inning, because they knew he was out there. I've never seen anyone who could affect a game like that. And in a playoff series, he is by far, for me, the most important weapon any team can have and he's been that way for 16 years."
During spring training, I along with several of my colleagues at ESPNNewYork.com was assigned the task of ranking the 50 Greatest Yankees of All Time, an assignment about as easy as ranking the 100 best Beatles songs.
My list started predictably enough -- Ruth and Gehrig -- but for No. 3, I chose Rivera. But before I wrote it, I presented my argument to the man himself, who was understandably -- and admirably, I thought -- skeptical.
"Why?" he demanded, regarding me with narrowed eyes.
I explained that every time he came onto the field, the game was on the line, that every one of his appearances was an event that kept the fans riveted to their seats or, more likely, on their feet, and that for the past decade at least, he has been virtually universally regarded as the best at what he does, a distinction few Yankees of any era could claim.
The man heard me out, thought about it for a moment, and then nodded.
"Those are good reasons," he said. "It's a good point of view. Not because it's me, but because of the reasons. I agree with it."
The same way Girardi considers the number 602 to be the rubber stamp on Rivera's claim to all-time greatness, so too do I consider Rivera's agreement to my arguments as the rubber stamp to his standing among his fellow Yankees, past, present and probably future.
In the 100-plus-year history of this organization, there have been scores of great Yankees.
Now, there is one who can indisputably be called the greatest ever to do his particular job: Mariano Rivera, who after 17 years, finally has the number to prove it.