Commentary

Mo's mark, legend won't be matched

You hate to ever say never in sports, but don't expect to see another Mariano Rivera

Updated: September 20, 2011, 8:18 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The fact that everyone knew this record would fall to him sometime did nothing to sap any of the drama.

When the bullpen door swung open, the Yankee Stadium crowd -- the same fans who had just cheered, actually cheered the sight of their own right fielder, Nick Swisher, hitting into an inning-ending double play so the Yanks could get on with what everyone really wanted to see -- was already standing and roaring.

Mariano Rivera's "Enter Sandman" music kicked in on cue. And now here came Rivera jogging out of the bullpen and into a slice of baseball history that no one else is likely to ever reach again.

You hate to ever say never in sports. But when you're looking to bookmark the most unfathomable feats in baseball's record books, Rivera moved into some select company Monday. There's Pete Rose's career hits record of 4,256. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Cy Young's pitching record of 511 wins. And now, Rivera's new record of 602 saves. And that's it. Beyond that, just about everything else seems theoretically vulnerable, if not easily had.

But Rivera's 602 saves? His sub-1.00 ERA in the postseason? No.

"I'd be shocked if it happens again in our lifetime," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Rivera pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to close out the Yanks' 6-4 win over the Minnesota Twins. "The postseason is what sets him apart."

And here's why: There isn't a lonelier or tougher job in baseball than the closer role that Rivera has handled for so long. And though his Yankees teammates didn't script it or plan it, they came up with the most perfect, snapshot tribute to the man possible after he picked up his 602nd save and moved past Trevor Hoffman for the all-time career lead. One by one, the other Yankees congratulated and hugged Rivera and then began to slip off to his left until -- to Rivera's surprise -- he found himself standing all alone on the mound as the ovation for him roared on and on. And on.

Rivera tried to walk off. Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez told him no, no. You stay.

The roaring crowd still wouldn't leave. Rivera wasn't allowed to leave. And when he looked to the other dugout, the Twins were still all there too, standing and applauding for him.

"He's got, what, 300 of those saves against us, right?" Twins manager Ron Gardenhire joked before the game. Then Gardenhire smiled impishly and sighed, acknowledging it's only seemed that many.

The ending that Rivera put on Monday's game was typical Rivera -- quick, sharp and ruthlessly efficient -- and yet it never gets old or less full of wonder, no matter how many times you've seen it. He coaxed a groundout, a flyout to right, and then broke Trevor Plouffe's bat on strike two before slipping a called third strike by him. It was a cutter. What else?

Girardi, certainly not the most laid-back guy you'll ever meet, talked later about the "peaceful" feeling he gets when Rivera comes into the game, and Posada raved about how neither he nor Derek Jeter nor Joe Torre would have the niche in Yankees history that each enjoys if it weren't for Rivera, the most irreplaceable Yankee of their time.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Debby Wong/US PresswireWill another closer ever match Mariano Rivera's 602 saves (and counting)? Don't hold your breath.

"We don't get to the playoffs, we don't win the championships, we don't do all the things we were able to do without this guy," Posada said. "Nobody is ever going to get even close to him. There are just so many intangibles you have to achieve."

Rivera was uncomfortable hearing it, of course. He was asked after the game if he was prepared now to call himself the greatest closer of all time now that the numbers match what the anecdotal evidence has always said, but he demurred and said, "You know that's not me.

"I don't consider myself the greatest. I consider myself a man blessed."

Rivera might not have been needed at all Monday if Yankees starter A.J. Burnett hadn't seemed about to cough up the 5-1 lead the Yankees had staked him to through four innings. He wasn't able to get out of the fifth even though he was facing an injury-decimated Twins lineup that featured seven hitters who had spent time in the minors this year. And then, rather unbelievably, Burnett had the gall to gripe about Girardi pulling him after he faced three batters in the fifth and gave up three hits, including a homer, to bring the tying run to the plate.

"Heaven forbid I give up a couple hits," Burnett griped.

It was the only downbeat note on a day that even Swisher -- whom Posada and Rivera said they felt "bad" for after the crowd cheered the sight of him making an out -- laughed about in the end. Swisher said it took him a moment to understand why the crowd was cheering that eighth-inning double play he smashed into, "Until I looked at the bullpen and saw Mariano warming up and said, 'Oooh.'"

Laughing again now, Swisher added, "Greatest double play of my life!"

Laughed Rivera: "I thought, 'This crowd is crazy.'"

Rivera dislikes talking about himself almost as much as he hates giving up leads or hits. But as he sat on the dais in the press room after the game with his three sons by his side, he said he was alternately happy and proud and relieved this day was over. He said he felt uncomfortable talking about himself when, "There's so much left in this season to do. ... Thank God this is over."

Then, for the first time in memory, the 41-year-old Rivera also talked at length about being able to see the end of the line in his career.

He said it gets harder to leave his family behind and stay at the level he's used to pitching at year after year.

"Spring training this year, these guys here almost didn't let me go," Rivera said, looking at his sons.

Told now that Posada noted his 43 saves this year and estimated he could pitch another three or four more years, Rivera dropped his head, sagged his shoulders and groaned he'd like to know how.

"Guys, it's hard out there -- I already have no hair left," Rivera laughed. "I cannot fool hitters, I have no muscles, no [intimidating] beard -- what can I do?"

If Rivera had to explain his success -- his unparalleled calm under pressure, his ability to handle a job with arguably the narrowest margin of error in all of sports better than anyone ever has -- he'd say all of this happened because, "I know the tools the good Lord has given me are enough."

Rivera repeated now that he can see a day -- and not all that far off -- when he'll say enough and go home.

"At some point I have to move on, I have to continue my life," Rivera said. "Baseball will move on without me. There will be other guys that close games. And I will be watching."

But whenever that happens, what Rivera may finally see is what everyone else already does: Closers come and closers go in all of baseball history. But there's only ever been one Mo.

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