There was only one Mariano Rivera, only one closer who was so good for so long, giving the Yankees a huge advantage and often making for eight inning games.
“Mo burst onto the scene in 1996 and really never ever had a rough year,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who also caught Rivera. “But he never changed. He never changed who he was. He got older, but he never changed. He was extremely humble and was always there for people.”
Rivera, who was celebrated with a monument park dedication on Sunday, made his debut in 1995. His 3 1/3 scoreless innings against Seattle in Game 2 of the ALDS was his first big test in the national spotlight. Then came 1996, when Rivera threw 107 2/3 innings setting up John Wetteland. Because of them, the Yankees were 70-3 when leading after six innings and the World Series returned to the Bronx.
He became the full-time closer in 1997 and became the best, notching 652 saves by the time he retired.
Rivera hadn’t thought about closing but got the role when Wetteland left in free agency.
“I was just happy to do the job that I was doing, especially after the World Series,” Rivera said in a press conference following Sunday’s ceremony.
There were the 1998, 1999 and 2000 titles. There was Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS when Mo pitched three shutout innings between the eighth inning rally against Pedro and Aaron Boone’s walk-off. There was the 2009 postseason, when Joe Girardi was going to get everything he could out of Rivera, and the closer recorded a two-inning save in the ALCS clincher, a two-inning save in Game 2 of the World Series and then got the final five outs of Game 6.
After missing most of 2012, Rivera recorded 44 saves in 2013, and was named AL Comeback Player of the Year in his final season.
Now Rivera is in Monument Park with all the larger than life names that have worn the pinstripes, including Yogi Berra, whom Rivera called his favorite. “Being in that group of men means a lot,” Rivera said.
Considered the best at what he did, Rivera was a 13-time All-Star. “He mastered a craft,” Girardi said.
“You can’t say that very often about someone has a craft mastered in the game of baseball because it’s so difficult.”
Despite all the wheeling and dealing the Yankees were capable of in the offseason, Rivera was locked into his role for a decade and a half. Now here are the Red Sox primary closers from 1997-2013: Heathcliff Slocumb, Tom Gordon, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, Ugueth Urbina, Byung-Hun Kim, Keith Foulke, Jonathan Papelbon, Alfredo Aceves and Koji Uehara.
Something that separated Rivera from other closers was his quiet demeanor. Closers can often be the loud personality or the eccentric. There was John Rocker’s aggression and Jonathan Papelbon’s high-energy act. Rod Beck had the long hair and the fu Manchu. Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley had Hall of Fame mustaches while Al Hrabosky had a fu Manchu and was called “The Mad Hungarian” for good reason. The hilarious Tug McGraw would slap his glove on his thigh after a big save.
The clean-shaved Rivera’s way of a celebration was shaking Jorge Posada’s hand after closing out a Yankees win.
His work should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Girardi said. “I would like to see the person who doesn’t vote for him.”