Friends, foes respect Mo's dominance
Closer's consistent track record commands admiration
NEW YORK -- Considering Mariano Rivera's place in history, it's not surprising that high praise filtered down from all corners of the baseball world, both before and after his 500th save. But perhaps no compliment was as pointed as that from an old friend.
Perhaps that means more coming from Wetteland, the closer for the 1996 Yankees when Rivera was the setup man. After that season -- one in which the Yankees won the World Series, thanks in large part to their historically successful bullpen combination -- Wetteland left the team, paving the way for Rivera to become a closer.
The rest, quite literally, is history.
"And to think we considered trading him in the spring of 1996," Rivera's former Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He was pretty special."
Then again, praise seems almost dutiful coming from people like Torre and Wetteland -- those whose success hinged in large part upon Rivera's. But to so many others, Rivera's career seems even more illustrious from afar.
Take Trevor Hoffman, for example -- baseball's all-time saves leader and the only man in history with more saves than Rivera. Hoffman, like Rivera, has always relied on one exceptional pitch -- his a changeup, rather than a cut fastball. And Hoffman, like Rivera, has hardly diminished with age.
Playing in the National League his entire career, Hoffman only saw Rivera up close during All-Star Games and the 1998 World Series, in which Rivera saved three games. But despite saving his 500th game two years ago, Hoffman remains as impressed as anyone in baseball.
"There's a mutual admiration from afar, but I haven't had the opportunities really to touch base with him like we would if we were in the same division," Hoffman said. "I've had conversations with him when we've gone through New York and the last trip there, I had a nice chat with him and just congratulated him on his career, and vice versa. It's a mutual respect."
For fellow pitchers, it's respect. For batters, it's frustration. Once asked which three pitchers he least enjoyed facing, Athletics third baseman Eric Chavez responded: "Mariano, Mariano and Mariano." And his was hardly a novel thought. Rivera, thanks to his cutter, has always ranked among the most difficult pitchers in baseball to hit.
The Mo, the Better
"He's the all-time best," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "No doubt about it. Hats off. This guy is unbelievable, man. He invented a pitch. He mastered a pitch. And that pitch -- it's unbelievable that with one pitch you can do that."
What's unbelievable is that Rivera has recorded 500 saves, and has rarely changed his grip.
"That's pretty amazing," said Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose 130 career saves represent barely more than a quarter of Rivera's total. "The biggest thing that amazes me is that he's done it with a consistency that's pretty much unheard of. He's really never had a down year."
After becoming a full-time closer in 1997, Rivera's worst season came in 2007, when he saved 30 games in 34 chances with a 3.15 ERA.
Again, that was his worst season. It's a somewhat more difficult task to pick out his best one -- arguments could be made for any number of seasons from his rookie year through his most recent campaign. Ask Rivera, and he'll point to his four World Series championship seasons, in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.
Ask others around baseball, and most of them will shrug.
"He's a great pitcher and he's pitching in the greatest pressure in baseball as the closer for the Yankees," former Rays and Indians closer Danys Baez said, days before Rivera recorded his 500th save. "I've been there, and I know exactly what kind of pressure he's facing for all of his career. Those 499 career saves for the Yankees are probably like 800 saves for any other team."
Rivera, of course, has pitched his entire career in New York, under arguably the greatest scrutiny in all of professional sports.
"He's a bulldog," said Marlins reliever Dan Meyer, who earlier this month recorded his first save and called it one of the most difficult tasks of his career. "He's if not the best closer, one of the top two ever. A guy like him, it's amazing. Five hundred is a lot of saves. I barely got through one."
"That's a huge accomplishment," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who -- despite being an MVP -- hasn't recorded a hit off Rivera in six career at-bats. "He's been the best for a long time. I think everyone respects him and is happy for him, and he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Everyone knows how great he is. When he comes in for that ninth inning, you know it's going to be a battle."
So many others around the game offered their praise. Tigers manager Jim Leyland called him "the MVP of baseball" over a stretch of about half a decade. Indians infielder Jamey Carroll said that Rivera has "that one pitch that everybody wishes they had." Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin called him "the ultimate closer."
And that's a tag that carries some weight.
"It's incredible," A's closer Brad Ziegler said. "The longevity, the ability to stay healthy and in such great shape, being basically a one-pitch guy and still dominating -- if you're a late reliever, Mariano is what you aspire to be."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.