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Hartnett: Ninth will never be the same (Sept. 26)

Briant Hartnett | Wednesday, September 25, 2013


To many Yankees fans, a ninth-inning lead at home means a familiar routine.

The opening strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blare out of the Yankees Stadium loudspeakers as closer Mariano Rivera coolly jogs in from the bullpen to the pitching mound. 

When he reaches the mound, the results vary, but more often than not, the inning concludes with Rivera baffling hitters with his cut fastball and earning another save.

On Sunday afternoon, Yankees fans likely saw this routine for the last time, as Rivera pitched one-and-two-thirds innings in the Yankees’ 2-1 loss to San Francisco. 

Rivera might get another chance to pitch at Yankee Stadium this season, but it’s more likely his next pitch at the House that George Built will be in the next Old-Timer’s Day game. 

With the Yankees five games out of the second wild card spot with only five games left to play, it seems Rivera’s final game will be in the most unceremonious of places, Houston, where his team faces the lowly Astros this weekend.

And just like that, the career of one of baseball’s greatest pitchers and most respected people will come to a close.

I don’t intend to make this column a sappy tribute to Rivera, a player I’ve had the privilege to watch since I first started following the Yankees in the late 1990s. There has been so much fawning over No. 42 as part of his season-long retirement tour that even the most ardent Rivera supporter – and certainly Rivera himself – is embarrassed by all the attention.

But at the same time, if Rivera isn’t worthy of such a tribute, I’m not exactly sure what player is.

Simply put, Rivera has defined the roles and responsibilities of a position that is now one of the most important in baseball.

When Rivera pitched his first major league game in 1995, the term “closer” was not widely used in sports lingo, and Dennis Eckersley had been appointed the first one-inning closer just a few seasons before (other famous early closers like Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers had been used more in the role of short reliever). 

Fast forward to today – almost every team has a designated ninth-inning pitcher, and demand for such players is so high that most of them command salaries equal to those of reliable starting pitchers. 

Over the past 19 years, Rivera has been the primary figure in shaping these perceptions of closers, and he’s done it through consistent excellence.

Just take a look at his numbers. Rivera has 652 career saves, the most in MLB history (Trevor Hoffman is second with 601). He’s saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons and has recorded an ERA below 2.00 in 11 seasons. 

Rivera seems to get even better in the postseason. He has a career postseason ERA of 0.70 and 42 saves in the playoffs. Sure, some of his most notable failures, such as surrendering the World Series-winning hit to Luis Gonzalez in 2001 and blowing two saves in the 2004 ALCS, have come in October, but these failures pale in success to the number of close wins he has secured for the Yankees.

Incredibly enough, Rivera has based much of his success on his signature cut fastball, or cutter. The pitch, which he discovered accidentally during a bullpen session in 1997, runs inside on left-handed hitters, causing enough broken bats that Louisville Slugger might want to send him a thank-you letter.

Despite the pressures of his unique role, Rivera has been the epitome of calm during his career. He’s a player who doesn’t flinch when he gets hit, yet he also doesn’t choreograph a victory dance when he records a save, a lesson many modern closers could learn.

Finally, Rivera’s off-the-field accomplishments are almost as numerous as the list of his career achievements.  He’s donated millions of dollars to his native Panama through his charity, and he’s currently renovating a church in New Rochelle, N.Y

Looking into the future, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Yankees, with their massive payroll, spring for a big-name closer to fill Rivera’s role.

But, regardless who the new closer is, the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium will never be quite the same.