BY Dennis Glade
---- — Goodbyes are never easy no matter the situation. In sports, saying goodbye is different with every athlete or coach. Fans of teams get attached to the point that they know the athlete and have a personal connection — social media has only made this connection even stronger. There is no classier athlete than Mariano Rivera — even Red Sox fans respect him.
For a couple of years now, the baseball world has known Rivera was planning on walking away from the game he has dominated for nearly two decades. The last five months have been a joy to see Rivera get a gift from every team the Yankees visited and we also were honored to see him go out of his way to talk to the people who work behind the scenes at each ball park and just have a nice conversation with them. Ultimately that's who Rivera is — a great man.
Thursday night's game was supposed to be a meaningless September game in the Bronx with all in attendance wanting to see a Yankee win, but more than anything wanting to get a glimpse of No. 42 one last time. Rivera got four outs and was taken out of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, but there was a twist. Yankee manager Joe Girardi made the last second decision to have long time Yankee greats Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter come out to the mound and remove Rivera from a game at home for the final time.
What ensued was such an emotional scene you would have thought it was the climax of an Oscar-winning major motion picture. As Pettitte and Jeter approached the mound, Rivera lost it. He gave Pettitte a giant hug as 20 years of memories flowed through his body and he began to cry. These weren't ordinary teammates. The three Yankee greats at the end of their career have known each other for two decades and delivered five championships since 1996. Along with Jorge Posada, they were nicknamed the "Core Four." They are a group that baseball will never see again.
Along with being a great man, he is without question the greatest reliever in baseball history. He holds the record for most saves in Major League Baseball history with 652 saves and a 2.21 career ERA, which is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings pitched. What separates Rivera from every other reliever is his postseason resume, but that isn't good enough for some people. ESPN's Jim Caple wrote a piece this week about how Rivera is overrated, because he plays a position that is overvalued. His premise is that the most important outs are often in the seventh or eighth innings. Eric Karabell even listed Rivera's career postseason blown saves to illustrate that Mariano isn't actually perfect.
This is exactly what makes Rivera's postseason resume the best of all time. He's blown five saves in his career in the postseason in 47 chances, which brings his final save total in the second season to 42. Rivera ending his career with that number of postseason saves is a perfect bow on his career given that when he pitches his last inning Sunday in Houston no player will ever wear Jackie Robinson's No. 42. The fact that you can name every one of Rivera's playoff blown saves is a testament to his greatness.
The Sandy Alomar, Jr. home run in Rivera's first year as a closer in the 1997 Division Series. The Luis Gonzalez bloop single gave the Arizona Diamondbacks its only championship and prevented the Yankees from finishing an unprecendented run of four straight championships and five out of six. The Dave Roberts steal, which led to the tying run on a Bill Mueller single in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and Game 5 of that series when Roberts scored the tying run on Jason Varitek sacrifice fly. The only blown save that wasn't anti-climactic and didn't lead to a Yankees loss was in Game 2 of the 2004 Division Series against Minnesota — a team that never could figure out how to beat the Yankees.
Rivera has only surrendered two home runs, while facing 527 batters across 16 different postseasons. It's been 13 years and 309 batters since he last allowed a postseason home run to Jay Payton in the 2000 World Series. Mariano is the only player in any sport in recent memory that will retire as the unquestioned greatest player of all time at his position — if that doesn't scream overrated I don't know what does.
Rivera debuted as an unimpressive starting pitcher in 1995, but the next 18 years seem to have gone by so quickly and now he's gone. He'll never throw another pitch in the home pinstripes again. As a fan you want to see Rivera pitch forever even though you know that's not possible. He might not have been the most important player of the "Core Four" dynasty, but he was certainly the most valuable. The last four championships ended with Rivera getting the final out. In the 2009 playoffs — the last of the five championships — Rivera was the only closer to not blow a save.
Goodbyes are never easy, but Mariano Rivera did it the only way he knows how — with pure class.