And now that the Sandman -- Mariano Rivera -- has reached the echelon of a 400-save career, the praise for the Yankees closer has only augmented.
Players may not look forward to facing him and managers may not like their chances against him, but Rivera has earned their genuine respect. It is a league-wide respect that has paved his journey toward greatness.
"That's just the level of respect he gets from guys around baseball," Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan said. "You can walk into any clubhouse and ask anybody and they'll tell you when he comes out on the mound, you've got your hands full."
Ask anyone around baseball and it is nearly a consensus: Rivera has set a new standard for closers.
"To me, he's as good as there has ever been," said Marlins manager Joe Girardi, who caught Rivera from 1995-99 while the two were teammates in New York. "He's had as dominating years as a closer can have. You can look at the year [Eric] Gagne had, that's as good as it got. You look at Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter, who had done it a long time. But I think you can argue Mo has been as dominant as anyone."
Rivera has the numbers to back up Girardi's bold claim. An almost unjust 0.81 postseason ERA in 72 appearances, 34 postseason saves, two postseason MVP awards, seven All-Star appearances, four World Series rings -- and now one of only four men ever to record 400 career saves.
"I think as we've seen over the past however many years, he's set the standard for relievers," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I think it's one of those things where you look out and see him and down the road it's going to be, 'I got a chance to see that guy pitch and he was pretty good.' One of those types of conversations."
Trevor Hoffman hasn't had too many opportunities to watch his fellow member of the 400-save club, but it hasn't stopped the Padres closer from offering praise.
"It's hard not to say enough nice things about the guy for what he's done in his career, to be moving in on 400 saves and all the postseason success he's had," said Hoffman. "To be doing it in the biggest market in the world on the biggest stage in the game, day in and day out ... to handle all that pressure the way he does is pretty remarkable."
For up-and-coming Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, the closer from Panama has been the apex of success. And as Papelbon sets his eyes on the same peak of greatness, he can't help but be humbled by the accomplishments of his division rival.
"He set the tone basically of what is expected of closers now," said the 25-year-old Papelbon. "For me, obviously, that's the kind of guy that I'm going after to try and beat and try and beat records, because he is known as the best in the game right now. For me to go out there and be considered the best, I have to beat the best. That's just the way it is. He set the standard."
Much of Rivera's success has been a byproduct of his ability to dominate with his cutting fastball. It's a pitch that has repeatedly left batters baffled as they leave home plate wondering how, even though they seemingly know what's coming from Rivera's release, they still can't do anything with it.
"He's dominated this game for 10 years with one pitch. One pitch -- a 93-98 mph cut fastball," said Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar, who also witnessed Rivera repeatedly handcuff the Red Sox during his three seasons with Boston. "Until you face it in the batter's box, you don't realize. You watch him from the bench. You watch him on TV. You say, 'Aw man, they just missed it -- just missed it.' But he's dominated the game."
Millar should actually consider himself one of the lucky ones. He has six hits in 13 at-bats against Rivera, a level of success matched only by a select few.
Actually, only six players have more than six career hits off Rivera. And remember, that's cumulative in Rivera's 12 years of Major League service.
Not long ago, members of the A's were asked to name the three pitchers they least enjoy facing. Eric Chavez's answer: "Mariano, Mariano and Mariano."
"His fastball just moves like crazy. I'm 0-for-14 or whatever I am," said Tampa Bay's Jorge Cantu, who actually is only 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Rivera. "It's just unreal. You never know if it's going to go in or outside, the cutter, it's so tough to hit."
"The one thing I respect about Mariano Rivera is that he's been the classiest of the best. He's probably the ultimate in our generation."
-- Kevin Millar,|
on Mariano Rivera
Chicago's Jim Thome echoed Cantu's frustrations and admiration.
"That cutter breaks so late, and it breaks on you, [so] there's not a whole lot that you can do," said Thome, who is 2-for-10 lifetime against Rivera. "When you talk about a guy with the one pitch, I don't want to say it's just one pitch, but the cutter is so devastating. He's a guy that a lot of times when he comes in the game, the game is over."
Add in a dash of impeccable control and a sprinkle of mental toughness to that cutting fastball, and Rivera has mastered the recipe for success.
"Everybody talks about his cutter. It's exceptional, arguably the best in the game," said Washington's Mike Stanton, who was teammate of Rivera's for seven years. "Having a great cutter isn't the only thing. He very rarely misses his spots. He's a freak of nature."
Rivera experimented with the idea of making additions to his pitching repertoire, but it didn't take long for the closer to realize that adding to his toolbox of tricks would be an unnecessary investment.
"He's basically done it with one pitch, a fastball." Girardi said. "I remember everyone saying he needed a slider, so he flirted around with a slider one day against Toronto when we had a big lead. Mike Stanley hit a home run off him, and we said, 'That's the end of that project.'"
But Rivera's success and the respect that has resulted from it isn't merely a result of his cutting fastball. It's a product of Rivera as a man -- religious, respectful, classy.
While few may ever match his bullpen numbers, the same can be said for the way Rivera has carried himself throughout his career. He is a man whose leadership abilities have gained the respect of his teammates. He is one whose professional demeanor has turned the heads of players and managers across both leagues.
"The one thing I respect about Mariano Rivera is that he's been the classiest of the best," Millar said. "He's probably the ultimate in our generation. I think you've got some of these new kids coming up [and] pointing to the sky [after] they strike you out, doing dances and stuff. You watch Mariano Rivera when he saves a big game; he nails it down to [Jorge] Posada and starts shaking hands. That sticks out for me."
The same professional demeanor has made an impression on Rangers shortstop Michael Young.
"I don't like it when he's pitching against us, but he's the most widely respected pitcher in the game," said Young, who is 4-for-15 in his career against Rivera. "He gets it done every year. He doesn't show anybody up, but he saves some huge games for the Yankees."
And the fact he has remained such a humble man in the midst of Yankees fans, who can be some of the harshest baseball critics in the country, has not gone unnoticed.
"If there's an award to give, I'd love to give it to him," said Philadelphia's Tom Gordon, who was a setup man for Rivera from 2004-05 before returning to the closer role with the Phillies this season. "This is a tough game. He's endured all the hardships that come with being a professional athlete and playing in one of the toughest places, and he's survived it."
In a game where numbers are frequently used to define greatness, Rivera has sealed his legacy. In a sport where many players are faultily idolized, Rivera has been a refreshing reminder that baseball is still filled with classy individuals. And on a team in which perfection is expected, Rivera has come as close to it as anyone canonized in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park.
"Four hundred is a big number," Millar said. "I don't care what team you play for. I don't care what you've done. Four hundred is a great accomplishment for him. But other than being a great pitcher, he's one of the best people I've met, competing against him day-in and day-out."