Rivera discovered his cutter in 1997 and has followed it down the path to earn four (of his five) World Series rings, sure-fire Hall of Fame credentials and, now, his rightful place atop the all-time saves list.
This would have been a career worthy of celebration regardless of whether Rivera notched No. 602, as he did Monday against the Twins at Yankee Stadium. But the record is an appropriate accomplishment for the man who has come to define the strategic benefit and the tangible threat of closer consistency and accountability.
With all due respect to former saves record-holder Trevor Hoffman, a class act and a role model for all those who had the privilege of sharing a place in the 'pen with him, nobody has dominated the ninth inning quite like Rivera. He might have used those 14 words above to describe his job, but it takes just two words to describe the standard end result when he comes on the scene.
"Game over," former teammate Johnny Damon said. "It doesn't matter who is coming up to bat. He's that good. He's definitely the best of all-time."
That Rivera has pitched in more than 1,000 games for a single team helps establish his legacy. The numbers he's posted within those appearances mold his mystique. The saves total is impressive enough, but Rivera's lifetime 2.22 ERA and 0.999 WHIP -- numbers that most relievers would be proud to post in a single season
-- add to his allure.
"When you're that dominant of a closer," said the Twins' Joe Nathan, who has 260 saves of his own, "you can put up some pretty crazy numbers."
"You know what's coming, but you know what's coming in horror movies, too. It still gets you."
-- Mike Sweeney|
on Mariano Rivera's cutter
Those crazy numbers extend to the postseason, where Rivera's magic has mattered all the more. He's the only man in history to get the last out of a World Series four times, and his record 42 postseason saves (Brad Lidge is second ... with 18) might never be topped. Rivera has compiled a 0.71 ERA over 139 2/3 postseason innings. And it's a testament to his talent that the two moments in which he has actually faltered in that setting -- when Sandy Alomar Jr. hit a game-tying homer off him in Game 4 of the 1997 American League Division Series and when Luis Gonzalez beat him with a bloop RBI single to win Game 7 of the 2001 World Series -- have become the stuff of postseason legend.
Rivera has done all this essentially with a single pitch. He was just three months into his role as closer for the most vaunted, hallowed franchise in the Majors when he suddenly discovered he was no longer able to control the movement on his standard four-seam fastball.
At first, Rivera attempted to correct the issue. Ultimately, he decided to just run with it. And his famous cutter -- a pitch that might as well be named in his honor -- has been dipping and diving and dominating big league hitters ever since. So many others desire deception. Rivera just trusts that pitch and invites the opposition to try to beat him.
"You know what's coming," former Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney once said, "but you know what's coming in horror movies, too. It still gets you."
For Rivera to reach 602 in any market is incredible. But that he's done it in the Bronx, where every loss is given the doomsday treatment on the back pages of the papers and where every blown save is met with a mob of microphones and camera crews, takes the number to another level. Rivera has always maintained his calm and composure, on the mound and off, and he's needed it to not only survive but thrive in a hero-or-goat role in the country's largest media market.
"He's the guy I've looked up to and tried to emulate," Nathan said. "I think he's a guy we should all look up to and try to emulate and mimic everything he does, [because of] the fact that he respects the game and doesn't show people up. He's not a big flashy guy who has to do a bunch of things when he does save a game. He just steps in and acts like he's been there and done that, which he has. There's no better guy to follow in his footsteps."
Can anybody reasonably follow in these footsteps? Doubtful. Hoffman broke Lee Smith's saves record of 478 in 2006, but it was always clear Rivera was right on his heels.
In contrast, no active closer can reasonably be counted on to challenge Rivera's mark of 602 and counting. The role frays too many nerves over time, and the advancements we've seen in scouting and baseball information make it all the more difficult for a reliever whose repertoire, by nature, is already limited to sustain such a level of success over multiple seasons, let alone decades.
"It's one thing to be healthy and make all those appearances," said Indians closer Chris Perez, "and it's another to have your stuff and never really go through a slump and never be asked about getting switched out of the closer's role. It's an incredible number, if you think about it. If you get 50 saves for 10 years, it's still only 500, and that's a pretty good number right there. And 602 doesn't even take into account what he's done in the postseason. It's amazing."
Amazing, yes. Six hundred and two saves. That's an awful lot of success. And an awful lot of showers.