And that brings us back to Rivera's essentially perfect vocational situation -- closing games for the New York Yankees. Perfect synergy takes place here. You could argue that without the Yankees, Rivera could not possibly have had the 600 saves and the place atop the all-time list of closers. But you could also argue that without Rivera, the Yankees might not have been the same Yankees, the team with five World Series championships won with Mariano Rivera playing a major role.
There is no question that the Yankees present the proper, fundamental framework for a closer by simply winning games. There are plenty of times when the Yankees win by too many runs and no save opportunity occurs. But for the most part, the Yankees have been closer-friendly, winning season after season, and for the enhancement of the closer's career, they are essentially a perennial postseason participant. At that level, the saves don't count for the closer's lifetime total, but the exposure he receives is irreplaceable.
But could the Yankees be the Yankees without Mariano Rivera? When Joe Torre was managing the Bronx Bombers, he was once asked why his club had so much success on the road. There were numerous ways the manager might have gone with his response, but he focused on this one way:
"With Mariano, we don't fear the bottom of the ninth."
Exactly. With Mariano Rivera, the Yankees can be fearless. The time of greatest opportunity for the opposing home team -- the last at-bat, the one that could be unanswered -- suddenly transforms into another save for Rivera, another road victory for the Yankees.
By now, what sets Rivera apart from the population of mere-mortal closers is not only success, but durability. Elsewhere, relief pitchers come and relief pitchers go; closers have superior seasons and then flame out. Maybe they'll come back for a season or two, maybe they won't. But Rivera and his cut fastball don't fade away. At age 41, Rivera has lost a bit of velocity, but none of his trademark effectiveness.
His career WHIP is 1.00, but the last three-plus seasons, it has been below 1.00. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 4.04, which would be wonderful enough. But over the last three-plus seasons, it has been 5.73.
And of course, none of this covers the area where Rivera's preeminence has been even more obvious, the postseason. That would include 94 appearances, 76 games finished, 42 games saved, an ERA of 0.71 and an 8-1 record.
The 2001 World Series stands as one of the most entertaining in the history of the game. But one of the aspects that makes this Fall Classic stand out is the fact that Rivera lost Game 7. It was unusual to the point that is was seen as an event so rare that it seemed to be at the very outside edge of possibility.
Yes, Rivera benefited from being a member of baseball's most successful franchise. And his timing was typically impeccable. He came to prominence in the mid-1990s. Power hitting was ruling the game and managers, in an effort to counter this trend, resorted to greater specialization in their bullpens. Bullpen roles were more closely defined, relief outings were generally shortened. Other pitchers struggled, but it was an ideal situation for Rivera.
But if there were external forces at work on his behalf, from team to timing, Mariano Rivera succeeded primarily because he was Mariano Rivera. The Yankees gave him save opportunities and postseason opportunities aplenty. But Rivera's success ultimately occurred through a combination of his singular ability and his fierce competitive will. He was at the top of the class well before now. Save No. 602 will simply make that status official.
He was in the right place at the right time with the right team. But Mariano Rivera was, more than anything else, exactly the right man for this job.