Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Great Rivera

  Mariano Rivera of the Yankees set the all time saves record this week when he saved his 602nd game against the Minnesota Twins on Monday afternoon. Rivera came up as a starter/reliever in 1995 when the Yankees made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and in 1996 became the set up man for closer John Wetteland. He was almost unhittable as a relief pitcher and was a big factor in the Yankees winning the World Series for the first time in 18 years. After 1996, the Yankees cut Wetteland loose and Rivera became the closer and the Yankees haven’t had to worry about that position for the last 15 years, except for rare occasions when Rivera gets hurt and has to miss a week or 2.

  There have been plenty of teams that have won championships with average hitting or average fielding or average starting pitching but I can’t remember a team that has won a championship without a great closer or at least one that is on a hot streak. The great Atlanta Braves teams of the 90’s had 3 ace starting pitchers in Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine but were constantly undone by having closers that were has-been retreads like Alejandro Pena and Jeff Reardon or psychos like Mark Wohlers and John Rocker. The only championship the Braves won was in 1995 when Wohlers didn’t melt down like he did in 1996. The Braves were up 2 games to 1 and had a 6-3 lead in the 8th inning, but Wohlers gave up a 3 run homer to Yankee journeyman Jim Leyritz and was basically finished as a major league closer from then on. By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series with average pitching, average hitting, but the killer bullpen of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton (aka The Nasty Boys). If the Reds had a lead after 6 innings, the game was for all purposes over. The starting pitchers knew they just had to keep their team in the game for 5 or 6 innings, the hitters knew that if the game was close they could win if they just scratched out a run or 2, and their opponents knew that any small mistake in the late innings of a close game would lead to an almost sure defeat.

  In Rivera’s first year as closer in 1997, he blew a save against the Indians to cost the Yankees the playoff series and I wasn’t sure he had the guts to be the closer, but he proved me wrong with clutch pitching to help win the next 3 World Series and has been almost unhittable for another decade after that, even well into his 40’s. Except for a receding hairline, Rivera looks the same as he did 15 years ago. He’s lost 5 miles off his fastball over the years, but has been blessed with great health, pinpoint control, and late movement on his pitches. He also has the one thing a great closer must have, which is a good temperament. Rivera has pitched for the Yankees his whole career. Losing is not tolerated in New York and the pressure is magnified when a blown save will make headlines in all the daily papers. Could you imagine driving to work and turning on the radio to hear people calling in griping about the mistakes YOU made on your job yesterday? A lot of relievers can have a stellar year or 2, but when they hit a slump and attract media criticism, they quickly circle the drain and become a ‘Where are They Now’ question. Rivera has had to deal with slumps and even blowing the World Series in 2001 and yet he still is going strong and I’ve never heard him lash out at the fans or writers like other players do when they hit a slump. Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera just broke, is a great pitcher but he has spent his whole career in San Diego and pitched in just one World Series in which he promptly blew the save in Game three against the Yankees in his only World Series appearance. Who saved the game for the Yankees? Yes, the great Rivera.

  I’m not trying to make light of Hoffman’s accomplishments but the fact is he racked up a lot of his saves in no-pressure situations for the loser Padres and his blown saves made all the difference between his team finishing 4th instead of 3rd and giving the San Diego fans yet another reason to look forward to football season, while Rivera has performed in the crucible of New York for a team where his perfection is not only expected, it is taken for granted.

  Is Rivera the greatest relief pitcher of all time? I'd give him my vote, but but not just based on the counting of saves. Relief pitching has evolved to the point that half of the pitching staff is reserved to get a slim lead after 5 innings to a dominant closer like Rivera. Last week the Yankees lost 2-1 to the lowly Seattle Mariners in 12 innings and Rivera didn’t even play. He was not going to pitch unless the Yankees had a lead with an inning left and only then Rivera would come in to save the game. 40 years ago, the best relief pitcher would come in after the starter and pitch for 3 or 4 innings even if they couldn’t get a save. In the early 70’s the Yankees traded a ham-an-egger 3rd baseman named Danny Cater to the filthy Boston Red Sox for a left handed relief pitcher named Sparky Lyle. It was one of the great steals of the 20th century. As a left-handed pitcher, Lyle was prone to give up big hits to right handed batters off the short ‘Green Monster’ fence in Fenway Park’s left field, but when he moved to Yankee Stadium with its 450 foot left field fence, those big hits became long outs and Lyle became the first true weapon out of the bullpen. But Lyle wasn’t used like relievers today. He would routinely come in when the score was tied or the Yankees were even losing and the bigger the game, the earlier he would come in. From 1972 to 1978, the least amount of innings Lyle pitched was 82.1. By contrast, Rivera has only pitched over 80 innings twice in his entire career (107 in 1996 before he was the closer, and 80.2 in 2001) and Hoffman went over 80 innings in a year 3 times with a high of 90 as a rookie. In 1977 Lyle pitched 137(!) innings in 72 games and was the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the American League. In the current baseball climate the manager and pitching coach would be fired for abusing a pitcher like that but it was par for the course 35 years ago. Lyle’s reward for leading the team to the World Championship at the cost of years off his career was to be demoted to a setup man for Steinbrenner’s new toy, Goose Gossage and his 100 mile an hour fastball. Gossage pitched 134 innings in 1978. Gossage never impressed me as much as Lyle. It seemed to me that a good hitter would always take his fastball and put it in the seats for a home run. I recall George Brett and Kirk Gibson winning some big games against him that way. Lyle had a great slider and I don't remember anyone hitting a big home run off him.

  How many saves could pitchers like Lyle and Gossage have racked up if they had been used the way Hoffman and Rivera were? I don’t know if they would have hit 600 but they surely would have had hundreds more. And I’m not even talking about the other relievers of the 70’s and before. If I had to take one reliever to save a game that my life depended on, I think I’d probably take Lyle since he was a hero of my youth. But my life would also be in good hands with Rivera. He is such a great closer that when I think of him, instead of thinking of all the times he closed out a playoff or World Series game, I think of the shock and disbelief I felt at the handful of times he didn’t get the job done (2001 World Series Game 7, 2004 playoffs against the filthy Red Sox Game 4, 1997 vs. the Indians). I’m lucky that I’ll be able to someday tell my grandchildren that I saw both Sparky Lyle and the great Rivera pitch.