Noble: Rivera's career is incomparable
It is the good fortune of anyone who has reached a 70th birthday -- or merely a 63rd -- to have been aware of baseball for the better part of 60 years. We haven't seen it all; far from it. We missed the Babe, the Big Train and Big 6, Cy, Ty, Hornsby, Honus and Hubbell; all of Speaker and too much of Spahn, Gehrig and the Gas House Gang, Greenberg and Grove and most of DiMaggio, Feller and Mize. But we've seen so much.
In our lifetimes, we have witnessed the performances of so many of the game's premier players -- from Aaron to Albert, Pete to Pedro and from The Man to Mr. Theodore Ballgame. And, beginning in 1995, we've experienced the grandeur of the incomparable Mariano Rivera.
Without question he belongs in any conversation involving the greats of the game. Earl Weaver wisely said "Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher." True, and Mo is tonight's relief pitcher.
His record 602 saves have something to do with that standing of course, but we all recognize the save as a flawed statistic, barely more legtimate than counting broken bats. To measure the performance of any closer in terms of saves or save percentage is folly. The very role of closer is peculiar, inconsistent with that of any other in the game. No closer can help his team overcome a deficit. A team must avoid losing before it can address winning. So, as dependent as a team is on its late man, he is more dependent on his team to afford him a chance to participate.
Witness Rivera's workdays as he approached Trevor Hoffman's record. He earned his 599th save Sept. 11 and his 602nd eight days later. The Yankees played six games between those dates. And the most deadly final-inning force in the history of the game pitched two innings, two critical innings, but merely two nonetheless. With the division championship still undetermined, the Yankees played 54 innings -- 62 if the first eight innings of their victory Monday are included -- and the great Rivera provided merely six outs of the 186 outs.
None of which is to diminish Rivera in any way. If the flaws in the save rule were eliminated and his work were re-assessed, the disparity between him and any other reliever would be even greater. His mere presence in the bullpen is a game changer, a strategy modifier. And because he has accomplished so much as virtually a one-pitch pitcher, he is a wonder, a phenomenon. Opposing hitters perceive as almost supernatural. And what does that do for their confidence as his cutter is hissing toward the plate?
Rivera seems impervious to defeat. He has failed in so few critical situations that we can identify each and speak of specifics. The genuinely great ones -- he, Rollie, Sutter, Eck and Goose -- have that in common. Had Mo made an accurate throw to second base in 2001, he'd have at least one more postseason zero and the Yankees might have another ring. And then there was Papi and Sandy Alomar Jr. But you don't need two hands to count.
How many players stand unchallenged as having been the best at what they do? Rivera does, despite Hoffman's save total and Eck's body of work.
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And now to finish the opening thought: Using 55 years ("the better part of 60 years") as my frame of reference, I nominate these players as the best at what they did, as the elite at their positions, acknowledging that I hold defense in higher regard than many of my colleagues seemingly do:
|First base||Albert Pujols||Keith Hernandez||Pujols|
|Second base||Roberto Alomar||Alomar||Alomar|
|Third base||Mike Schmidt||Brooks Robinson||Schmidt|
|Shortstop||Alex Rodriguez||Ozzie Smith||Rodriguez|
|Left field||Ted Williams||Barry Bonds||Williams|
|Center field||Willie Mays||Andruw Jones||Mays|
|Right field||Henry Aaron||Roberto Clemente||Aaron|
|LH pitcher||Warren Spahn||Jim Kaat||Spahn|
|Sandy Koufax||Bobby Shantz||Fernando Valenzuela|
|Whitey Ford||Harvey Haddix||Gary Peters|
|RH pitcher||Bob Gibson||Greg Maddux||Gibson|
|Tom Seaver||Gibson||Don Newcombe|
|Maddux||Phil Niekro||Don Drysdale|
|Best players||Mickey Mantle||Mark Belanger||Mantle|
|Omitted||Ken Griffey Jr.||Griffey Jr.||Griffey Jr.|
|Frank Robinson||Paul Blair||Rickey Henderson|
|Dave Winfield||Bill Mazeroski||Tony Oliva|
|Yogi Berra||Mike Cameron||Miguel Cabrera|
|Joe Morgan||Luis Aparicio||Dick Allen|
|Barry Larkin||Omar Vizquel||George Brett|
|Eddie Mathews||Jim Sundberg||Harmon Killebrew|
|Dave Parker||Curt Flood||Duke Snider|
|Tony Gwynn||Rey Ordonez||Willie McCovey|
|And in closing||Mariano Rivera|
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.