Former stars in awe of Mo's career, farewell
Past big league giants turn to superlatives in describing closer's accomplishments
Jim Thome never gave in at the plate. And why should he have? Taking command during each at-bat resulted in 612 career home runs, not to mention 1,699 RBIs, a career .956 OPS and, most likely, a plaque in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible for consideration.
No matter who the pitcher was, he stood his ground.
Unless that pitcher happened to be Mariano Rivera.
"I faced a lot of guys in my career, and ... I was always the guy. I tried to control the box. I tried to dig in. I wanted to create an aura when I got in the box that it was mine," Thome told MLB.com.
"Well, with Mariano, it was the reverse. I was backing off. Or I was up. And if you get up on the plate, then you're done. I can envision it in my mind right now. His cutter's coming in and you're thinking, 'OK, OK, OK.' And then those last inches, it just bites on the trademark on the bat or on your knuckles. I can envision what his cutter looks like and to me it's singlehandedly the most devastating pitch I've faced."
Brad Lidge earned 18 career postseason saves. Nobody has more.
Except for Rivera, of course, who nailed down 42 postseason victories for the Yankees.
"I felt like I was in the postseason all the time in my career. I was extremely lucky to be on great teams. But I'm like so far behind him it's crazy," Lidge told MLB.com. "There's a bunch of us [Dennis Eckersley, Jason Isringhausen, Robb Nen, Mark Wohlers] gapped up, and then there's him. It doesn't even seem like he's playing the same game we're playing because of how far ahead he is of everybody else in the postseason."
Former big league stars like Thome, Lidge, Eckersley and John Franco aren't easily impressed. They're used to being the best of the best. But even they grasp for superlatives when talking about Rivera, whose illustrious career ended with the Yankees' final game Sunday. Even they marvel at his longevity and consistency.
Franco knows as much as anybody about the special pressure of being a closer in New York. He spent most of his career with the Mets while piling up 424 saves, fourth all-time and the most by a left-hander.
"He's just a special guy, man. A special person. These types of players come along [rarely]. And Mariano was one of those. He just had a special makeup where, year in and year out, he was at the top of the game. And not only that, he did it in a city where every game is tooth-and-nail and they watch what you're doing," Franco said to MLB.com.
Eckersley was struck by how Rivera's composure during his farewell tour this season matched the way he handled even the most nerve-wracking ninth-inning situations when a game, or even an entire season, might be on the line.
"He must be exhausted, you know? I've been amazed at how he's handled himself his whole career, so calm and collected, the whole Sandman thing. ... I just saw him the last trip in Boston. All the ceremonies, all the accolades, meeting with fans and still having to pitch. I don't know, it's beyond me. I'd have a hard time pitching after that many ceremonies," the Hall of Famer said.
"I don't think there's been that many people who have gotten the accolades for a career that he has. I went through that with Ozzie Smith one year in St. Louis, with Reggie Jackson one year. I was even there with Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] 30 years ago. And I don't think anything even touches what they did for Mariano. To me, it says everything. He's special. It's more for him than what he even did. It's about the person -- that's what they're celebrating."
As a hitter, Thome still has a hard time believing Rivera could have had so much success throwing basically one pitch. Even though everybody knew what was coming, they still had a devilishly difficult time hitting it.
"It's amazing to me how he's gone about getting guys out with one pitch," Thome said. "It might single-handedly be the best accomplishment in baseball. He's the most devastating one-single-pitch pitcher that I've ever faced in my career. Hands down. And I've faced some great ones.
"I always heard this about him. He'll throw to your feet. And then when he sees guys starting to back off, then with two strikes he'll throw that backdoor cutter that's out over the plate and it freezes you. Because here he is throwing a lefty in, in, in, in, in. And you're backing off and he throws -- boom -- on the outer half and you're done. You're just done."
"It surprises me, but you know what? Location, location, location," Franco said in agreement with Thome. "He was great in locating that cutter and then he'd run that ball up to the top. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was so cool out there. That's why he's the greatest."
As a closer, Lidge shakes his head at how Rivera was able to be so consistently good for so long.
"He's a once-in-a-lifetime player, I think," Lidge said. "Maybe even once in the history of baseball. And I would say this: I have absolutely no doubt there has never been, and there will never be, anyone close to as good as he was. Because it's baseball. You can't do what he did for 20 years. I mean, you just can't do it. I don't know how he did it. I don't believe it's physically possible for anyone else.
"When closers come up and they throw hard and they do really well for the first few years, every single one of them at some point will face a time when his velocity will go down and they'll have to come up with other stuff. Some can do that fairly successfully. Some can't. I know when my velocity went down I had a real hard time competing just because I only had a fastball-slider. But Mariano's velocity and the pitch he throws, it's not really a factor for him. To think that that's physically what he was able to do, no one will be able to do that again.
"And I would also say this: I think he is one of the top 10 most valuable players in the history of baseball. It's very hard, obviously, to compare him to a Mickey Mantle or somebody like that because he doesn't play every day. But when you think about what he meant to the Yankees franchise and how many World Series they won when he was there and how, in my opinion, they wouldn't have been able to do it if he wasn't the guy at the end of the game. Maybe they would have won half of them. Then you kind of realize [how integral he was]. It would be hard to mention him in the same breath as a Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. But in terms of value to a team, I think he's as valuable as anybody who ever played."
Thome made one other concession to Rivera. If a hitter is going well, he tends to use the same bat. It just makes sense. But if he was facing Rivera, the slugger would often leave his gamer in the rack.
"I never wanted to take my best bat that I used," Thome explained. "Because I knew it might be done."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. Enterprise editor Mark Newman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.