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07/16/06 4:18 PM ET

Rivera: A legend who walks among us

Most reliable closer in baseball history made mold for position

Not too long ago, in Boston, a question was asked and Mariano Rivera bared his teeth. He defined himself.

Jonathan Papelbon, the young accidental Red Sox closer, had already been torching the American League for a few weeks. And, so, Rivera was asked whether he was stimulated by the chance to stride onto Main Street to draw on the youngster, if he felt any motivation to prove to him who's still the boss.

Rivera is a quiet, serene man. But lightning bolts almost shot from his eyes.

"I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I've been doing this long enough," Rivera said, evenly but forcefully. "He's the one who has to show me. You've got to do it longer than a month. You've got to do it year after year, then we know what you have."

That was competitiveness flashing and pride talking, two-thirds of the composite that makes Rivera the greatest, most reliable closer in baseball history. The other third, naturally, is that rubbery right arm, the origin of those cutters that snap bats and cross eyes.

In Mo Rivera, the Yankees and their fans know what they have, of course. They have an original. A legend who walks among us.

All the other legends have been long canonized, and current Yankees generations try to remain faithful to the tradition at catcher (Yogi Berra), the outfield (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio), first base (Lou Gehrig), the rotation (Whitey Ford), and so on.

There is no one for Rivera to live up to. He is creating the mold. The footprints will be his. The former club record for career saves, held by Dave Righetti, was 224, a number Mo could easily double.

Heaping praise based on saves totals should trigger bells, whistles and alarms. Saves have been devalued by a modern game in which they've become routine. The save is the penny in the currency of baseball; useful, but far too common to be prized.

But, then, there is that rare coin ...

Three relievers beat Rivera to the 400-save plateau. The fire marshal has his eyes on the 300 club, with Billy Wagner recently becoming its 20th member, a mere 24 years after Rollie Fingers founded that fraternity.

To lump Rivera in with all those is like saying you have biked as many miles as has Lance Armstrong. Yes, but they weren't quite the same miles.

Rivera has the testimony of numbers, to be sure. His records roll by like a long-running joke. Others have a statistical line in the Baseball Encyclopedia, Rivera has a statistical lie.

Five times, he has logged 40-plus saves with an ERA below 2.00. Starting in 2001 and through 2005, just to refute any concept of age advancing on him, he issued a total of 63 unintentional walks and struck out 333. Across the same stretch, he allowed only 16 homers in 354 1/3 innings.

As Rivera approached save No. 400, he was also approaching the anniversary of the last home run he had given up, on Aug. 16, 2005, to the Devil Rays' Eduardo Perez. The last bomb he had allowed at Yankee Stadium, where he is the main peacekeeper, was virtually trivia -- it had come on April 5, 2005.

But, with him, it has never been quantity, but quality. Not what, but when.

No one ever has nailed as many critical saves as has Mighty Mo. His first saves, albeit then only as a temporary stand-in for an injured John Wetteland in 1996, came on the Yankees' way to a World Series title.

And every single save since has paved roads into postseasons. None were cosmetic. All were pressure-packed. Most held Bombers' seasons in the balance.

This spectacular track record is what makes him unique, and what will become his legacy. Fingers' performance for five consecutive Oakland division winners raised him above the crowd and made him the first Hall of Fame closer, just as Dennis Eckersley's three-peat with the A's and Bruce Sutter's 1982 triumphs in St. Louis ultimately ushered them into Cooperstown.

Might Mo has been there 10 straight years.

Of course, once Rivera alights in the playoffs ... forget it. A stage for the game's ultimate, and still not a fair fight. Thirty-four saves, an 8-1 record, an ERA of 0.81 in 72 appearances and 112 innings.

He has stared down the monsters of October, and never blinked.

Monsters? Ask Mitch Williams about them.

Oh, Rivera has lost. But he hasn't been beaten. The Arizona Diamondbacks took it away from him in the last gasp of 2001, but besides giving him a big loss, Luis Gonzalez's torturously weak liner also gave him a purpose.

We have long forgotten that Rivera, deeply and sincerely religious, once pledged to retire following the 2004 season and enter the seminary. But when that juncture arrived, he re-upped with the Yankees for further chances to finish off the job he left undone in 2001.

This quality -- and that cutter and fiery disposition -- is what separates Rivera.

The hunger ... "It's nothing you work on, just something you feel," Mo says. "You have to have that. It's much more of a challenge than the physical part."

The young Boston stud bows to him. But, at the same time, puts him on a bull's-eye, not a pedestal.

"What I take from him is his professionalism," Papelbon says. "He goes out there day in and day out.

"Certainly, when it comes to closers, he set the standard and the tone. It's what you expect of closers now. He's the kind of guy you go after. He's known as the best in the game. For me to be the best, I have to beat the best."

Had Mighty Mo been in the room to hear that, he would have scolded the kid. Reminded him that to be the new best, he'd have to not only beat him, but also outlast him. That's the really hard part.

"If I said, yes, when I first became a closer, I thought about doing this so long, I'd be lying," Rivera says. "I was just happy to be in the big leagues. I never even imagined doing this for so many years."

So long, so well. Such a gentle, pious man, with such a potent, will-breaking pitch. Joe Torre sees it in his eyes every time he hands him the ball: a fire only tears of triumph can extinguish.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.