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01/11/11 7:42 PM EST

With Hoffman retired, Mo could pass him in '11

NEW YORK -- They answered the same sorts of calls for so many years, closing out save opportunities thousands of miles apart while operating in different leagues.

But you can't succeed in the heat of those high-pressure situations without coming to recognize those who also do it well, and so along the way, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman developed a mutual admiration for one another.

"I respect Hoffman a lot," Rivera said last summer, a day after Hoffman became baseball's first 600-save man. "I admire him, the way he takes care of himself and the way he respects the game. To me, that is precious and worthy of respect."

With Hoffman announcing his retirement from baseball after 18 seasons and a Major League record 601 career saves, Rivera will begin 2011 as baseball's active saves leader with 559 -- plus an all-time best 41 more in the postseason.

Thus, it is possible that Hoffman's claim to the throne might be short-lived. Asked about the possibility of reaching 600 saves himself, Rivera instead applauded Hoffman's accomplishments.

"That's a tremendous milestone," Rivera said. "Lee Smith had [478] saves for a long, long time. Now Hoffman has 600 saves, and that's beautiful. God bless him, and I wish him the best."

Hoffman and Rivera were opponents in the 1998 World Series, and despite their varying styles -- Hoffman relying on his changeup, Rivera on his trademark cutter -- they have developed a friendly relationship and chatted at various All-Star Game functions over the years.

Even with Hoffman no longer in uniform, they'll continue to be linked in the record books, and perhaps one day together in Cooperstown.

But first things first: Rivera is still getting the job done for the Yankees. He recorded 33 saves in 38 opportunities last year, posting a 1.80 ERA along the way, earning a new two-year, $30 million deal with the Yankees.

Rivera, who turned 41 in November, has said that these might be his final two years working out of the bullpen. Then again, as Rivera said in November, "I've been saying that for the last, what, eight, 10 years? But I'm still here."

And the Yankees are banking that Rivera will be able to remain the same dominant force, at least long enough to close the gap between him and Hoffman.

With only 42 saves separating the right-handers, it is possible that Rivera could equal Hoffman this year -- after all, Rivera recorded 44 saves as recently as 2009 and notched a career-high 53 saves in '04.

But even if Rivera doesn't join the 600-save club this season, it seems a safe bet that the 2012 season would be his time, as Rivera has averaged 36 saves over the last five years.

Remaining healthy will naturally be a key, but as evidenced by their non-pursuit of free agent Rafael Soriano this winter, the Yankees have no thoughts of removing Rivera from the closer role anytime soon.

"I don't think about it," Rivera said of reaching 600 saves. "I think there are a lot of things that you don't control, and we sometimes worry too much about it. I don't think like that. If God allows it, that's how it will happen."

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