12/30/11 12:00 PM EST
King of the hill: Mo notches No. 602 in '11
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Two fingers splayed over the top, slightly inward, more pressure on the middle finger, a thumb tucked underneath. Mariano Rivera wasn't the first to throw a baseball this way, but a strong case can be made that he's the best to ever try.
Rivera's famous pitch has the 42-year-old closer on a collision course with Cooperstown, a Hall of Fame candidacy that was only strengthened in September, when he surpassed Trevor Hoffman to become baseball's all-time saves leader.
Zipping a called third strike past the Twins' Chris Parmelee, Rivera closed out a Monday-afternoon makeup game at Yankee Stadium and recorded the 602nd save of his storied career.
"That means you're old," Rivera said with a grin. "Definitely, it means you have to pitch. ... I have done it for 15 years. It's a blessing. I never thought that I'd be doing this for so many years and be able to accomplish the record."
Already widely regarded to be the best closer in history, Rivera confirmed his standing at the top of the heap. He entered the 2011 season needing 42 saves to tie Hoffman -- a coincidence that was lost on no one -- and finished a 44-save campaign with a total of 603.
"I think it just puts the final stamp on it: He's the greatest closer of all time," manager Joe Girardi said. "I don't want to take anything away from Trevor Hoffman, but when you've been around Mo as long as I have, you've seen a lot of special things."
That means Rivera will head into the 2012 campaign with only his own record to topple, and the man who broke in as a fresh-faced starter in 1995 and began his march to the top with a save on May 17, 1996, says that he'll know by the end of Spring Training if more years are in the works.
"He deserves all the accolades he gets," Derek Jeter said. "He did something no one else has been able to do. The impressive thing is, he's got more in the postseason. That's what separates him from everyone else."
Oh, right, those. En route to five World Series championships, Rivera has appeared in 96 career postseason games -- 41 more than any man in history -- and has notched an all-time low 0.70 ERA, saving an all-time record 42 contests.
It seems very unlikely that Rivera's mark will be challenged any time soon. Francisco Cordero, 36, is first among active pitchers, with 327 saves; 38-year-old Jason Isringhausen is second among active relievers, with 300 saves; and 29-year-old Francisco Rodriguez is third, at 291.
"It's a number that I really don't think we'll see someone surpass, not in our lifetimes," Girardi said. "I really don't."
On the afternoon Rivera passed Hoffman, his teammates ensured that the soft-spoken closer would truly stand alone. After exchanging hugs and handshakes on the mound, the players roster retreated, leaving Rivera at the center of the big ballpark in the Bronx.
"The reception was wonderful. It was outstanding," Rivera said. "I could not ask for something different. For the first time in my career, I'm on the mound alone -- there's nobody behind me, nobody in front of me. I can't describe that feeling. It was priceless."
Alternating between doffing his cap and stretching his arms as if to say, 'What now?' Rivera was left to witness the adulation of the fans, many of whom have cheered his journey from the beginning in the only uniform Rivera has worn -- and likely will ever wear.
"Mo is special," said Jorge Posada. "It's not about what he brings to this field. Overall, he is a special man. His heart is humongous. Nothing surprises me. We don't get to the playoffs, we don't win championships, we don't do a lot of things that we were able to do without this guy."
A devout Christian, Rivera often thanks God for helping him discover the cutter, which he says materialized one day while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza. But even in 1994, when they were teammates on the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Posada could tell Rivera was special.
"There was something extra on that fastball that nobody else had, the life coming out of his hand, his makeup," Posada said. "Everything that he's been doing here, we saw it down there."
A key to Rivera's success has been his pinpoint control, which he honed tossing rocks as a youth in Panama. And he uses that control to keep his place among the Yankees' prime pranksters, often flicking sunflower seeds or wads of gum at unsuspecting teammates with deadly accuracy.
That translated to the mound, of course; Girardi said all that the catchers usually had to do was put down a location and wait for Rivera to hit that spot. The pitch was especially murder on left-handed hitters, boring inside at the last possible moment.
"I remember Rafael Palmeiro saying one day, 'I don't know why they send me up here. The only place I can hit it hard is foul,'" Girardi said. "And that's one of the greater hitters we saw in our lifetime. That's how good his stuff was."
And except for nature taking its course and deleting a few miles per hour from his offerings, the 12-time All-Star's poise and command remain outstanding. Rivera may be committing only to 2012, but the Yankees hope his timeless show will continue for years to come.
"Everything about Mariano is amazing," Alex Rodriguez said. "He's synonymous with greatness and the Yankees. A hundred years from now, they'll be saying, 'We all saw the greatest closer of all-time.' I'm like you guys; I'm just witnessing history."