But Rivera is today more than just the most valuable Yankee, the only utterly reliable performer on a pitching staff that has more holes than a two-acre putting green. He is the leading candidate for his first Cy Young Award and, if the Yankees somehow make the playoffs, as good a candidate as there is for the AL MVP award.
That’s not bad for a pitcher who blew two saves out of the box in April and who a lot of people were writing off as finally worn out by Joe Torre’s constant overuse.
Sports are full of stories like Rivera’s, stories about people who were sold short and played long. Johnny Unitas was picked up off a sandlot. The Dodgers took Mike Piazza last in the draft, not because they thought he’d amount to anything but as a favor to Tommy LaSorda. The list is a long one.
With Rivera, it was never a question of talent. He had a good arm. But he had also had shoulder problems in the minors, and then there was that physique, or lack of same. Not yet filled out to the lean 185 pounds he carries on his 6-2 frame today, he looked like the kind of kid who had to run around in the shower to get wet, the kind of kid who didn’t carry enough meat on his frame to weather the rigors of pitching in the big leagues, the kind of kid who would blow out his arm for good in a couple of years and never be heard from again.
A year later, he became John Wetteland’s set-up man, and he did well in that role, throwing 107 innings in 61 outings. But Wetteland was a stud who had saved 74 games in two seasons with New York, and, at 29, looked to be in the prime of his career.
So, when the season ended and the Yankees let Wetteland go as a free agent, a lot of Bomber fans thought that George Steinbrenner’s crack baseball people had lost their collective heads. Sure, Rivera was a good set-up man, maybe the best in the league, but did the team really want to put all its eggs in Rivera’s fragile-looking basket?
No sense wasting words on an answer to that silly question. Since 1997, when Rivera became New York’s closer, there hasn’t been a more consistent reliever in the game. Other closers have had better years — Eric Gagne’s season of two years ago was as good as any anyone has ever had — but no one has been better year in and year out than the player called the Sandman. Last year and the Red Sox notwithstanding, no one has ever been better in the playoffs, where Rivera has compiled a 0.75 career ERA in 70 appearances.
And this year, no one has pitched better and no one has been more valuable to his team. Without Rivera, who blew two saves in April, then nailed down 31 straight before finally blowing another last week (he got the win, though), the Yankees wouldn’t be in the race for the AL East and a wild card. They wouldn’t be in anything except total collapse.
A week ago, the Yankees were down to one healthy starter — Mike Mussina. They’d had 24 pitchers on the roster this year, 14 of whom started at least one game and nine of whom started four or more.
Only twice in the history of the game has a reliever won both the MVP and Cy Young Awards for his league. The last time was 1992, when Dennis Eckersley did it while pitching for Oakland. The other time was 1984, when Willie Hernandez did it as a Detroit Tiger.
His 368 saves are the most in American League history and are good for fifth all-time, 22 behind Hall-of-Famer Eckersley. Pretty good for a skinny kid who wasn’t going to last.
To fully appreciate what Rivera has meant to the Yankees, though, you have to look at what other teams have run through their bullpens during Mo’s nine seasons of dominance.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.