The Other Yankee Chasing History

In case you missed it, Derek Jeter was busy embarking on a quest for 3,000 hits earlier this season. Believe it or not, this was actually quite a big deal for a while. Questions emerged as to whether Jeter could manage to get this milestone at home, as well as what kind of hit would it end up being. Sure enough, for hit number 3,000, he walloped a David Price offering into a delirious mob in the left field box seats, stunning all who saw. He also went 5-for-5 and won the game with a single in the eighth. Baseball rejoiced. The end.

The moment was and is without question destined to be the singular highlight of the 2011 New York Yankees season and perhaps the MLB season, as well. After all, Derek Jeter, with his smooth yet gregarious personality, leadership, class, and ability to get clutch hits, owns New York. He has become an icon that transcends the sport. And yet over the past 17 years, he has not made the single greatest impact on the team as far as winning is concerned.

That honor belongs to the greatest closer of all-time, the Hammer of God, baseball's last No. 42, Mariano Rivera. Funny how someone with a nickname and reputation like that gets overlooked from time to time in the shadow of Jeter. Rivera's legacy should outshine Jeter's in the public eye, but it won't. In the same manner, his quest for history has been all but swept under the carpet.

You see, we consider him the greatest closer of all-time, but technically he has not quite claimed his rightful place atop the list yet. Rivera is currently second all-time in career saves, the statistic most important to all closers, with 588 (somewhere Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro are smiling that it's not 589 after last Sunday night's comeback). The record for most saves is held by one Trevor Hoffman, who retired after the end of last season. Hoffman hung on just long enough to break 600 and finished at 601. His number will be retired in a ceremony in San Diego on August 21.

The soft-spoken, wiry man from Panama with the placid demeanor has a solid chance to steal Trevor's thunder later this season, as he needs only 14 saves with 49 games remaining. He will stand alone as the greatest milestone any closer could ever have and yet it does not seem to compare to Derek Jeter reaching 3,000 hits, which, while a great accomplishment, has been done 27 other times, and the all-time record of 4,256 hits is still in another stratosphere.

To be fair, the idea of a closer as we know it has only existed in its current incarnation since the 1970s. No one exactly racked up saves before that time, and thus there are less great closers to pass on the way to that record-breaking save. For that reason, the record may not be as glamorous or as hallowed as a century-old hitting milestone. Yet this is an increasingly growing and relevant role in the success of any baseball franchise.

The proof of Rivera's relevance to the Yankees' five world championships during his tenure lies in the fact that he took the mound and finished four of those five World Series clinching games, three of them for saves, and pitched 2 scoreless innings in the one he didn't close out in 1996. As great as Jeter is, he is still a singles hitter, generally not feared by opposing pitchers unless there are runners on base in a close game. For Rivera, the fear of opposing hitters exists even before he enters the game. Teams try to score the tying run before Rivera can come into the game to close it down. If they cannot, often there is a demoralizing effect, and thus an easy save for Mo.

Just as Jeter's quest for 3,000 hits lead to a great deal of reflection on everything he has done throughout his career, so too are there many memories to celebrate in the career of Rivera. The paradox is that Rivera has been so solidly consistent over the years that his few defeats in the big spot are more vivid and memorable than most of his victories. With that said, it's very difficult to imagine the Bombers winning any playoff series without Rivera on the mound to close it out. In fact, this has only happened twice in 18 postseason clinchers since Rivera took over the role in 1997. Then there's the more obvious postseason stats: 42 saves against only 5 blown, an 8-1 record and a ridiculous ERA of 0.71. In short, Mariano Rivera has made a living turning leads into wins, and often championships, as well.

Yet still this pursuit of history and the career it represents seems to be floating unnoticed by the baseball public. Hopefully, given a few more saves, a buzz will build up for this event of save number 602 when Rivera does break the record, whether it occurs this year or next, at home or away, and it will be a celebration for all of baseball, as it was for hit number 3,000 on July 9th of this year.

Derek Jeter wouldn't have it any other way.

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