Last Call For A Legend

TAMPA, Fla. — The best way to put Mariano Rivera's career in perspective is as follows:

You have a better chance of walking on the moon than scoring an earned postseason run against the best closer baseball has seen in its history.

A total of 12 people have actually walked on the moon. Only 11 have scored an earned run in the playoffs against Rivera.

That's why Rivera's announcement Saturday afternoon that this would be his last season was so poignant. We're losing a true great.

“He's irreplaceable,” New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “He's the greatest of all-time.”

Indeed. And Rivera, a career Yankee, has a record 608 saves to prove it.

Too often in this over-glorified sports world – where people want to call so many players the best ever, most even before they even have won a championship – Rivera's greatness is genuine.

“Why now?,” asked Rivera, 43. “Now is the time.”

He repeated, “Now is the time.”

Those who have watched his entire career are lucky. If you have, you have truly seen one of the greatest players to ever where a uniform ply his trade almost to perfection.

Proof positive is his ridiculous, Jordan-like postseason stats: In 96 games, Rivera was 8-1, with a 0.70 ERA, 42 saves and five World Series championships.

“The kid was always incredible from the first time I faced him until I played with him,” said former teammate Cecil Fielder, who won a World Series with Rivera in 1996. “I was always thinking that Mariano was going to get us where we wanted to go.”

Best of all, Rivera was as good off the field as he was on the field – a real gentleman full of grace and class.

“I've known him since he's been in the minor leagues,” Cashman said. “He's never changed once.

“You see a lot of players that get a lot of money, a lot of notoriety, become famous and change over time. I got more respect for him as a player and a person for that.”

I first started covering Rivera in 1996 when I was a columnist for Newsday in NYC. Back then, he wasn't a stud closer. The Yankees actually won the World Series that year with John Wetteland as the closer. He won the Series MVP, saving all four games in that series against the Atlanta Braces.

But Rivera was a huge part of that team, that championship. Back then, Rivera was the setup man, often pitching the seventh and eighth innings to get the ball to Wetteland.

Let's not forget that Rivera started his career 1995. He had 19 appearances, but started nine games, going 3-3 with a 5.94 ERA. No one could have imagined what he would turn into after his first season.

Some – including Andy Pettitte – thought he was going to need a few more pitches to get guys out in the majors. Throwing hard is great, but not enough.

“I thought ‘Man, he better come up with more stuff to be able to start in this league’,” Pettitte said. “A year later, they put him in the bullpen in ‘96 and just to see that smooth delivery, and see how deceptive he was and how he hides the ball and the command he had, it was just amazing in one year to see the transformation, how he could dominate.''

The most impressive thing is that few have ever been able to basically throw one pitch and be great. Think about it: everybody basically knew the cutter was coming and still couldn't hit it. Think of all the broken bats along the way. That was just as much a trademark of Rivera as his famous cutter.

“Never, ever would have thought in 1995 that he would have ever been able to do what he has done,” said Pettitte, who had 68 of his career wins saved by Rivera, the most of any pitcher.

On Saturday, Rivera wasn't in a save situation. He pitched the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves. It was his first appearance since being injured last season.

Rivera was in mid-season form. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning, striking out the final two batters looking. The crowd at Steinbrenner Field (of course hip to the news that this is it for Rivera) stood and cheered as he walked off the mound.

Derek Jeter, Rivera’s teammate and friend for the entire ride, said we might see more of that around Baseball America this season.

“He's always been appreciated by Yankee fans,” Jeter said. “But he could be appreciated by fans of the other teams everywhere he goes.”

And the gesture wouldn't be a reach. Rivera is one of those players that would deserve such a tribute. After all, he's not just an all-time Yankee great, Rivera's a great. Period.

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