By Sweeny Murti
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How great is Mariano Rivera? So great that he’s compiling a remarkable record-breaking career one routine day after another.
A while back when the crew at MLB Productions was putting together the updated Mariano Rivera Yankeeography, they sat me down to ask me questions about different milestones in Mariano’s career. I venture to guess I have seen over 400 of Rivera’s saves in person since 2001.
But when I was asked about what I remembered about Rivera’s 300th save, his 400th save, his 500th save and a few others that passed Hall of Famers and other greats on the all-time list, I couldn’t remember a thing about any of those games. It was then I realized what Mariano’s true greatness is—he is so great that all his successes blend together into one package of awesomeness. He finishes the job so often, we only remember when he doesn’t.
Yes, occasionally there is the moment like last year in Arizona when Mariano created and then escaped from a bases loaded and nobody out mess, but Rivera actually pitched the 9th and 10th innings of that game, and it goes down as one of his 75 wins, not one of his 602 saves. But we remember another night in Arizona in 2001 a lot more clearly, because that was a night the expected did not happen.
Rivera’s saves are so routine that even the milestones feel like just another notch on the wall. Save #300 was on May 28, 2004 at Tampa Bay. Remember when Julio Lugo lined out to end that game? Neither do I. Remember later that year when Kevin Millar walked, Dave Roberts pinch-ran and stole second, and then…yea, I’m sure you remember the rest of that.
Do you remember when Rivera passed Dave Righetti for first place on the Yankees all-time saves list back on May 9, 2002 against Tampa Bay? How about save #400 vs. White Sox on July 16, 2006? Nope and nope.
Let’s be honest, if #500 wasn’t against the Mets in a 2009 subway series game that featured Mariano’s first career RBI, we might not remember that one either. We remember it for the quirky circumstances surrounding it, not the milestone itself. Do you remember any of the batters he faced that night? Probably not. But I’m guessing you remember Matt Franco’s at-bat in 1999 at Shea Stadium.
So as Rivera moves past 600 and past Trevor Hoffman with another in the long line of ho-hum saves, a few broken bats sprinkled in with some strikeouts and weak ground balls and flares, I tried to think of which of the 600+ saves (regular season only, of course) stands out most in my mind. There has to be one Rivera success story that rises above the rest. And for me it’s actually career save #5 on August 23, 1996.
Rivera wasn’t a closer yet, he was just the super set-up man to John Wetteland. Rivera was so dominating in the set-up role in 1996 that he finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting and 12th in the MVP balloting. When a strained groin sent Wetteland to the DL in August, Rivera took over the closer’s role.
On August 23rd, a Friday night game in the Bronx against the Oakland A’s, Rivera entered in the 7th inning with a man on and Mark McGwire coming up. This was the 32-year old beefed-up Mark McGwire, who finished the year with 52 HR, a .467 OBP and a .730 SLG. This guy was a monster, one of the two or three most feared hitters in the game. Rivera struck him out to end the inning.
Rivera stayed in the game, facing four batters in the 8th inning, and then coming out again for the 9th with the Yanks now holding a 5-3 lead thanks to a Cecil Fielder home run. The A’s put two runners on base and with two outs, McGwire was coming to the plate again.
How many times do you see closers stick around long enough to face the same guy twice? How many times do you see closers throw more than 50 pitches in a game? This was young Mariano Rivera. We were not yet aware that he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we were certainly aware that he was faster than a speeding bullet. And McGwire found that out too.
With his 59th pitch of the night Rivera struck out McGwire with a high fastball to end the game and earn a seven-out save. It was a dramatic late-season win for a team on its way to a World Championship. Rivera has never thrown more pitches or recorded more outs in a save than he did on August 23, 1996.
Rivera returned to the set-up role when Wetteland returned from the DL in September. Wetteland went on to win World Series MVP honors for the Yankees that October, but I always thought that Friday night in August of ‘96 showed Rivera’s true potential as a closer and planted the seeds of the forthcoming Yankee dynasty.
I watched that game from the old WFAN studios in Astoria and I have never forgotten the excitement, the building drama as Rivera blew away the intimidating lumberjack-looking McGwire in consecutive game-on-the-line at-bats.
Over 600 to choose from, and this is the one I will remember the most.