Mariano Rivera stands alone atop Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader board, which is one of the many reasons he will be voted into the Hall of Fame when the totals are released Tuesday.
But Rivera will not stand alone on the stage in Cooperstown on July 21. He will be joined by other newly minted baseball immortals, including another former closer who once held the title as the all-time saves leader.
Lee Smith had 478 saves and was the all-time leader from April 19, 1993, until Sept. 26, 2006. Smith was voted into the Hall on Dec. 9, 2018, by the Today’s Game Era Committee after 15 years of being passed over by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Smith peaked at 50.6 percent of the BBWAA vote in 2012; 75 percent is needed for election.
Rivera is generally regarded as the greatest closer in major-league history, but the Hall has not been kind to relievers. Rivera will be the eighth reliever elected to Cooperstown, joining Hoyt Wilhelm (1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), Goose Gossage (2008), Trevor Hoffman (2018) and Smith.
Six of the eight have been voted in since 2004. Just as the role of relievers has evolved over the decades, so has the attitude of some voters toward relievers, whether they were multiple-inning workhorses such as Sutter or Gossage or ninth-inning specialists such as Hoffman and Rivera.
Smith bridged the gap between relief-pitching eras. In his first year as a pure reliever (1983), he threw 103 1⁄3 innings in 66 games. As he settled into the role of closer, his appearances stayed about the same but his innings went down dramatically. When Smith saved a career-high 47 games for the Cardinals in 1991, he threw only 73 innings in 67 games.
The modern closer was upon us. Rivera was the perfection of that ideal. It’s why the only drama surrounding Tuesday’s announcement is whether Rivera will become the first player to receive 100 percent of the vote.
As of Friday, no voter whose ballot has been made public on the website bbhoftracker.com has said he or she is not voting for Rivera. That’s with 44.9 percent of the vote publicly known.
Joe Girardi, Rivera’s former catcher and manager, said last week: “To me, Mo was the perfect closer because, A. he was extremely athletic, B. he was extremely durable, C. he was extremely efficient. He didn’t have 25-pitch innings. They were nine, eight, 12. So he was able to bounce back extremely well. He knew his body extremely well and he knew how to prepare. He never threw more than eight pitches in the bullpen before he came in to the mound.
“So I think all of these things attributed to his longevity. And he was the perfect closer. No emotion out there, very calm. No moment was ever too big for him. When he faced adversity, he bounced back . . . For a manager, you want players that you never have to worry about, and he was one of them.”
Rivera pitched 19 seasons, all with the Yankees. His regular-season record was 82-60 with a 2.21 ERA and 652 saves. He was a 13-time All-Star and won the AL’s top reliever award five times. The award now is named after him.
Mariano Rivera's career stats
1,283 2/3 innings pitched
56.2 wins above replacement
In the postseason, Rivera was even better: 8-1 with a 0.70 ERA. The last player to wear uniform No. 42 (the number is retired throughout baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson) totaled 42 postseason saves, including 11 in the World Series. He has five World Series rings.
Girardi, now an MLB Network analyst, interviewed Rivera for MLB Network’s Hall of Fame announcement coverage. In his recent public appearances, Rivera has mostly deferred comment about how he thinks he’ll feel when he gets the call to join the Hall.
“I think he’s excited,” Girardi said. “But as when Mo was a closer, he never really showed a lot of emotion. He’s cool, calm and collected.”
You probably could say the same about all of the Hall of Fame closers; it’s kind of a job requirement to learn how to deal with failure and adversity.
For most of baseball history, relievers were failed starters — even Rivera, who started 10 games for the Yankees in his first major-league season (1995). It’s only in the last decade or so that pitchers have been groomed as relievers from the day they were signed or drafted.
Smith, for example, almost quit baseball when the Cubs wanted him to switch to the bullpen. He said he was talked out of it by Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams.
“All of my idols playing major-league baseball were starting pitchers in the Bob Gibsons and the Fergie Jenkinses and the Nolan Ryans,” Smith said at his Hall of Fame election news conference Dec. 10. “You wanted to be a starting pitcher because in that era it was somewhat a slap in the face being a relief pitcher . . . I actually quit playing baseball and Billy Williams came to my home and talked me into coming back playing . . . And the rest is history. I love it.”
Smith and Rivera almost crossed paths once before. In 1993, when Rivera was in the minors coming back from Tommy John surgery, Smith was briefly a member of the Yankees.
The Yankees acquired Smith from the Cardinals for pitcher Rich Batchelor on Aug. 31, 1993, and he appeared in eight games. Smith threw eight shutout innings and saved three games for the Yankees, who were trying to catch the eventual World Series champion Blue Jays in the AL East. The Yankees finished second and Smith moved on to the Orioles in 1994.
Smith is unlikely to spend much time, if any, on his Yankees days in his Hall of Fame speech. Celebrating life in the Bronx will be left to Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season and had a plaque dedicated in his honor at Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park in 2016.
“It’s amazing, thinking about all of the people out there in Monument Park, starting with Babe Ruth,” Rivera said at the time. “You have Mickey [Mantle], you have Mr. Joe DiMaggio and my favorite, Yogi Berra, and the list is going on and on. And then me, a humble guy from Puerto Caimito, Panama, being in that group of men means a lot.”
On July 21, Rivera will get another plaque and join another group of men — baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown. Maybe the Hall will do it right and have him close out the speeches.
With Neil Best