When you talk about closers, you can discuss Dennis Eckersley or Goose Gossage or Lee Smith, but the discussion isn't complete without Mariano Rivera - who just might be the best closer to put on a major-league uniform. Similarly, when you talk about the Yankees of the late 1990's and early 2000's, you have to talk about Mariano Rivera.
Since his very first appearance in 1995, Rivera has gone on to save 283 games - the most ever by a Yankee - with an ERA of 2.49. His ERA has been under two in four different seasons, and it's never been higher than 2.85 since '95. He's been the most dominating closer of this generation, particularly when it comes to the postseason. In 96 postseason innings, he's allowed eight earned runs (good for an ERA of 0.75) and converted 30 save opportunities.
We can sit here and talk about the superiority of Rivera's statistics until we're blue in the face. But Rivera's worth to the Yankees goes well beyond simple numbers and save conversions. Rivera, essentially, is the Yankees.
Back around 1996, when Rivera was merely the greatest setup man in the league, the Yankees took home their first World Series trophy since 1978 and established a new weapon in their arsenal besides pitching, hitting and defense. The reporters all referred to it as "Yankee mystique". When the Yankees came back from a two-game deficit to beat the Atlanta Braves in the '96 World Series, it wasn't just amazing, it was magical.
The magic seemed to falter in 1997 when Rivera was actually victimized and the Yankees fell to the Indians in the first round to Cleveland, but it actually turned out to be the turning point in Rivera's career. After the crushing homerun that he allowed to Sandy Alomar, Jr, Rivera returned in 1998 a new man. He was poised before, but he was ice cold from there on out. Nothing phased him, nothing startled him, he went out there, did his business, pumped his fist and hugged Jorge Posada.
The mystique, from there on out, centered itself on Rivera. He emanated a certain something that just screamed to opposing teams "You can't touch us. We're the Yankees."
Fast forward six seasons. The only players left from the magical 1998 season are Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Posada and Rivera. Williams' contract is only guaranteed through 2005, and Posada's can expire after 2006. The 1998 Yankees will be virtually gone.
So the Yankees need to keep Mariano Rivera around. He earns almost $9 million this season, $11 million if you include his original signing bonus. If he wants to maintain that salary, I say give it to him. Steinbrenner's spent as much money much more foolishly. But let Rivera pitch until he doesn't want to anymore, and let him pitch as a Yankee.
Maybe it's a little pathetic to want to cling to the past by keeping Mariano Rivera around, but he truly represents the Yankees from their more recent glory days. And if the Yankees want to experience that kind of glory this season or any of the next few, then I can't see them doing it without Mo.
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