What, you expected me to use any other picture to illustrate this piece? Because when you mention Mariano Rivera to D-backs’ fans, there’s only one thing they think of: the ninth inning of Game 7 in the 2001 World Series. Gonzo’s bloop single capped the rally which won Arizona what’s still its only title in the big four sports, to this day. But part of what made that night so special, was doing it against the pitcher who was the best reliever of all time. I mean, even every other time he faced the D-backs, he was dominant. Including both regular season and the rest of that 2001 series (just not game 7), he tossed 11 scoreless innings against Arizona, allowing only four hits. The D-backs batted .111 against him. Just not on that November night.
It wasn’t just us. In fact, one of the many staggering stats about Rivera is that he never allowed an earned run against any member of the current NL West in the regular season. The Padres, Rockies, Giants and Dodgers never managed to tag him either, across a total of 28.1 innings of work. Add in post-season series against us and the Padres, and it’s 38.2 innings, with just one earned run allowed. Then again, Rivera in the post-season was close to utterly untouchable. Across 96 games and 141 innings, Mariano had an ERA of 0.70 and a WHIP of 0.759. He had a Win Probability in the post season of +1,169%, and was in the positive for 31 of 32 series (the exception being the 1997 ALDS).
Rivera was born in Panama City, Panama, and preferred playing soccer growing up. But he would also play baseball, using improvised equipment such as cardboard milk cartons for gloves. He wasn’t initially seen as a prospect and. after dropping out of school in the ninth grade, worked on his father’s trawler. Mariano was part of a local amateur team, the Panamá Oeste Vaqueros, where he played shortstop. But he was asked to pitch in an emergency situation, and threw seven-plus scoreless innings. That helped get him a trial with the Yankees, and nine pitches were enough to convince them to sign Rivera, for the princely sum of two thousand dollars.
For the bulk of his time in the minors, Mariano was a starter, and a pretty good one at that. Across all 432.1 innings there, he had a 2.35 ERA and a K:BB ratio of close to 4:1. He progressed through the minor leagues, despite undergoing elbow surgery (though not Tommy John) in August 1992. But he was never particularly highly thought of as a prospect: going into the 1995 season, Baseball America had him only #9 in the Yankees’ organization, well behind his cousin, Ruben Rivera. His early outings were so underwhelming, New York considered trading him to the Tigers, but an uptick on velocity staved that off, and a strong bullpen performance in the 1995 ALDS convinced management that was his future role.
He was still almost traded to the Mariners before the following season, as the Yankees needed a shortstop, but they decided instead to go with some rookie called Jeter... Pitching mostly as a set-up guy for John Wetteland, Rivera threw 107.2 innings with a 2.09 ERA. He was worth a mind-blowing 5.0 bWAR - the most ever for a reliever - and finished third in Cy Young voting, an unprecedented position for the role. He took over as closer from Wetteland the following season, though blew three of his first six save opportunities. But he settled in, getting his first All-Star nod in 1997, with 27 saves and a 1.96 ERA at the time of the game. That summer he also found his trademark cut fastball, while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza.
From 1997 through 2000, he was a crucial component in the Yankees team which won four consecutive World Series. Over that time, Rivera had an ERA of 2.14 (ERA+ 217) with 160 saves. In the playoffs, he allowed four runs over 43.1 innings, which included setting a new record with 331⁄3 consecutive scoreless postseason frames. He reached a personal best of 50 saves in 2001 but we all know how that ended, taking with it Rivera’s run of 23 saves in 23 playoff opportunities. But much as Byung-Hyun Kim was not broken, neither was Rivera, and he continued to close out wins. He had 53 saves in 2004, again finishing third for the Cy Young, and went one better the following year, coming second due to his 1.38 ERA (ERA+ 308).
Rivera remained highly effective well into his forties. In his age 41 campaign of 2011, he recorded 41 saves with a 1.91 ERA. That year, he also broke Trevor Hoffman’s all-time mark for saves, getting #602 on September 19th at Yankee Stadium. However, early the next season he tore his right ACL, ending his campaign. While he made it back from surgery, he announced that 2013 would be his final year. It was no token gesture: he saved 44 games with a 2.11 ERA (ERA+ 190), proving that Rivera was leaving the game entirely on his own terms. His Hall of Fame induction five years later was a formality, but he was named on every single ballot submitted, something none of the other greats in this series managed.
He finished with 652 career saves, an all-time MLB high - and that’s not even including his 42 in the playoffs, another MLB record. His ERA+ of 205 is the best ever by any pitcher with a thousand innings of work. Rivera recorded at least 25 saves in 15 consecutive seasons, was responsible for the final out in four World Series championships, and is the only pitcher to have four saves in All-Star games. Even as a Diamondbacks fan, if you needed to get three outs to save the world, I’d have every confidence in Mariano Rivera being my pick for the job. He was, simply, the best relief pitcher ever.
And there ends our series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Many thanks to all who chipped in their comments, nominations and suggestions across the three months of the project. But let’s just hope there’s no lockout-inspired need for something similar in future!