“Enter Sandman” blared again over the Yankee
Stadium speakers. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees tipped his cap
to the crowd and beamed. The Yankee “stopper” had set a new major league
record - 602 career saves. Needing just 13 pitches, the storied hurler
notched a shutdown ninth inning on September 19th, locking up the
Yankee 6-4 win over Minnesota. He got Trevor Plouffe, Michael Cuddyer
and Chris Parmelee in order.
On May 23, 1995, the slender
25-year-old rookie Mariano Rivera, in his major league debut, lasted but
3 1/3 innings, yielding 8 hits and 5 runs. The Yankees lost, 10-0, to
the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. That season the son of a Panamanian
fisherman started ten games, allowed eight homers and 35 runs in 50
innings and was demoted to the bullpen,
17, 1996 at the old Yankee Stadium against the Angels, Rivera recorded
his first career save, the first of five that season. He was primarily
John Wetteland's setup man then. In 1997, he became the closer for the
Yanks. His money pitch, a sizzling cut fastball, was and is his mighty,
some would say, his only weapon. Year after year opposing players have
known it was coming, but they have done very little against it.
Throughout the baseball season of 2011 especially in New York City there
was much hype and hoopla over the 12-time All Star’s quest to set the
all- time saves record. And there has been much celebration, exaltation
and lauding of the feat now accomplished.
Stats galore have been trotted out
in tribute to the magnificence of the gentlemanly Rivera’s career
achievements. Mo has a record 15 straight seasons of 25 or more saves, a
stunning record 89% save percentage and the lowest career ERA (2.22)
since the 1920s. In his 17-season Yankee career, Rivera has gone 75-57
with 602 saves recorded in 674 opportunities.
And many have labeled the
gentlemanly Yankee the greatest pitcher of his era. Others have gone
further calling him one of the greatest pitchers of all time. There are
those who refer to Rivera as the greatest closer in baseball history. On
the other hand, however, there are some who claim that he ranks as the
most overrated player in baseball history.
Plaschke of the, LA Times notes: Rivera has recorded an average of
barely more than three outs, with 1,209 innings pitched in 1,039 games.
How can he be considered among the game’s greatest pitchers if he works
one-sixth of the time? How can he be considered among the game’s
greatest players if he plays one-ninth of a full game?”
legendary sports expert Len Berman adds: “ For someone to amass so many
saves he not only needs longevity, he needs to play on winning teams for
a great number of years. That's why all saves aren't created equal. You
can hit homers, or have a high batting average against anyone. But to
get saves, you really do need a ‘little help from your friends’ (The
These insightful comments
notwithstanding, it is not Mariano Rivera under fire in the “saves”
controversy. It is really the “save stat” and the whole culture
connected to it.
The “save rule” was created by
respected Chicago baseball scribe Jerome Holtzman in 1960. “At that
time,” as Holzman explained, “there were only two stats to measure the
effectiveness of a reliever: earned run average and the win-loss
record.” What Holzman had concocted was baseball's first new major
statistic since the RBI in 1920. “The save” was officially adopted by
Major League Baseball in 1969.
Rule 10.20 in the Official Rule Book states:
Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three
of the following conditions:
(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his
(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and
(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
- (a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and
pitches for at least one inning; or
- (b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential
tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential
tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen
he faces; or
- (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than
one save may be credited in each game.
What Holzman had wrought became an
over-blown, over-hyped, over-used stat that revolutionized the game.
“Firemen” back in the day generally toiled multiple innings in a game.
They also generally returned to pitch again the next day. From the time
the save rule became an official stat through 1985, one inning saves
composed only 21% of all saves. Then things began to change.
Today’s stoppers have a much reduced
workload, mostly one inning of work and generally no work the next
day. Many hurlers would not have had the success they had had they been
starters. Suddenly they became superstar stoppers and wealthy men as a
result of the “save rule.” Pitchers today make millions a season
working almost solely ninth innings of games when their team is ahead.
This is the culture of the “save”
and one that for better or worse Mariano Rivera has been part of that
Red Sox broadcaster and Hall of
Dennis Eckersley, beneficiary of all the “save” had to offer is,
quite frank: "The save is overrated."
All of this, however, has nothing to
do with Mariano Rivera. His grace under pressure, his machine-like
efficiency, his piling up all these saves is a one of a kind, top of the
hill accomplishment. The rules were not made by the great Rivera. He
simply did his job year after year in the time of the one-inning closer.
His greatness is not to be questioned.
However, the rules governing the
“save” deserve some thorough questioning and perhaps some tinkering.
You can reach
Harvey Frommer at:
About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath,
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Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer are the authors of
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