Yankees closer Mariano Rivera acknowledges the Yankee Stadium crowd after… (Patrick McDermott / Getty…)
Joe Girardi was a major league catcher for 15 seasons and has been a big league manager for five. During that time he has caught, counseled and consoled hundreds of pitchers, including Greg Maddux, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden.
Yet, the New York Yankees manager doesn't have to think long to identify the best one with whom he has worked.
"When people ask me who the greatest pitcher I ever caught was, I say Mo," Girardi said, referring to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Not just the greatest closer or the greatest postseason reliever of all time, the two sobriquets Rivera has owned for some time. But the greatest pitcher ever?
"Yeah, I think you'd have look at that too," said Girardi, who has never been one for overstatement. "Being back there, you can always see a lot more than you can necessarily see from the bench. You can see the movement, the location, and it does give you a comfortable feeling."
Not if you're standing at the plate with a bat in your hands. With a repertoire that consists largely of one pitch, a cut fastball that God taught him how to throw, Rivera has embarrassed enough hitters and sawed off enough bats to earn fear and respect.
And even now, at 41, it's unlikely anyone played a bigger role in getting the Yankees into an American League division series against the Detroit Tigers than Rivera. With one victory and 44 saves, he had a hand in nearly half of the Yankees' 97 victories this season. He has been even better in the postseason, with an 8-1 mark, a record 42 saves and an 0.71 earned-run average before this year.
But is he the all-time best?
"When you talk about the best starting pitchers of all time, there's a lot of different names thrown out. You probably have four or five guys always in the conversation," teammate Mark Teixeira said. "When you talk about the greatest relievers of all time, there's only one guy. The conversation begins and ends with Mo."
Don't take his manager's and his teammate's word on that. The record books also bear testimony to Rivera's dominance.
In September, he surpassed Trevor Hoffman's career saves record, eventually extending his total to 603. Yet, even that doesn't begin to explain the depth of Rivera's dominance.
In 16 full seasons, Rivera has had an ERA above 3.00 once, and an ERA below 2.00 11 times, giving him a career mark of 2.21.
He has averaged nearly 38 saves per season, finishing first or second in the AL six times, including this season, when he finished five behind league leader Jose Valverde of the Tigers.
Rivera is so good, in fact, the Angels' Torii Hunter had to go to mythology to find a comparable figure.
"Think about all the legends like Hercules, guys who are talked about forever," said Hunter, who has struck out seven times in 12 career at-bats against Rivera. "In baseball, when you talk about a reliever, Mariano Rivera is like a ghost, like a monster. When all the players in Major League Baseball talk about one guy so much all the time, when you say his name and they go, 'Arrrrrgggghhhh.' That's respect."
But is he the best pitcher of all time?
"He's a reliever, but I'm pretty sure he's a pitcher, so yes, I think he is," Hunter said. "He's one of the nastiest pitchers in the game."
Directly across the Angels' clubhouse, Hunter's teammate Vernon Wells demurs.
"I would choose a starter before a reliever," said Wells, who is six for 19 against Rivera. "When you look at Nolan Ryan and what he accomplished, the innings starters put in, they're asked to put so much stress on their arms over the course of the year.
"But Mariano is one of the few people who you can put in that conversation as a reliever and that says enough in itself."
Yet, Rivera's most impressive trait may be his consistency. He has never had a bad season since becoming a full-time closer in 1997, saving fewer than 30 games in a season only once and blowing as many as six saves in a season only twice. The Kansas City Royals had two pitchers blow more than that this season.
"He's one of those guys that, whenever he decides to retire, he's going to retire on top," Teixeira said.
When that might be, even Rivera isn't sure. He already has the saves record, five World Series rings, 12 All-Star selections and a firm reservation for a place in the Hall of Fame. So why come back for another season, other than for the $15 million left on his contract, that is.
"For the love of the game," Rivera said with a smile.
As spectacular as Rivera's career has been, he admits he owes much of it to happenstance. The son of a fishing boat captain, Rivera was born in Panama, a country known more for jockeys than baseball players.
As a boy Rivera's favorite sport was soccer, but ankle injuries stalled his career there and he turned to baseball, something he considered little more than a hobby. Nevertheless, the Yankees looked at him as an 18-year-old shortstop, but they left unimpressed.