Mariano Rivera’s 608 career saves should come with an asterisk. Not to make his record seem any less impressive than it already is, but to make it more so. In addition to having more career saves in the regular season than anyone in history, he also has (appropriately enough) 42 saves in the post-season as well. To put that in perspective, consider that nobody else even has 20. That’s just astounding.
Anybody who has ever played fantasy baseball can tell you that saves accrue more to the closers on the top teams. It makes sense that the more wins a team has, the more saves will be available for the team’s pitchers. And the Yankees have made the postseason every year except one in Rivera’s career. Being on a dominant team has made Rivera a dominating closer but, conversely, his dominance as a closer has fed the Yankees’ dominance, too.
When Rivera broke into the majors in 1995, MLB was still two years away from issuing its blanket retirement of number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. Rivera was grandfathered in as an exception, and every other player this exception applied to has since retired. So we’ll never see another player call #42 his own once Rivera hangs them up after the 2013 season, except for that game every year where all players wear the number in a game. I actually like that custom, and I’m not knocking it here.
My point is that we can legitimately call Mariano Rivera the best closer there’s ever been, statistically and otherwise, but he’ll never eclipse Jackie Robinson when it comes to his lasting impact on the game. Nobody could ever do this, because the hell that Robinson endured in 1947 (as spelled out in Jonathan Eig‘s fabulous Opening Day) helped to open the way for so many who have enriched the game.
I love the Jackie Robinson quote that says “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Coming from the man who changed baseball forever, these words are unquestionably true. The fact that Mariano Rivera was great enough to set the all-time saves record confirms his impact on the Yankees and their fans over the past seventeen seasons. But the fact that nobody after Rivera will ever wear his number confirms Robinson’s impact on baseball, and, by extension, all of American society.