A decade later, Rivera still dominates; 'Best ever,' Eckersley says

Updated: July 17, 2006, 10:09 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- After Mariano Rivera got routed in his major league debut, manager Buck Showalter offered an observation.

"Hopefully, Mariano will learn from it," Showalter said.

More than a decade later, yep, he's done OK. World Series MVP, four championship rings and now the 400-save mark. Pretty good for a guy who throws only one pitch.

"The best ever, no doubt it," Dennis Eckersley said Monday.

High praise from the lone reliever to make it into the Hall of Fame on his first try. See any similarities, Eck?

"No comparison!" he said. "I didn't have the stuff he did. Not at all. I've been blowing his horn for years. He's electric."

Put it this way: Put the New York Yankees' ace closer on the Atlanta Braves from the start of his career, and they're probably a dynasty rather than a postseason disappointment.

Instead, Chipper Jones was reduced to chuckling in the dugout as he watched Rivera's cut fastball break three of Ryan Klesko's bats while finishing off a 1999 Series sweep against Atlanta.

"He has the single best pitch ever in the game," Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome said. "A lot of guys, you can make some adjustments. But not with that cutter."

Said Eckersley: "I mean, those left-handed hitters know what's coming and he still eats them up. How does he do that?"

And while Metallica's "Enter Sandman" is Rivera's signature song, he has another trademark sound at Yankee Stadium: the cracking of Louisville Sluggers.

Rivera recorded his 400th save Sunday and got No. 401 Monday night against Seattle.

Be it the Mariners in July or the Mets in October, Rivera sees each opponent as an opportunity.

"Every time I go out there, it's business," Rivera said.

The 36-year-old Rivera has done it enough since becoming a full-time reliever in 1996 that his place at the Hall of Fame is set.

Bruce Sutter is being enshrined this month after getting elected on his 13th attempt. Like many other successful relievers, Sutter had to wait while Hall voters struggled to determine who belonged.

Lee Smith, who holds the career saves record with 478, has barely gotten 40 percent in his three elections. There's no guarantee that Trevor Hoffman would breeze in if he sets the mark.

Rivera, though, is the very definition of a Cooperstown closer.

"You don't even have to look up his numbers," said Hall voter Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "You don't need to go to 'The Baseball Encyclopedia.' We've all seen what he's done.

"You know it when you see it. This guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer," he said.

Being on the Yankees has helped, certainly.

"He's playing with a great club, but he's a great closer," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "They've given him a lot of opportunities over the years."

Of course, Rivera is not automatic. While he's posted a record 34 saves in the postseason, he's blown three memorable chances.

The Boston Red Sox got him in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. Arizona's Luis Gonzalez nicked him in the ninth inning of Game 7 in the 2001 World Series. And Sandy Alomar Jr. tagged him in the 1997 playoffs.

That said, Yankees fans still love him. It's a no-brainer, in fact. Wouldn't trade him for anyone. Think anybody felt that way about Armando Benitez or Byung-Hyun Kim?

Then again, it wasn't easy for Rivera at the beginning.

Rivera made his big league debut in May 1995 as a spot starter for injured Jimmy Key and, after striking out his first two hitters, got hit hard. The California Angels tagged him for five runs in 3 1-3 innings of a 10-0 loss.

Rivera bounced around the rotation the rest of the year, and Showalter opined that minor league stats don't necessarily translate into major league success. Yet following an impressive outing, Rivera showed that he believed in himself.

"There is no doubt in my mind," he said. "I know I can pitch here."

Jim Edmonds figured the same thing. The St. Louis star played in Rivera's debut and struck out his first two times up. The next at-bat, Edmonds hit a three-run homer off the rookie.

"I do remember that. He was throwing hard," Edmonds said before the Cardinals played Atlanta. "I always thought he'd be good."<


AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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