My top 3 Yanks? Ruth, Gehrig, Rivera

Originally published March 29, 2011

Ranking the 50 greatest Yankees of all time is one of the most difficult tasks my buddies on the inside at ESPNNewYork.com have ever asked me to do.

For one thing, most "50 Greatest" or "100 Greatest" lists -- don't get any ideas, fellas -- involve entire sports or industries, like motion pictures or rock bands. It's incredible enough to think that the Yankees even have 50 players worthy of ranking in such a list.

Then you start ranking them and you realize 50 is hardly enough. The depth of the history of this franchise really becomes clear when you make a list of its greatest all-time players -- and then try to whittle it down.

And then, rank them in order of merit. How do you do it? By sheer numbers? By how many winning teams the player was a part of? By how nice he was to you in the clubhouse?

And no matter what list you finally arrive at, you are bound to tick off someone and convince thousands of others that you are nothing more than an imbecile.

Which brings us to my list.

Luckily, the Yankees make it easy for anyone to get started on such a project, being kind enough to have had two players who stand head and shoulders above any others who have played for the franchise: Ed Whitson and Javier Vazquez. I mean, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. No arguments there, I assume.

But we run into problems as soon as we get to the No. 3 slot, because there is no shortage of viable candidates, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Yogi Berra to Whitey Ford to Derek Jeter.

So I, of course, chose Mariano Rivera. Let the hating begin.

I understand the drawbacks: Only works an inning a night, at most. Never won an MVP or a Cy Young. Has thrown as many as 100 innings only once in his career, and that was 15 years ago. Works the equivalent of about 10 games in an entire season.

But look at the other side: No other Yankee, aside from Ruth and Gehrig, has been considered the best at what he does for as long as Mariano. How many players in all of baseball have been virtually universally considered the gold standard at their position for a decade and a half?

Every time he steps onto a baseball field, it is an event. The music plays, the man trots out, nobody leaves until the last out is made. How many other players throughout Yankees history can claim that every one of his appearances was a show-stopper? Ruth, yes. Gehrig, yes. Mantle and DiMaggio? Most of the time.

Mariano? Every single time.

And while he may not have as many rings as Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra or Ford, how many of those five World Series titles do you think these Yankees would have won without him in the bullpen?

Certainly, Mo suffers from the prejudice against pitchers in the MVP voting, and the bias against giving relievers the Cy Young. But that does not diminish what he has done, year in and year out, since Bill Clinton's first term as president.

I presented my list to Rivera in the clubhouse earlier this week. I started by asking who he, Mariano, would rank as the greatest Yankee of all time.

"Babe Ruth," he said, without hesitation.

And who would he pick second?

"Lou Gehrig," he said, showing an impressive knowledge of Yankees history.

Third? "I would say it's between Joe D and Mickey Mantle."

"I picked Mariano Rivera," I said.

"Whoo," he replied. Then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why is that?"

I laid out my reasons. Mariano listened carefully, nodding his head. "That's true, that's true," he said to each one. "I agree with that."

Then -- in a moment that is the Mariano equivalent of Muhammad Ali bellowing "I am the greatest!" -- Rivera said, "Those are good reasons. It's a good point of view. It's a great point of view. Great point of view. I like it. Not because it's me, but because of the point. Not the name, just the reasons."

This was not said in an egotistical way, but with the calm assurance of an analytical man who has heard a convincing argument.

Mariano knows how great he has been. He also knows how important the team was to his success, and vice versa. He doesn't necessarily believe the Yankees would not have won as many titles with a different closer, but he is well aware of who was closing games when they won the past four.

"I have a sense of what I have done, of what I have accomplished," he said. "But me and this team, it's been like a good marriage. I give and I receive from them."

The numbers are beyond dispute -- 559 saves, the second-most in history, and two seasons on his contract in which to amass the 42 needed to overtake the leader, Trevor Hoffman; the lowest career ERA among active pitchers (2.23), which is also the 13th-lowest in history; the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio among active pitchers (3.936), the fourth-best in history; the lowest career WHIP among active pitchers (1.004), the third-best in history; the lowest number of hits per nine innings pitched among active pitchers (6.942), the sixth-best in history; the lowest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings pitched (.485) among active pitchers.

In the relatively new stat of adjusted ERA, or ERA+, which factors in the influence a pitcher's home ballpark has on his earned run average, Mariano Rivera stands alone above every pitcher who ever threw a baseball in a major league game (Mo's ERA+ is 205, 51 points higher than the No. 2, Pedro Martinez).

Rivera did it with natural-born ability, that cutter that feels like a bowling ball with the effect of a chainsaw on a baseball bat. He did it with a certain amount of luck, as everyone must.

And he did it through a dedication to his craft that you don't see in every athlete, or even most.

"Without my religious faith, I couldn't accomplish anything," he said. "And with that comes how you think of yourself, how you approach the game, how you respect the game, how you treat the game. Your eating, your resting. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't go outside when it's time to sleep. That, plus my mentality."

That mentality involves taking the pitcher's most basic task -- getting three outs -- and doing it under the most difficult of circumstances.

"It's hard, because the game is always on the line," Rivera said. "Every time you come into the game. You know that when you go into the game, it's winning or losing, there's no in between. If you're OK with that, you have success."

But the level of success Rivera has enjoyed is something he never could have predicted.

"I had no idea my career would be like this," he said. "No idea. I was just trying to stay in the big leagues, whether as a starter or a reliever. But I did my best. Every time I did my thing, I did my best."

He did it better than anyone has ever done it, which more than justifies placing him above DiMaggio and Mantle, who while great hitters, certainly had their equals and even their superiors, and above Derek Jeter, who has been the face of this franchise for the past 15 years while Rivera has been its heart, soul and guts.

"I would love to be remembered by the fans as a guy that did everything with passion, to help my teammates and the organization to be the best," he said. "I was always able and willing to help others besides myself. I always put myself last in making sure that I help everybody on my team if that would be possible. I always believed if I do that, the team would be better."

The Yankees have been immeasurably better because of Mariano Rivera's presence, and it is impossible to know exactly how different they would have been without him.

One thing you know for sure -- they would not have been nearly as good, on the field or in the clubhouse.

You can take issue with the other names on our list, but of my first three I am sure.

And I've got Mariano Rivera's stamp of approval to prove it. Top that.

Click here to read ESPNNewYork.com's list of the 50 Greatest Yankees