GORDON WHITE: Yanks' Rivera Saving the Best For Last
When Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th save by preserving the New York Yankees' 4-2 victory over their neighbors, the Mets, a week ago today, the superb closer put a big crown on a long-standing Yankee tradition of "fireman to the rescue."
Better known for their home runs and slugging by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriquez et al, the Yankees have also won with strong pitching over the last 90 years or so. A team does not win a record 26 World Series without good pitchers.
Included in that array of excellent hurlers have been a number of the best pitchers who specialized in relief work, starting over 70 years ago with a native New Yorker, Johnny Murphy, and continuing on through today's magnificent Panamanian, Mariano Rivera.
Long before 1969 when saves became an official statistic in Major League Baseball, a manager would call upon another one of his starters to come to the relief of a faltering pitcher who started but could not complete the job. If the team was winning, however, and the relief hurler shut the door on the opposing team, he usually got a big pat on the back from the original starter, who might even buy his savior a beer or two after the game.
The relief pitcher in those games long ago who toiled for two to five innings might have to be the starter within a day or two. That was MLB, circa 1901--1935.
But during the late 1930s when the Yankees, under Manager Joe McCarthy, went on a run of four consecutive World Series triumphs, 1936-1939, Johnny Murphy, a right-handed pitcher with considerable endurance, became the first pitcher in MLB to be known primarily for his relief work.
A graduate of Fordham University, Murphy joined the Yanks in 1932 like any other young hurler. He was going to be a starter and, hopefully, a finisher.
But when the Yankees began their long run atop the American League they had a grand corps of starters that included Red Ruffing, Monte Pearson and Lefty Gomez. Manager McCarthy decided to call upon Murphy and Pat Malone, another right-hander, to work primarily as relief pitchers for those three excellent starters.
Murphy did most of this relief work, usually going more than one inning. Ruffing, who won 20 or more games in each of those four consecutive championship years, always joked that Murphy deserved half of those victories "because he put out all my fires." Thus Murphy became known as the Yanks' "Fireman."
But there was no statistical recognition at that time for Murphy or other relievers who came along shortly after him.
Following World War II, the Yankees and other teams began looking more and more to the bullpen for a permanent relief pitcher to save the day. The Yanks, who went on a tear by winning nine World Series in 12 seasons, 1947--1958, opened that run with one of the most famous of the early relievers, Joe Page, who was a big, hard-throwing southpaw.
Other teams of that time had their bullpen aces, also. The Phillies had Jim Konstanty, who split time between starting and relieving. The Brooklyn Dodgers asked Joe Black to start and relieve a lot.
Hoyt Wilhelm came along in 1952 with the New York Giants and was the first man to record 200 saves. He finished a long MLB career with 227 saves pitching his final game for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972 just 16 days short of his 50th birthday. The reason for his longevity was that he threw a knuckleball, a pitch that does not tax the arm nearly as much as a fast ball or curve.
Later on, the Yanks had a very hard-throwing relief pitcher, Ryne Duren, 1958-1961, who tried to scare opposing batters when he came in from the bullpen and threw his allotted six warm-up pitches.
Cursed with rather poor eyesight and a deserved reputation for heavy drinking, Duren wore very thick glasses.
He would always throw one or two of his warm-up pitches well over 95 mph and wildly over the catcher's reach just to intimidate the batter waiting to hit.
Duren has spent his life after baseball working with alcoholics. He runs his own rehab center.
Sparky Lyle was the relief man for the Yankees, 1972-1978. Rich (Goose) Gossage came out of the Yanks' bullpen, 1978-1983, and Dave Righetti did so, 1979-1990. Righetti, with 224 saves, is second on the Yanks' list but well back of Rivera. Gossage and Lyle are third and fourth with 151 and 141 saves, respectively.
Then the last of these pre- Rivera closers for the Yanks was Jim Wetteland in 1995 and 1996.
Rivera perfected his bullpen artistry by being the setup man for Wetteland in 1995 and 1996, his first two years with the Yanks. Rivera was so effective that the Yanks released Wetteland when he became a free agent after the 1996 season.
That is when Rivera became the leading closer in MLB history, relying primarily on one pitch --- a cut fast ball. That is a pitch that breaks very sharply but not as widely as a big curve ball.
Rivera's cut is also very effective because it does no break until it is almost on the batter.
While Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and others of the last 30 years or so have been fully noted in record books, the Murphy, Page and Wilhelm exploits did not get statistical recognition until after 1969.
In the case of Murphy, Page and others of their years, it was a matter of going back over old box scores to try to get some idea of their saves, according to the 1969 rule that was revised in 1973 and again in 1975. Murphy was credited with 104 saves between 1932 and 1947 when he ended his career with the Boston Red Sox.
MLB now goes by the 1975 standard that states a save is credited to the pitcher who finishes a game won by his team when he is not the winning pitcher and when he is credited with at least one third of an inning pitched. Also, he must satisfy one of the following conditions:
A: He enters the game with a lead of no more than 3 runs and pitches for at least one inning.
B: He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck.
C: He pitches for at least three innings.
The outstanding relief man was finally recognized in that place where baseball pays off in big salaries---the record book.
Already something of a hero who often got more credit than the starter, the relief pitcher who became the closer in 1-run and 2-run victories was welcomed with more cheers than any other player when he trotted out of the bullpen.
During the last quarter century, this relief work has been perfected so that there are men such as Rivera who rarely, if ever, pitch more than one inning.
Ironically, Rivera entered the game against the Mets last Sunday with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning at Citi Field so that he saved the game by pitching one and one-third innings. That is rare for such a closer.
Rivera recorded his first save in an 8-5 Yankee triumph over the California Angels, May 17, 1996. But it wasn't until 1997 that he became the Yankees' primary closer. Since then he has been, according to many folks, the best closer in major league history even though Trevor Hoffman, currently with the Milwaukee Brewers, has over 570 saves.
One reason for this is that the Yankees were in post-season playoffs for 12 years in a row, 1996--2007, and Rivera recorded a MLB record 34 post-season saves that are not included in those 500 regular season saves. Those Yanks, with Rivera, won four World Series.
Derek Jeter, who was a Yankee rookie with Rivera in 1995, has been a teammate of the closer ever since. The Yankee shortstop and captain has often said that Rivera was the single most important player in the success of the Yankee teams since they joined the Bronx Bombers.
Hoffman, who pitched relief for the Florida Marlins and San Diego Padres before joining the Brewers, has no such post-season credentials.
Although most rate Rivera the leading closer thus far in MLB history, he was not the first to do the one-inning job to shut the door on opponents. A couple of his predecessors in the business made the closing act a popular thing.
The first was Lee Smith, who did relief work for the Chicago Cubs, 1980--1987, and seven other teams on through 1997. He had 478 career saves, including 47 in 1991 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The other was Dennis Eckersley, who perfected the one-inning closer job in the American League while pitching for the Oakland Athletics, 1987--1995, under Manager Tony La Russa.
Smith ranks third in career saves behind Hoffman and Rivera. Eckersley is fifth with 390 saves. John Franco, who was the closer for the Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and Houston Astros, 1984--2005, had 424 saves to stand fourth on the MLB list.
The Mets signed one of MLB's best young closers, Francisco Rodriquez, last winter because Billy Wagner, who has 385 career saves, came down with arm troubles. Rodriquez set the MLB record of 62 saves in one season last year pitching for the Los Angeles Angels.
Tug McGraw was the Mets' ace reliever back in the early 1970s who helped them get to the 1973 World Series that they lost in seven games.
But while the Mets were trailing the Chicago Cubs by many games in 1973, McGraw kept insisting, "You gotta believe."
This became the rallying cry for the Mets and their fans. They believed it as McGraw coined a phrase that seemed to do as much for the team as his pitching did. The Mets caught and beat out the Cubs because they believed.
Now these closers make millions of dollars for getting three outs every second or third game. Sometimes they will pitch two or three ninth innings in a row.
Other outstanding closers in recent seasons include Troy Percival, currently with the Tampa Bay Rays; Joe Mesa, who pitched for eight MLB teams; Eric Gagne, who had 53 saves for the Dodgers in 2003, and John Smoltz, a rare pitcher who has won 20 games in a season and saved 55 in another for the Atlanta Braves.
Managers usually do not call upon the closer ace unless his team is leading by only 3 runs or less. After all, the scoring rules stipulate that the closer won't get a one-inning save if he goes in with a 4-run lead.
A manager might call upon his closer when his team is ahead by 4 or more runs in the ninth only when his closer has not pitched for a few days and needs the work to keep sharp.
I called the Elias Sports Bureau in New York City, Thursday. That is the organization that has amassed the official MLB stats for most of the past century.
Bob Waterman of Elias correctly observed, "Nowhere else in sports does a manager or coach call upon a player to enter a game based upon a scoring rule."
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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