Mariano Rivera’s New York Yankees career was chock full of Hall of Fame moments, but which career-defining moments were the best?
Naturally, Mo deserves it. You know the joke about how the Boogeyman checks his closet for Chuck Norris before bed? Well, for nearly two decades, opposing hitters, managers, and even owners probably checked their closets for Mariano Rivera. The man was just so automatic that if he entered a game with a lead, it was almost definitely over.
A 2.21 career ERA; 652 career saves; a postseason ERA of 0.70 to go with 42 saves, both MLB records.
Long story short, there are plenty of reasons Mariano Rivera is my favorite Yankee of all time. When the opening riff of “Enter Sandman” came on Yankee Stadium’s speakers, everyone knew it was go-time. The other team’s already low chances of victory went down tenfold.
Thus, as great as induction into Cooperstown is, Rivera deserves just a little something more. Think of it as a tableside-made chocolate mousse to go with his steak dinner.
That said, let’s go through Mo’s career and look at ten of its most defining moments!
No. 10: Eight shutout innings in Chicago
Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start! Alright, now that I’m done doing a bad Maria von Trapp impression, let’s move back to Rivera.
Dateline, 4th of July, 1995. I’m nine years old and my baseball obsession is in full swing. When I’m not playing Goldeneye 64 or sorting my baseball cards, I’m watching any ballgame that’s on TV. In this case, the Yankees are playing the Chicago White Sox in the Windy City and 25-year-old Rivera is up from the minors to make a spot start.
Rivera’s numbers weren’t pretty entering this start, 1-2 with a 10.20 ERA. You see, despite his sterling reputation as a closer, he actually came up as a starter in 1995 and went 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games (10 starts). This start, however, was different.
Rivera pitched eight shutout innings and struck out 11 White Sox batters as the Yankees won 4-1. Rivera’s ERA dipped to a slightly more palatable 6.65.
This game may feel small in the masterpiece that is Rivera’s career, but it’s still important. A journey begins with a single step and this game should not be discounted just because it was when Rivera was a starter.
No. 9: The first save
Life is a series of firsts. A first car, a first job, a first apartment, just to name some typical examples. Mariano Rivera, similarly, must remember his first career save with the same fondness.
It came against the then-California Angels on May 17, 1996. Rivera had been electrifying as the Yankees’ new setup man. Well, he got the call in the ninth inning and needed just eight pitches to get three outs as New York won 8-5.
Little did we know this one save would only be the beginning of a Hall of Fame career.
No. 8: 2009 World Series, Game 6
The 2009 World Series was equally exciting and harrowing for Yankees fans. Here it was, Game 6. Just one more win and the 27th World Series win would become a reality. The problem was the Philadelphia Phillies held tough for a victory in Game 5, so the nerves were real.
Well, the bats did their talking and that meant Mo entered the game to shut the door. Since it was the postseason, that meant getting more than just three outs. In this case, Rivera tossed 1.2 innings and threw 41 pitches. It was a hard-fought effort and had plenty of fans, including myself, worrying about the outcome.
Once again, Rivera proved why he was the greatest. Cue Shane Victorino grounding out to second, and the fans roared.
No. 7: Mo vs Klesko
The 1999 World Series was a 1996 rematch, with the Yankees taking on the ever-dangerous Atlanta Braves. The difference was rather than the hard-fought six-game series of ’96, this one was a four-game walk in Central Park for the Bronx Bombers.
Mariano Rivera was also the World Series MVP after posting a win and two saves in the series, but this moment, in particular, stands out. Rivera faced Ryan Klesko with one out in the ninth and New York up 4-1. Klesko, whose reputation as a powerful lefty bat preceded him, just could not solve Rivera. The nasty cutter resulted in three broken bats for Klesko, in a single at-bat! To add insult to injury, he lost the battle in popping out to second.
It just goes to show despite Rivera’s dominance, every hitter was a new battle for him.
No. 6: Mo's last All-Star Game
I know, I know. The MLB All-Star Game is meaningless, so why even give it attention?
Well, in this case, it’s because this one was during Rivera’s 2013 farewell tour. It was his last All-Star Game and, in a sweet turn of poetic justice, the game was held at Citi Field, home of the crosstown rival New York Mets. Rivera didn’t even get the save in this game, as American League skipper Jim Leyland had him pitch the eighth inning.
Well, after entering to a thunderous standing ovation from fans and players alike, Rivera got three quick outs and exited to further applause. In the AL’s 3-0 victory, he was also named All-Star Game MVP. It was a largely symbolic award, but it stands as a testament to how respected and beloved Rivera was.
No. 5: The 500th save
We’re going to keep it at Citi Field while also going back to 2009 for the halfway point of the countdown, this time for yet another career milestone. Seriously, folks, Rivera has so many career-defining moments, he probably can dive into a safe full of them a la Scrooge McDuck.
This game saw him come on to get four outs, as he was so often called upon to do in his career. In this case, he made it look easy as he went 1.1 innings to notch his 500th career save in a 4-2 win. That it came against the Mets made it that much sweeter.
No. 4: The Game 6 preview
Anticipation was heavy for Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. Not only were the Yankees up three games to two, but a win would mean their first World Series title since 1978. Thus, with the Yankees up 3-1 against a dangerous Atlanta Braves lineup, Rivera entered in the seventh inning to protect the lead.
The second-year stud did not disappoint, tossing two innings and only allowing a walk before John Wetteland took over in the ninth. Little did we all know this would become the postseason norm for Rivera, putting the team on his back when they needed him the most.
No. 3: Mo makes history
In a career defined by greatness, one can’t help but come back to this moment of Rivera’s storied career. It was a rare afternoon game on Sept. 19, 2011 and the Yankees were up 6-4 on the Minnesota Twins. Rivera came on to pitch the ninth and, once again, made it look easy.
But this save was different. With his strikeout of Chris Parmelee, he notched his 602nd career save and passed fellow Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman for first on the all-time list. The fans roared, teammates mobbed him, and not just because it was his 43rd save of the season.
It was a historical occasion for one of the best in history, and just one of many Hall of Fame moments in his career.
No. 2: Mo says goodbye
Sept. 26, 2013 was an emotional game for Yankee fans, especially myself. I remember it vividly, watching the Yankees trail the Tampa Bay Rays 4-0 in a rare non-playoff season. Moreover, this was Rivera’s last game at Yankee Stadium. His appearance was largely out of respect, and rightfully so.
Despite the circumstances, Rivera tossed 1.1 perfect innings in what wound up being the last game of his career. He was removed with two outs in the ninth, but quite unconventionally.
You see, it wasn’t manager Joe Girardi who came to take the ball from Mo, but rather two of his teammates and closest friends in Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. The hugs were tight, the tears were real, and the fans’ applause was deafening. Sitting on my couch in my apartment, I too stood up to applaud while tears streamed down my face.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew Rivera’s goodbye was coming. This just made it real, and I realized along with millions of others I wasn’t ready for the end.
No. 1: Shutting down Boston
Every Yankees fan remembers the emotional roller coaster that was Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The Bronx Bombers were matched up with the hated Boston Red Sox, who seemed all but certain to win this game before New York’s epic comeback.
Enter Mariano Rivera with the score tied 5-5 in the ninth inning, and he worked his usual magic. Except, this wasn’t typical Rivera. This wasn’t throwing two scoreless innings and saying good luck to whoever took the ball next. No, Rivera threw three scoreless innings as Boston’s powerful lineup managed just two hits off of him. Never before have I seen a lineup just not know what to do against a pitcher who just had their number.
This happened next, Rivera fell to the field and cried the best tears of joy, and the rest is history: