Exit Sandman: Rivera leaves as all-time great

“And now, the end is here, and so I face the final curtain…I traveled each and every highway, and more, much more than this, I did it my way.”

Leave it to Frankie Blue Eyes, he of New York, New York fame, to provide the closing lyrics to the best career as a closer that baseball will likely ever see.

Mariano Rivera stepped off the mound at Yankee Stadium for the final time Thursday night, 19 years and a record 652 saves after his first appearance in 1995. The send off was classic Yankees. He recorded four outs through the 8th and 9th innings, and with two gone in the 9th, it wasn’t Manager Joe Girardi stepping out of the dugout to end his night.

Longtime teammates Derek Jeter (who will soon get an equally emotional send off) and Andy Pettitte walked to the mound together to call in another reliever and give Mo the ovation he deserved.

The thing with greatness is that it’s often taken for granted in sports, but Rivera was one of those talents that couldn’t be overlooked, at least once he entrenched himself as the best closer in baseball.

It’s hard to believe, but he was once an undrafted free agent out of Panama that the Yankees took a chance on as a starting pitcher. He toiled in the Minors for five years before getting the call to the Bronx, where he started games early in his first season. Later that same year, 1995, he was moved to the bullpen and history began to unfold.

The numbers are astounding. His 652 saves are 51 more than second place on the list, and he’s finished 952 games in his 19-year career. He did it all with an aura of invincibility and a single pitch, a cut fastball that will go down as one of the game’s all-time best.

His longtime Manager Joe Torre put it best, though. “Let’s face it,” Torre told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “The regular season for Mo is great, but that’s the cupcakes and the ice cream. What separates him from everybody else is what he’s done in the postseason.” And what he’s done in the postseason is nothing short of incredible.”

The records include: lowest career ERA (0.70), most saves (42), most consecutive saves (23), most consecutive scoreless innings (33-1/3), and most appearances (96).

It’s funny, though. It seems many times with the greatest players some of our most vivid memories are of the few times they don’t come through when it matters most. It’s those fleeting moments of failure that stick with us, and Rivera is no different. He lost one game in his postseason career, one failure in 96 appearances, and that’s the one I remember. It was Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Rivera came in to wrap up another Yankees title, but his throwing error and a bases loaded bloop single sent the Arizona Diamondbacks home with the title instead.

I didn’t bring that up to lessen Rivera’s legacy, but actually to strengthen it. People know him on the field as the fearless closer who enters the field to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, but the real Rivera is just as important. That’s the Rivera that you find when talking about the 2001 World Series.

“Sometimes your best is not enough. And that’s what I took from that,” he recently told CBS New York. “It wasn’t (meant) for us.  If it was (meant) for us, we would have won that game, especially that Game 7.  To me it was good — we gave everything, I gave everything, the whole team gave everything, and we fell short.”

That’s the draw of Mariano Rivera. To play for a team as polarizing as the New York Yankees and be universally loved and respected is a feat few will ever pull off, but Mo does it. For 19 years he did it the right way, silently adding up Hall of Fame numbers, saying and doing the right things and redefining the closer position in baseball.

It’s been fun to watch, but everyone has to find the exit eventually, even the Sandman.