Hyperbole is the mother’s milk of sports writers.
Homeruns are lasers, and one was the shot heard ’round the world. Great catches are miraculous. Players who do what they are hired to do are heroes.
But every once in a while, along comes an athlete about whom the hyperbole seems appropriate.
Mariano Rivera, who broke the career saves record when he finished the game in which the Yankees beat the Twins Monday night, may be the most accomplished Yankee of them all.
It would have irritated and offended the imperious Joe DiMaggio to hear that. People who regard Babe Ruth as the legend beside whom all mere mortals must wither won’t agree. Fans of contemporary players may favor Derek Jeter and his three thousand hits over the fellow who registered his 602nd save this week.
But consider the breadth of Mariano Rivera’s achievement, though it’s hard to know where to start in doing so. Good as he was when he began saving games 17 years ago, he has gotten better. Over the past 10 seasons, Rivera has been presented with 423 opportunities to save a game. He has failed to do so just 38 times. He success rate has been 91 percent.
If you are inclined to weigh post-season performance especially heavily when evaluating a player’s worth, consider that while he was accumulating 42 playoff and World Series saves, Rivera compiled an earned run average of 0.71. At one point he saved 23 postseason games in a row.
You have to respect endurance and longevity, right? No reliever but Rivera has made a dozen all-star teams, and he is the first pitcher to appear in 1,000 games with the same team.
In part because of the success they’ve enjoyed historically, the Yankees have lots of fans. In part because of the success they’ve enjoyed historically, the Yankees also draw a lot of enmity.
But if you are a baseball fan, whether another triumph by the Yankees provokes in you joyful shouting or the gnashing of teeth, you should count yourself fortunate to have witnessed the achievement of Mariano Rivera. Pennant races? They are annual. Single season records for homeruns? They’re made to be broken, and sometimes asterisked. But how often can we say we have seen the player who is the best there has ever been at what he does?