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Mariano Rivera, most respected opponent

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 8, 2013 11:33 AM

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In what he will confirm Saturday as his final season, I hope Mariano Rivera, the career saves leader with 608, punctuates his impossibly accomplished and dignified career by claiming the single-season record as his own.

Sixty-three saves might seem out of reach for a 43-year-old coming off major knee surgery, particularly since reaching that number might require saving every single one of the creaky and tattered Yankees' victories.

But if there's anything I've learned watching him since his who-the-heck-is-this-guy-and-how-does-he-get-the-baseball-to-do-that? introduction in the 1995 American League Divisional Series, it's that doubting Rivera is particularly fruitless endeavor. If only they'd traded him for Felix Fermin when they had the chance.

I think I began suggesting Rivera might slip sometime around 2005. I think I gave up about four years ago, and if there are signs of aging, good luck finding them in the numbers -- his ERA has been 1.94 or lower in eight of the past 10 seasons, and his career adjusted ERA of 206 remains the best among any pitcher ever, with Pedro Martinez a distant second at 154.

He won't be a unanimous Hall of Famer because of a goofy tradition of never allowing it to happen and a stigma against closers, but I can't think of many more deserving to be the first. (Greg Maddux would be one, maybe the one.)

If baseball's current oldest active player didn't have such uncommonly good-nature and grace, you'd think he was a cyborg created in a Steinbrenner-funded lab, designed to effortlessly throw the perfect cutter to the perfect spot, every single time.

His legacy is enhanced even beyond Hall of Fame lock status by the five championships in New York and his extraordinary talent/knack for being at his best in the biggest moments -- his postseason ERA is 0.70 compared to 2.21 in the regular season.

The nature of the job and Rivera's mien of invincibility mean his high-profile failures, inevitable for even the greatest closers, will linger, and he has had a few memorable ones: The Luis Gonzalez bloop in '01, Bill Mueller in '04 and Bill Mueller in '04 again and ... well, there haven't been many more, the saves under any circumstances usually piling up like shattered Louisville Sluggers.

The Red Sox have actually had relative success against Rivera – in 109 games versus Boston, he has 54 saves, a 2.80 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP in 119 innings. There were times when he was invincible – they couldn't touch him in three innings during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, and they may not have scored in 300 innings against him.

But more than any win or loss against him, he will most be remembered for that good-humored, pitch-perfect response when he received a mock cheer from Fenway fans during the ring ceremony on Opening Day 2005. Rivera smiled, waved his hat, laughed genuinely, seeming to truly appreciate the moment.

I believe it was on that day that he became the most respected opponent in Red Sox history, classy in his many victories and even classier while being reminded of a defeat.

It's unlikely that the Red Sox and Yankees will add another postseason chapter to their storied history this season, and so it appears Rivera's final game at Fenway, presuming he pitches, would be September 15.

For any other opponent who had defeated the Red Sox so many times over the years, the temptation might be to send him off into retirement with a collective "good riddance."

But this is no ordinary opponent. This is Mariano Rivera, most respected opponent, and there's only one way to say goodbye. The final Fenway salute to him simply must be as genuine and perfect as his salute to you on that sunny day in April 2005.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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