Career save No. 10 for Mariano Rivera came on April 21, 1997, at what was then known as New Comiskey Park. The New York Yankees defeated the Chicago White Sox 4-3. Rivera, in his first season as a full-time closer, was 27 years old.
The starting pitcher for Chicago that night: Doug Drabek.
“Oh, yeah?” replied Brett Lawrie. “Kyle’s dad.”
Yes. Kyle’s dad.
Lawrie, like Kyle Drabek, is a rookie with the Toronto Blue Jays, who were silenced in Saturday’s ninth inning for the 601st save of Rivera’s career. With his 1-2-3 inning — of course — Rivera tied Trevor Hoffman atop the all-time list. Immortality is three outs away.
Saturday’s save was a tweener — one more than the round number baseball commemorates and, well, one shy of the record Rivera has said deserves the grandest celebration. So, we should follow his wishes. Let’s wait to soak in all the statistics until after No. 602.
This, instead, was the day to appreciate the humanistic quality to Rivera’s career: He isn’t merely the greatest closer of all time, a certain Hall of Famer on the first ballot. More than that, Rivera has been great enough, for long enough, that he has prevailed over multiple generations of baseball players — and, in this case, baseball families.
Fourteen years after Rivera saved a game in which Doug Drabek took the loss, Rivera preserved a 7-6 New York victory in which Kyle Drabek pitched the final two innings. Told of the link on Sunday, Kyle Drabek grinned and replied, “That’s what happens when you’ve been a great pitcher in this league for about 30 years.” To the hitters, of course, it seems like it’s been that long.
Now the Drabeks have something in common with hundreds upon hundreds of players who have opposed the Yankees during the Rivera Era: Mo’s team won; theirs didn’t.
“Pretty much what Mo has done his whole career,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Lawrie, talented and appropriately brash, represents Toronto’s hope for the future. The Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since 1993 — so long ago that Rivera was pitching for the Class A Greensboro (NC) Hornets at the time. Lawrie, a native of British Columbia, is part of the group that can take them back.
Lawrie is 21. Rivera is 41. But the legend of the cut fastball only seems to have grown with time. As the second batter in Saturday’s ninth, Lawrie became the 1,134th hitter to break his bat in a futile effort to square up Rivera’s signature pitch.
OK, I’m guessing on that number. But if I’m off, it’s not by much. Rivera has been turning Louisville Sluggers into kindling since 1995 — when Lawrie was 5 years old.
Add another to the pile.
“When I was younger, we would always watch the World Series,” Lawrie said. “One time, I was out trick-or-treating with my dad. One house had the Yankees game on, in the World Series. I asked how they were doing, and they let me come in to watch. Mariano was pitching.”
“That’s a memory from a long, long time ago.”
In that way, for those who follow the sport and cherish its narrative, Rivera is the figure by which the game’s history has been measured for a decade and a half.
If we were to bury a time capsule of baseball’s on-field events from Rivera’s debut until the present day, the most important artifacts would relate to the Yankees’ five world championships, the end of Boston’s 86-year longing and the emotional October that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Rivera played a starring role in each of those events, and his failures linger in our collective memory because they are so few in number.
Curtis Granderson, a native of Chicago’s south suburbs, nonetheless grew up rooting for the Atlanta Braves. He was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago when Rivera faced his favorite team three times in the 1999 World Series. He saved two games and won the other to earn Series MVP honors.
Now, the two are teammates. Saturday, Granderson hit the game-winning home run and squeezed the final out in center field.
“The cool thing (is) I caught the ball, I’m coming in, and everyone’s like, ‘Keep it! It’s worth a lot!’ ” Granderson said. “Obviously, I can’t. It’s so cool, as it starts to unfold, that you get to be part of it. A no-hitter will happen and happen and happen again.
“But this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Come to think of it, Granderson probably wasn’t far from the ballpark when Rivera sealed that defeat for the elder Drabek in 1997. At the time, Granderson was a sophomore at Thornton Fractional South High School — 20 miles away.
That night, Girardi batted eighth and caught for the Yankees. Ozzie Guillen hit ninth and started at shortstop for the White Sox. Now, the two are managing those teams. There was a Fielder in the New York lineup — Cecil, not Prince.
So much has changed. But the cutters, the broken bats, the subtle fist pumps and the handshake lines have not. Rivera’s greatness will put him in the Hall of Fame, but it’s the permanence that has made him the best we’ve ever seen.