Mariano Rivera has been around so long he wears the No. 42 on the back of his New York Yankees uniform.
The No. 42 was retired throughout baseball in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson, although players who were wearing the number at the time were given permission to continue to wear it.
Rivera is the last No. 42 standing.
At the age of 41, in his 17th big-league season, Rivera is still going strong.
He might have lost an mph or two of velocity, but he has climbed to the top of the all-time save list, chalking up No. 602 in a 6-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Monday at Yankee Stadium and moving ahead of the retired Trevor Hoffman.
"And what really stands out is he did this playing in the American League East," said Jason Giambi. "That’s where you find out what kind of player you are, the AL East. And that’s where he spent his entire career."
Rivera gives every indication that he’s far from done.
And he’s still doing the job the way he did the job back in his rookie season of 1995, when the Yankees were toying with using him in the rotation before initially settling him into a bullpen role as the setup man for closer John Wetteland.
Giambi was a rookie with Oakland back in 1995 and, like Rivera, is active today, although Giambi’s role has been reduced to a pinch-hit specialist with the Colorado Rockies. And not only has he faced Rivera in his early years and more recent ones, but he also was a Yankee teammate with the Panamanian right-hander from 2002-08.
"The things that made him so successful from Day 1 were presence and preparation," Giambi said. "Even when he was younger he was so good with his location of his pitches. He had that cutter that ran up on you at 93, 94 miles per hour. He had other pitches, too, but the cutter was his bread and butter. He was throwing saw blades up there, chewing up bats.
"The amazing thing is 17 years later the cutter is still his bread and butter. He runs it in on you and ties you up."
Jeff Huson was a left-handed-hitting utility player when Rivera broke in, and as a result, Huson would frequently face the right-handed Rivera.
And, said Huston, it was a challenge.
"I remember standing on the plate, and he kept running that pitch in on my hands," Huson said. "So next time I moved as far from the plate as I could, back in the far corner of the batter’s box. What happened? He still ran that pitch in on my hands. His control is so good.
"There’s no way you could say 17 years ago that he was going to set the save record, but when someone mentions to you today that he has set it, you understand why. He was special and he has been durable, too."
Ty Wigginton has spent all or part of 10 years in the big leagues, playing for seven different teams, including Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the AL East. And what he has discovered is that the more a hitter sees of Rivera the more Rivera has to show them.
"You hear about the cutter and that’s his pitch, but when you are in his division, when he’s going to see you in six series a year, he will mix in a sinker that catches you off guard," Wigginton said.
Having spent the bulk of the last two years with Oakland, Kevin Kouzmanoff received a first-hand glimpse of Rivera.
"You go up against him and eliminate everything except the cutter and it still doesn’t work," Kouzmanoff said. "He challenged you with that pitch and … You think the pitch is right there, you swing and it’s not there anymore."
The record, however, was more than an ability to throw a cut fastball.
"Biggest thing," Kouzmanoff said, "is that he not only has that special ability but he has been able to stay healthy for such a long period of time. He’s been able to regularly take the ball and get the job done."
After that partial season in his rookie year, when he started and relieved, Rivera has put together a 16-year run out of the bullpen in which he has never worked fewer than 45 games in a season, and only once appeared in fewer than 50.
In the 15 seasons he has been the Yankees closer he has had 30 or more saves 14 times. His 3.15 ERA in 2007 was the only time in 16 seasons he had an ERA that exceeded 3.00. This season, he has flirted with a sub-2.00 ERA for the 11th time in his career.
"Every player has an off year," Wigginton said. "Well, every player except Mariano. Just think of the consistency he has had in a job that doesn’t usually have a long shelf life. He hasn’t just been good. He has been dominant."
And it doesn’t matter, left-handed (.207 lifetime batting average) or right-handed (.214 average)
"A lot of pitchers throw a ‘cutter,’ but nobody throws one like Rivera’s," Todd Helton said. "His cutter chases you. It’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen. You know it’s coming. You adjust for it and you can’t hit it. Even when you know what it is going to do, you can’t make your bat swing.’’
What stood out to Giambi was the calm approach Rivera maintains, on and off the field.
"With most guys if you interrupt their routine they stress out," Giambi said. "Not Mariano. He’s always relaxed. He likes to stretch and get a massage before the game. With most guys, they keep a routine, like they want their massage at 1:03 p.m. If Mariano walks in and someone is on the table, it doesn’t bother him. He waits and nobody feels uncomfortable, like they are disrupting him.
"Every day in batting practice, he goes out to center field and shags. It is where he gets his running in. He takes shagging fly balls seriously. People don’t know what a great athlete he is. We used to tease Bernie Williams that if Mariano got bored pitching he was going to take Bernie’s job from him."
Giambi said as a DH with the Yankees, he would go into the clubhouse between innings to stay loose and watch videos, and it gave him an opportunity for personal conversations with Rivera, who would wait until the later innings of a game to go to the bullpen.
"We’d start talking and he was never uptight," said Giambi. "He was asking me about hitters and what they think about in situations. He was always looking for something he could use, something that would give him an edge on a hitter."