Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher grounded into an inning-ending double play and The Bronx erupted. The 40,045 fans at Yankee Stadium knew they would witness history.
More than two decades after a skinny, unimpressive Panamanian prospect had cemented his place as the greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera added another record to an already untouchable legacy, becoming the all-time saves leader, with his 602nd career save coming in a 6-4 win over the Twins on Sept. 19, 2011.
Rivera, who recorded his first save on May 17, 1996, broke a tie with former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman for the most saves — a statistic which became official in 1969 — in history with a perfect ninth inning, capped with a three-pitch strikeout of Chris Parmelee.
When Rivera, then 41, closed out the ninth inning, catcher Russell Martin gave him the ball and a hug. The five-time World Series champion was soon surrounded by the rest of the team, as his father, mother, wife and children proudly watched from the stands.
The famously modest reliever attempted to leave the field alongside his teammates, before Jorge Posada pushed him back onto the mound, forcing Rivera to soak in an extended ovation from a crowd — the smallest announced attendance in the three-year history of the new Yankee Stadium — which had seen Derek Jeter collect his 3,000th hit earlier in the season.
“For the first time in my career, I was on the mound by myself,” Rivera said. “Nobody was behind me. Nobody was in front of me. I can’t describe the feeling because it was priceless. I didn’t know what the moment would be like that. All I have to say is I was thanking God in that moment. It was an indescribable feeling.”
While fans eagerly awaited the record-breaking opportunity, Rivera couldn’t wait until the moment passed.
“I was getting more uncomfortable,” Rivera said of the focus on the record. “I’m a team player and when things like this come up, I kind of feel like it’s not right to have so much attention on me. I like to be under the radar and to do my job. Now it’s over, and we have places to go. We’re looking forward to the playoffs.”
Rivera’s 16th trip to the postseason — ending with an ALDS loss to the Tigers — would be his last. After becoming the first pitcher over 40 to record at least 40 saves in 2011, Rivera suffered a season-ending ACL injury in May 2012, then returned for one more season before retiring.
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He finished with 652 saves, then became the first-ever player voted into the Hall of Fame unanimously on the first ballot.
Craig Kimbrel leads all active pitchers with 346 saves.
“It’s a blessing,” Rivera said. “I never thought that I’d be doing this for so many years and be able to accomplish (this) record.”
“To think that he really burst on the scene in 1996 and, you know, we’re talking a lot of seasons later and he’s still doing it at a high level. He’s got over 40 saves this year. … That doesn’t really happen very often when you’re (42) years old,” Girardi said.