Does Mariano Rivera stand alone as the greatest reliever in baseball history?
No, says Goose Gossage.
Does Rivera stand among the greatest?
Yes, says Goose.
Goose wants to be sure his admiration for Rivera is abundantly clear before he makes a few points about his friend.
"He's as good a person as he is a pitcher," Goose says. "I love Mariano. You can't help but love Mariano. That's just the kind of person he is. He's solid, man. Solid. Please, I don't want this to sound like sour grapes."
Still, Goose wonders if Rivera belongs alone atop the list of baseball relievers. For the past few months, Rivera embarked on a long farewell tour, earning universal applause before he walked into the sunset. He ranks as baseball's all-time saves leader with 652, and his cutter, a split-fingered fastball, helped propel the New York Yankees to five World Series titles.
"He didn't have a greater career than anybody else," says Goose, a Wasson High grad and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame for his exploits as a reliever. "I mean, Mariano is very good. He's one of the best relievers of all time."
But several other relievers should stand alongside Rivera at the pinnacle, Goose says. He believes Trevor Hoffman, Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley belong beside Rivera atop the relievers' list.
Goose pitched 22 seasons, 1972-94, and made his name as reliever for the Yankees and Padres. He pitched in 1,002 games, struck out 1,502 and when he retired his save total of 310 ranked behind only Fingers on the all-time list. In 1980, at the height of his power, Goose finished third in American League Most Valuable Player voting.
He can't help but wonder how dominant he would have been if he had labored in Rivera's role as a one-inning closer. Goose often worked the last three innings of games during the pioneering days of relief pitching. Rivera spent his career seeking three outs in the ninth.
"Had I been used like these guys, like these closers ." Gossage says, his voice trailing off as he liberates his imagination. "Nobody could touch my fastball for one inning."
Goose is not a big fan of the modern mutations of baseball. He's been a courageous, outspoken skeptic of the big numbers batters collected during The Steroid Era, which we can all pray is in our past.
But his skepticism fails to end there. He believes players are treated as gently as, using one of his favorite words, "babies."
Relievers once worked several innings. Now, Goose says, many relievers are only asked to throw several pitches. A closer, in Goose's eyes, is an extremely limited role. Crucial, but limited.
"It takes three guys to do what we used to do by ourselves," Goose says, meaning Sutter, Eckersley, Fingers, Lyle and himself. "Hey, Mariano's a great reliever and I respect everything that he's done, believe me. But if we had been used for one inning, we would have 650 saves or whatever."
Rivera should enjoy his saves record while he can, Goose cautions. In the age of specialization, the record will not stand for long.
"There's going to be another guy with 650 saves," Goose says. "There's going to be a guy who is going to break Mariano's record."