New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera absolutely is the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history -- but not because he pocketed his 602nd career save Monday night, lifting him atop the all-time list. (He added No. 603 on Wednesday.)
Rivera is the best ever because he had the longest stretch of mind-blowing dominance. He prospered in the postseason, becoming the modern-day Mr. October. He made opponents feel as if they had no chance to erase a ninth-inning deficit.
If saves are a true measure of greatness -- and they're not, clearly -- then John Franco and Billy Wagner were better than Dennis Eckersley. By the same barometer, Jose Mesa and Todd Jones were better than Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter.
That would be funny if it weren't so stupid.
The "save" might count as baseball's least reliable statistic, given the way closers are used in today's game. Brian Wilson and the Giants offered fresh evidence Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, when Wilson entered the game with two outs in the ninth, his team leading 8-4 and two runners on base.
Manager Bruce Bochy, still trying to ease Wilson back into the fray after his elbow injury, saw him allow an RBI single and then collect the last out on a fly ball.
If that's a save, then Wilson wears a wisp of hair on his chin.
There's no easy way to fix the rules, but here's a start: Dump the provision allowing relievers to pick up a save when they enter the game with the potential tying run on deck. That's lame. The hitter in the on-deck circle cannot tie the game with one swing. Make a reliever who enters in the ninth face the tying run.
Baseball's obsession with cold, objective numbers makes it daunting to compare closers. As one colleague put it, those who stirred a "hope is lost" feeling among their foes -- Rivera for the long haul, or Eckersley for five transcendent seasons (1988-92) with the A's -- are really the best.
So the 603 saves are nice and all. But they don't really tell the story.