Yet only two candidates appear to be locks for eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, a pair of stalwarts of their trade and shining examples of how difficult it is to perform as a closer for a lengthy period of time.
Rivera and Hoffman represent the best of the "new breed" of closers, which is to say that though Goose Gossage has insisted that he cannot be classified alongside them, they compare well with Dennis Eckersley and Smith in terms of dominance during the post-1980s closer era.
Just five relievers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including Gossage, who went in last summer. But Rivera and Hoffman should someday join the club, helping to set the bar by which today's late-inning relievers can be judged.
"That would be a special treat," Rivera told the New York Daily News last year. "To be able to have the opportunity to be part of the Hall of Fame is the cream of the cream, the pinnacle, the top.
"That's what every player wishes for. We have the opportunity to one day be part of that with the five closers already there. That's a select group."
Rivera has been defined as the best closer of his generation, with his resume immeasurably helped by his postseason success. With 34 saves and a 0.77 ERA in 76 postseason games, Rivera has succeeded on baseball's biggest stage with the currency of closers, and he has the four World Series rings to prove it.
The owner of a dominant cut fastball for the ages, Rivera is the all-time American League leader with 482 saves. Over the past decade, he leads the Major Leagues with 398 saves, and during one span, he recorded 35 or more saves in eight out of nine seasons; at age 38, Rivera turned in one of his best seasons, posting a 1.40 ERA and converting 39 of 40 chances.
"It's a blessing to have the opportunities, and you have to be blessed to pitch that long," Rivera said recently. "It's not about numbers. It's about having the opportunity to help the team, because without having my teammates to give me the opportunities, I would never have that."
Though, as he and Hoffman could commiserate, Rivera has experienced his share of heartache. Rivera blew Game 4 of the 1997 AL Division Series to Cleveland, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to Arizona and Game 4 to Boston in the 2004 AL Championship Series, which the Red Sox came back to win in historic style from an 0-3 deficit.
Closers play with fire on a nightly basis, and sometimes they get burned. That's a fact of life Hoffman can appreciate, especially working offspeed with an iconic changeup to become baseball's first 500-save man and the game's all-time saves leader, with 554 heading into the 2009 season.
"I feel uncomfortable talking about it. I feel like it's a bit selfish," Hoffman once said. "To strictly say that there's a place for guys who've been closers their entire career, I think so. But where I fit in the whole scheme of things, that's out of my hands."
Yet his consistency since breaking into the league in 1993 is admirable, as well as his longevity in a specialty role. Hoffman's 217 saves from 1998-2002 are the second most by a closer over a five-year period, just three shy of the tally compiled by Eckersley from 1988-92.
"Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, in my opinion," Commissioner Bud Selig once said. "So is Mariano Rivera. Look, Yogi Berra once said, 'If you ain't got relief pitching, you ain't got nothing.' So where in my mind do you think Trevor Hoffman figures? Relief pitchers are critical."
|"Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, in my opinion. So is Mariano Rivera. Look, Yogi Berra once said, 'If you ain't got relief pitching, you ain't got nothing.' So where in my mind do you think Trevor Hoffman figures? Relief pitchers are critical."|
|-- Commissioner Bud Selig|
Rivera saved three of the four games that fall and Hoffman blew Game 3 on a Scott Brosius homer; Hoffman also cost the NL home-field advantage with a blown save in the 2006 All-Star Game, but his standing as the all-time saves leader and the only pitcher to hit the 500-save plateau cannot be ignored.
"It's difficult to talk about your place in the game," Hoffman said. "The question is, where do you stand in the history of the game? It's a tough subject. If you talk about things like 3,000 hits, that's a ticket to get in. Unfortunately, in my specialty role, no criteria has been set yet."
The requirements for a closer have changed dramatically in this generation, where the so-called "firemen" examples from the likes of Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter have been relegated to the history books.
Rarely will a closer be asked to record much more than three outs these days. The Yankees insist every spring that they will not use Rivera in the eighth inning, only to break that promise in emergencies time and time again.
Still, Rivera's most innings pitched in a season since becoming a full-time closer was 80 2/3 in 2001, when he appeared in 71 games. Hoffman's most was 88 in 1996, spanning 70 appearances.
"Don't even compare me with Hoffman or Rivera," Gossage once sniffed. "I'd love to have been used like them."
But times change, and today's closers should not be penalized for having been born when they were. Francisco Rodriguez whipped 62 saves into a new big-money contract with the Mets, enthralling general manager Omar Minaya as the top choice to revamp a bullpen.
"In the end," Minaya said, "there's Mariano and then there's Frankie."
K-Rod's flash of success has been extended with a high strikeout rate and four consecutive seasons of 40 or more saves, already ranking 36th on the all-time list. But Rodriguez will need to keep up his reign for longer than the three years under contract at new Citi Field to seriously challenge for Cooperstown.
Billy Wagner, the man whom K-Rod effectively replaces in Flushing, saved 385 games and posted a 2.40 ERA in 14 big league seasons and is not done yet. His case will merit consideration someday, and though he does not jump out as an obvious choice, he sits just five saves shy of Eckersley's tally.
"Even though I'm left-handed, I look at myself as the same kind of closer Goose was. Just let it go," Wagner said last year. "He's going just where I want to go. I'm so glad he got in. He opens the door a little wider for closers."
How wide will that door open? Clearly, there must be some level of quality control, and if Rivera and Hoffman are setting a new standard, that makes the task lofty for the second tier like Wagner and Troy Percival -- pitchers who will likely gather some support, but could just as easily fall short.
Just what that means in the future for the current crop remains to be seen. No team is excited about seeing the likes of saves gatherers Jose Valverde, Joakim Soria, Brad Lidge, Brian Fuentes or Joe Nathan in the late innings, but stating a case for Cooperstown would be a silly exercise at this early juncture.
Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, one of the rising young stars in the closing world, compared himself to the longtime Yankee last spring, saying, "Mariano Rivera has been doing it for the past 10 years. With me coming up behind him, I feel a certain obligation to do the same."
Easier said than done; the road to Cooperstown is littered with those who have fallen by the wayside. It seems prudent to mention the case of Eric Gagne, who strapped his goggles on and made the phrase "Game Over" his own, after converting 84 straight saves for the Dodgers.
Gagne scored a couple of big contracts before injuries took their toll and the bright flash of light seemed complete. The case illustrates how difficult it is for a closer to keep that same steady, even plane of dominance.
That variance and fluctuation make the respective achievements of Hall of Fame front-runners like Rivera and Hoffman all the more remarkable. It is unclear to what extent voters will agree, but there is little either can do but keep working and wait to see how Cooperstown will eventually regard their achievements.
"Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't think about it," Hoffman said. "I'd love to one day write a speech and accept something. But it's hard for me to put myself in that kind of company."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.