Papelbon awed, motivated by Rivera

Papelbon awed, motivated by Rivera

BOSTON -- When Jonathan Papelbon sees his friend Mariano Rivera later this week, he will be in the company of Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader.

Papelbon will feel both awe and motivation when he congratulates the man known as Mo. His is the record Papelbon hopes to one day possess.

Statistically speaking, it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility that Papelbon could pass Rivera in career saves. But he will need to be blessed by the same great health Rivera has had for all these years.

The seemingly ageless Rivera recorded save No. 602 to surpass Trevor Hoffman's record on Monday at Yankee Stadium.

Papelbon currently has 218 saves, the most recent of which he saved at the age of 30 years and 10 months. When Rivera notched his 218th save, he was 32 years and four months.

Not only would Papelbon love to pass Rivera, he's even told him as much.

"I've told Mo, he's the man of chase," Papelbon said. "I'm going to go after him. There's no question."

Papelbon knows he will need a lot of good fortune to get there.

"I look at it like this: The guy is a freak," said Papelbon. "I know he's a handsome looking guy and has those beautiful pearly whites, but he's a freak."

He is a "freak" that happens to drive Papelbon more than any other player in the game.

Even if Papelbon does some day become the all-time leader, it would in no way diminish his respect for Rivera.

"Even if I do some day pass him up, and I'm able to stay healthy for that many years, I still will regard him, and not myself, as the greatest closer ever, just because of the simple fact of what he's done for this role," said Papelbon, who will see Rivera on Friday, when the Red Sox and Yankees open a three-game series in New York. "When you look up closer, the definition, in the dictionary, that's Mariano."

The other active closer who has a real chance to break the saves record is Francisco Rodriguez, who has 291 saves and is younger than you might think, at 29.

K-Rod has lost plenty of save opportunities down the stretch of this season, thanks to being traded from the Mets to the Brewers and becoming a setup man.

Papelbon is fortunate in that he's one of a precious few in the history of closers who has basically served in that role since Day One. The only time Papelbon was not a closer was during three callups in 2005, when he was a starter and a middle reliever.

He is the only closer in history to have 30-plus saves in his first six full seasons.


"I owe a lot of gratitude to him because of what he's done. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him."

-- Jonathan Papelbon
on Mariano Rivera

This isn't by accident. Papelbon suffered a right shoulder subluxation that knocked him out for the final month of his rookie season of 2006.

To Papelbon, it was a wake-up call that he needed to work harder to keep his shoulder strong. Perhaps overshadowed by his boisterous and flaky demeanor, Papelbon is very driven when it comes to his job.

He also never sees himself doing anything ever again but closing. The only question is whether it will continue to be for the Red Sox. Papelbon is eligible for free agency in November.

What has impressed Papelbon most about Rivera?

"The biggest thing that's impressed me, that I've tried to emulate, is his ability to play 162 games, to prepare himself every night and be able to forget the games when he comes in there and picks the team up and gets a save and still be able to forget the games when he goes in there and blows a game," Papelbon said. "That single-handedly takes precedence over everything else, in my opinion."

This season, Papelbon has shown the ability to make people forget about his 2010 campaign, which was easily the worst of his career. He had a career-worst eight blown saves and an ERA of 3.90. In no other season has Papelbon's ERA been at 3 or above.

In 2011, Papelbon has a 2.56 ERA and has converted 30 of his 31 save opportunities.

The fact that Rivera hardly ever has prolonged slumps -- and has never had a down season -- is another thing that drives Papelbon.

"I've always referred to him as the Godfather of our role, and that's what he is," Papelbon said. "He's the Godfather, man. I always tell him that I'm coming to vacation in Panama to find the fountain of youth that he's got hidden somewhere down there. Not only that, but what he's done for the game of baseball, too, it's pretty special. He's a pretty special player in the history of the game."

Rivera -- and the aura he has created in his role -- is one of the main reasons Papelbon had no interest in continuing to pursue his original goal of being a starting pitcher.

"I owe a lot of gratitude to him because of what he's done. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him," Papelbon said. "I think everybody knows that. The closer's role wouldn't be as noted. More and more now, people and teams and fans are starting to realize, because of Mariano, how important it is to have that closer to win a World Series."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.