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Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

Position(s):
P
Nicknames:
Mo, Super Mariano, The Sandman
Born:
November 29, 1969
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 2"
Weight:
185 lbs
Major League Debut:
5-23-1995 with NYA
Allstar Selections:
1999 BR, 1999 RR, 1999 WsMVP, 2001 RR, 2003 ALCS, 2004 RR, 2005 RR, 2009 RR

Once a generation, baseball produces a player who dominates the game so completely, with such effortless, unassuming grace, that he becomes something more than mortal in the minds of fans, teammates, and opponents. Somewhere along the way, these players stop being men and become something more like forces of nature, with all of nature’s magic and mystery. Joe DiMaggio was one such player. The old man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea regards him with an almost religious awe. The lost soul of Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” calls out for him, as though Joltin’ Joe’s sweet swing were enough to bring back all that was innocent and wonderful about youth.

If Hemingway were starting his writing career today, and if Paul Simon were still working on those lyrics, it’s very likely their subject could have been another pinstriped hero: Mariano Rivera.

Though still active and, by his own account, good for at least five more years of baseball, Mariano Rivera secured his place in baseball’s pantheon long ago. One could devote an entire bio just to cataloging his remarkable achievements: the five World Series titles, the MVP awards, the save titles, and, of course, the unbelievable postseason records. No other relief pitcher in baseball history has postseason numbers that even come close to Rivera’s, and the number of closers who can match his regular-season accomplishments can be counted on one hand. With the soft-spoken way he makes the extraordinary seem routine, Rivera, like DiMaggio before him, has become an almost shaman-like figure in the minds of Yankee fans and haters alike. His very name has become an invocation or a curse, depending on where you stand relative to the batter’s box. There seems to be something almost unfair about the ease with which Rivera overpowers hitters. As former Twins manager Tom Kelly once said, "He needs to pitch in a higher league, if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."

Adding to Rivera’s mystique is his own personal history, which in many ways reads like a fairy tale, with its humble beginnings, near misses, chance encounters, and amazing epiphanies. Born in Panama City, Panama, Mariano Rivera grew up in the small village of Puerto Caimito. Poor and lacking proper equipment, young Mariano and his friends played baseball in the streets, using gloves made out of milk cartons, bats made out of branches, and baseballs made out of shredded fishing netting. Though Rivera enjoyed the game and played it fairly well, he had no aspirations toward baseball stardom. After graduating from high school, Mariano, like his father before him, went to work on a fishing boat. The skinny, lanky 16-year-old found the work of a fisherman - long hours, bad weather, and hazardous conditions – tedious and difficult. Three years later, after he narrowly escaped when a 120-ton boat he was working on capsized, Mariano decided that a life at sea was not the life for him.

Grueling though they may have been, those three years reeling sardines played an unlikely role in Rivera’s development as a ball player. Returning to dry land in 1987, Mariano joined a local amateur baseball team as a shortstop. When Yankees scout Herb Raybourn saw his team play in Panama’s national tournament that year, he was unimpressed by Rivera’s abilities as an infielder, but one thing about the young prospect stood out: his arms. Raybourn later explained, "The only really physical work he was doing was the fishing. But all that fishing, pulling on lines - he was weighing about 160 pounds… His arms had a little bit of definition. I could picture him pitching in the big leagues with that arm.”

Raybourn returned to Panama the following year, acting on a tip from a local scout about a promising young pitcher. When he arrived in Panama City to give the young hurler a tryout, Raybourn was surprised to find it was the same gangly, weak-hitting shortstop he had passed on the year before. In the months since Raybourn had last seen him, Mariano Rivera groomed himself into a pitcher almost by accident. With his club floundering, Mariano volunteered to step in for its ineffective pitcher, even though he himself had never pitched before. The mound seemed a natural fit for Rivera, who soon found he could get hitters out with regularity and relative ease. He didn’t set the radar gun on fire, topping out in the mid-to-high 80’s, but there was something about Rivera’s pitching form that impressed Raybourn enough to offer the youngster a $3,000 contract. Soon thereafter the young right-hander, who spoke no English and had never left home before, was flown to the United States to join the rookie level Yankees of the Gulf Coast League.

Though initially considered a long shot at best as a prospect, Rivera soon developed a reputation as a pitcher with electric stuff and a rubber arm. He rose quickly through the lower ranks of the Yankee farm system, and word of his sparkling ERA and exceptional strikeout-to-walk ratio soon spread to the highest levels of the organization. However, a failed attempt to add a slider to his repertoire led to ligament damage in Rivera’s pitching elbow, forcing him to undergo season-ending surgery in 1992. With the prospect of Tommy John surgery looming, Rivera’s career seemed in doubt, and he was left unprotected by the Yankees in the 1992 expansion draft. Fortunately for the team, Rivera’s initial surgery showed no need for a ligament replacement, and neither the Colorado Rockies nor the Florida Marlins chose him in that year’s draft. Rivera returned to action early in the 1993 season, and over the next two years he continued his rise through the Yankee system, where he developed alongside future teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. There was talk within the organization that the Yankees might deal Rivera to Detroit for starter David Wells, but when Rivera suddenly and explicably upped the velocity on his fastball to 95 miles an hour, they decided to stick with the right-hander, and the talented trio remained intact.

Each member of that trio, a core that has anchored every Yankee championship team since, came to the majors in 1995. Of the three, Rivera had perhaps the most inauspicious debut, lasting barely over 3 innings in a 10-0 shelling at the hands of the California Angels. Showing signs of the composure that later defined his career, Rivera steadied himself after that disastrous first outing, and he finished the year with a respectable 5-3 record over 10 starts, helping the Yankees to the postseason for the first time in 15 years. In the first divisional series ever played, Rivera posted 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, but the Yankees fell to the Seattle Mariners in a dramatic five-game series.

The rookie reliever went on to play a key role in reversing the Yankees’ postseason fortunes the following season. Though Rivera still viewed himself as a starter, he began the season in the Yankee bullpen, where manager Joe Torre slotted him as the bridge to closer John Wettleland. With Rivera handling the seventh and eighth innings, and Wettleland the ninth, the Yankees posted a dazzling 70-3 record when leading after six innings. Though Wettleland held the more prestigious closer’s role, it was Rivera who became the breakout star. Torre identified him as the Yankees’ most indispensable pitcher, while White Sox infielder Ozzie Guillen went even further, calling Rivera the finest pitcher in baseball. He closed the 1996 regular season with a 2.09 ERA and 130 strikeouts over 107 2/3 innings, and placed third in that year’s Cy Young voting.

With Rivera and Wettleland effectively turning baseball games into six-inning affairs, the Yankees won their first division title since 1981, and overcame the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Divisional and Championship Series, respectively. The Yankees then went on to face the heavily favored Atlanta Braves in the World Series, and were thoroughly bested in the first two games at Yankee Stadium. Once the series moved to Atlanta, however, the momentum shifted in favor of the Yankees, who won the next four games to capture their first championship in almost two decades. Rivera made four appearances in the Series, including two innings of hitless relief in the deciding game.

Confident that Rivera could make the transition from setup man to closer, the Yankees allowed World Series MVP Wettleland to sign with the Texas Rangers as a free agent following the 1996 season. Though he blew his first four save opportunities, Rivera rewarded the Yankees’ faith in him by pitching to a 1.88 ERA with 43 saves in 1997. That year proved to be a pivotal season for Rivera; though none could have known at the time, one simple game of catch and one crushing setback that year put Rivera on the path to baseball immortality.

Though he broke into the majors as a self-described “fastball, changeup, slider guy,” Rivera began to narrow his pitching repertoire after a chance game of catch with fellow reliever Ramiro Mendoza. Rivera had been fooling around with different grips, much to Mendoza’s annoyance, and noticed that when he used a cut fastball grip, holding the ball somewhat off center, his fastball crackled with a sharp, unpredictable break. At first, Rivera struggled to control the pitch’s quirks, but, seeing how it baffled both left- and right-handed hitters alike, decided to just let it go. In time, Rivera abandoned all his other pitches (save for a two- or four-seam fastball here and there) in favor of this now infamous cutter, which players and analysts alike have called one of the single most dominating pitches in baseball history.

While the importance of that cutter to Rivera’s subsequent success cannot be overstated, the thing that is perhaps even more significant about that 1997 season is that it gave Rivera his first taste of failure, and his first opportunity to rebound from it. In the postseason that year, with New York leading the ALDS 2-games-to-1 over the Cleveland Indians and leading in Game 4, Rivera was called upon to nail down the last four outs and lead the Yankees to another ALCS appearance. Instead, he gave up a crushing game-tying homer to Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr., just out of the reach of right fielder Paul O’Neill. The Indians went on to win that game and the next, snatching the series from the Yanks in five games.

Many within the Yankee organization had concerns as to whether the diffident, introverted 27-year-old had the mettle to bounce back from such a stunning reversal. Other relievers had been haunted to the point of distraction by similar collapses, but Rivera not only took the defeat in stride, he found in it a source of inspiration. For Rivera, Alomar’s homer was not proof of weakness, but an affirmation of his strength as a pitcher: it was the power of his fastball, not of Alomar’s swing, that had allowed that ball to travel as far as it did. Assured that he had put 1997 behind him, Mariano Rivera arrived at spring training in 1998 with a renewed sense of confidence, and a determination to erase any doubts as to his greatness.

And erase those doubts he did. Over the next three seasons, Mariano Rivera, with his devastating cutter and steely demeanor, established himself as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. With “Mo” closing games with almost clockwork precision and regularity, the Yankees enjoyed a run of postseason success that harkened back to the glory days of Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle. In 1998, Rivera posted a 1.91 ERA with 36 saves for a Yankee team that won a then-record 114 games. That year, there were no playoff dramatics, at least as far as Rivera was concerned. The Yankees stormed through the postseason, punctuating their impressive run with a dominating four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in the World Series. In 13 appearances that postseason, Rivera gave up only six six hits and did not allow an earned run. From 1998 to 2000, Rivera extended that scoreless streak to a record 34 1/3 innings, and he recorded the last outs in the Yankees next two World Series victories, a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves in 1999 (for which Rivera was named World Series MVP), and a 4-1 defeat of the cross-town New York Mets in 2000.

The Yankees advanced to the World Series once again in 2001, this time against the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. It was a series fraught with tension and drama, given added emotional depth by the horrendous attacks of September 11, which had struck New York barely two months prior. Both teams played valiantly, and New York seemed on the verge on capturing another championship after two miraculous come-from-behind wins at Yankee Stadium. The Diamondbacks staved off elimination by taking Game Six in Arizona, but found themselves trailing by a run in the ninth inning of Game Seven. With Rivera, who had notched 50 saves during the regular season that year, on the mound, victory for the Yankees seemed assured. But, aided by a costly Rivera throwing error and two broken-bat singles, the Diamondbacks pulled off an improbable comeback and took the Series from the Yankees.

Rivera bounced back in 2002 with another fine season, though his Yankees were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The next year, he pitched to 1.66 ERA, the lowest of his career up to that point. In the postseason that year, Rivera had what many consider his finest moment: a gutsy, three-inning, scoreless performance that secured a dramatic comeback victory over the rival Boston Red Sox in Game Seven in the ALCS. Rivera was named the Championship Series MVP for his gritty pitching, but the heavily favored Yankees were subsequently upset by the upstart Florida Marlins in the World Series. In 2004, the Yankees once again faced the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, but this time the Red Sox gained revenge against Rivera. The New York closer had been especially dominant that season, collecting 53 saves, a record for a Yankee reliever. Days before the ALCS began, however, Rivera received word that two of his relatives had been accidentally electrocuted in a pool on his property in Panama. Though shocked and grieving, Rivera returned from their funerals in time to save Game One for the Yankees, who went on to win the next two games to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-games-to-none lead over the Sox. The Yankees seemed poised to capture yet another pennant with Rivera on the mound and New York leading in the ninth inning of Game Four. But a costly leadoff walk to Kevin Millar and a clutch steal by pinch-runner Dave Roberts sparked an unlikely rally, and the Sox shocked the baseball world by winning that game and the next three, thereby becoming the first team in baseball history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series. Boston then went on to win the World Series, ending an 86-year-old championship drought. When Rivera blew his first two save opportunities against the Red Sox the following season, many members of the media openly wondered whether the old Mariano magic was gone forever, and a few even began penning career eulogies for the veteran closer. Rivera answered his critics by posting one of the best seasons of his career, finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting with an extraordinary 1.39 ERA, and a 7-4 record with 43 saves. Although he continued to be especially stingy in the postseason, his Yankees stumbled through early October exits over the next few years, and missed the playoffs entirely in 2008, ending a record 13-year postseason streak for Rivera. In 2009, the Yankees returned with a new stadium, a new cast of characters, and a renewed sense of purpose. Rivera struggled early in the season, again leading to questions about his effectiveness. Nevertheless, he collected his 500th career save on June 28th, becoming only the second pitcher in major league history to reach that milestone. He also earned his tenth All-Star selection that year, and he set yet another record by notching his fourth save in the midsummer classic. Rivera finished the season with a torrid second half, and he was practically unhittable during the postseason, pitching 16 innings, allowing only one earned run and notching five saves. He was on the mound to clinch the Yankees’ World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, giving Rivera his fifth World Series ring and further cementing his reputation as the greatest postseason performer of all time.

A devout Christian, Rivera attributes all of his accomplishments to an ever-abiding faith in God. He views all of the significant developments of his career – the serendipitous way he stumbled into pitching, his unexpected jump in velocity when it seemed he might be traded, the accidental discovery of his signature pitch, and yes, even the spectacular failures – as being part of what he sees as God’s plan for him. For Mariano Rivera, it is his faith, more than anything else, that has sustained him through the dark times, and kept him humble in spite of all his astronomical achievements. This sense of inner peace and balance is considered by many of his teammates to be Rivera’s greatest asset as a pitcher, and the key to his success.

As Mariano Rivera’s career enters it final stages, his Hall of Fame credentials are beyond question. Only Trevor Hoffman has more career saves, and depending on how long each player remains active, it is quite possible that Rivera will overtake Hoffman’s total before he retires. Rivera is a ten-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion, with a World Series MVP and ALCS MVP award to his credit. He holds 10 regular season pitching records, and an astonishing 15 postseason pitching records. Rivera’s career ERA of 2.24 is tops among relievers, and his career adjusted ERA (a statistic that measures a pitcher’s ERA against other pitchers of his era) is the best for any pitcher in baseball history by more than 40 points. He has the third best walks-plus-hits per innings pitched ratio in major league history; neither of the pitchers ahead of him on the list pitched a game after 1920. He is, by popular and professional consensus, the greatest closer the game has ever seen, and like Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle before him, he is a legend in his own time.

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Tagged:
1996 World Series, 1998 World Series, 1999 World Series, 2000 World Series, 2001 World Series, 2004 ALCS, 2009 World Series, Baseball History, Closer, Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

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