By Robert Grayson
Through all the years that Mariano Rivera was the closer for the New York Yankees, the team put their unwavering faith in him. He, in turn, put his faith in a higher authority.
Perhaps Rivera’s story is one of divine intervention. A devoutly religious man, the esteemed closer certainly thinks it is. The cutter he famously threw to baffle batters for most of his 19-year major league career (1995-2013) just emerged one day, as Rivera was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza, another pitcher for the Bronx Bombers. Before that revelation, an inexplicable upgrade in the velocity of Mo’s fastball simply happened during a game he was pitching in the minors in 1995, opening a permanent path to The Show for Rivera. He attributes both phenomena to the grace of God.
Then, earlier this year, the former Yankees closer was unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). That means, in a world of varying and staunchly held opinions, when it came to whether Mariano Rivera belonged in Cooperstown, all the baseball writers who voted agreed that he did. A miracle in itself, some would say. Never before in the history of the BBWAA Hall of Fame voting had anyone been elected unanimously to the Cooperstown shrine. Not Babe Ruth, not Walter Johnson, not Ty Cobb, not anyone.
Rivera had a record 652 regular-season saves in his major league career, with a lifetime 2.21 ERA in 1,283 2/3 innings. He also had 82 regular-season wins. In the postseason, Rivera had 42 saves, 8 wins and a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings of work. His cutter is considered the most lethal pitch ever thrown in the history of the game. Former Yankees outfielder and Rivera teammate Nick Swisher called Mo’s cutter “a heat-seeking missile, and the target is the handle of your bat.” Rivera’s cutter was known for bringing an untimely end to the favorite bats of numerous hitters throughout the game.
In the fourth and final game of the 1999 World Series, Atlanta Braves first baseman Ryan Klesko broke three of his prime pieces of lumber during one at-bat against the game’s premier closer. The Yankees won that series 4 games to 0. Rivera had two saves.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Troy O’Leary steadfastly refused to use one of his cherished Louisville Sluggers against Rivera, instead picking up ratty throwaways to sacrifice during at-bats against the relief ace.
Those tales—all true—go on and on.
Extremely humble, Rivera said he never thought he was destined to reach the Baseball Hall of Fame while he was working his way through his pro baseball career; and he truly means it. But Mo is considered the best relief pitcher the game has ever seen.
As with many professional athletes, odd twists and turns sent Rivera’s career careening in a direction other than the one it appeared to be headed at the time. However, for him, these tweaks of fate always seemed to get him back on track, so he could go on to claim his rightful place in baseball history.
In the small Panamanian town of Puerto Caimito, where Rivera grew up, 90 percent of the workforce made a living in the fishing industry. Mo knew early on that fishing wasn’t for him, but, as a teenager, he worked on his father’s commercial fishing boat to earn enough money to go to school to become a mechanic. That career appealed to the young Rivera because mechanics “fixed things and kept them running.” Hmm. Maybe he did realize his dream of becoming a mechanic of sorts, because, as the closer for the New York Yankees, Rivera kept the team running like a well-oiled machine.
When he wasn’t on his father’s fishing boat, the young Rivera played baseball, even though his first love was soccer. Mo had been playing soccer ever since he was a small boy. As a youngster, Rivera idolized the great Brazilian soccer star Pele. However, injuries to his ankles and knees forced Rivera to stop playing soccer at the age of 18.
So then he focused his full attention on baseball, which he had learned to play with primitive equipment as a kid in Panama. Baseballs were made of fishing net, covered with electrical tape, he recalled. Gloves were nothing more than a milk carton used to cover the hand, and bats were either broomsticks or tree branches. He started using better equipment when he was playing amateur baseball in his late teens.
Though he would end up on the mound, Rivera played every position except pitcher for nearly his entire amateur career. Mostly a shortstop during his days as an amateur baseball player in Panama, he also enjoyed playing the outfield.
“There’s nothing better in baseball than chasing down a fly ball,” he said. He was known for being a good defensive player with a strong throwing arm.
“I played all positions, but, in the end, the good Lord already had a position picked out for me. I just had to follow it,” the now-49-year-old former Yankee said.
That position became clear in 1989 when his amateur team, the Panama Oeste Vaqueros (Cowboys) needed him to pitch for the first time during the country’s national baseball tournament.
“I didn’t even like to pitch at the time. But our pitching staff was pretty beat up. Our best starter was on the mound and the other team was smacking hits off him,” Rivera said. “It’s the first inning and we’re already losing. The manager comes out to the mound and starts looking around, and he looks at me. I can’t believe it, because I’m not even a pitcher.”
Mo remembers that the skipper pointed at him, so he ran to the mound.
“He handed me the ball and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ and he said, ‘Just throw strikes,’” the Yankees legend recalled.
Rivera simply threw fastballs—“the only pitch I had”—and mowed down the opposition. He gave up no runs that afternoon, and his team came back and won the game.
“My manager said, ‘You saved the game for us,’” Mo recalled, a reference that would come to mean a lot more to him later in his life when he assumed the role of closer for the New York Yankees.
“At the time, I thought pitching was a one-time thing, and that was the end of it,” he said.
There happened to be scouts from the Yankees at the game, however, and the Yankees were interested in taking a closer look at Rivera as a pitcher. Mo knew Yankees scouts had seen him play shortstop in the past, but had not made him an offer. He felt he had nothing to lose by going to a tryout for the Yankees.
“I certainly didn’t think it would be life-changing or anything like that,” he said.
After he threw about nine pitches, the scouts running the tryout told the young Rivera to stop throwing, and he thought, “I’m on my way back to the fishing boats.” To his surprise the scouts liked what they saw and before Mo knew it, he had signed a contract with the Yankees, albeit a small one. It was for just around $2,500, recalled Rivera with a chuckle; he was 20 years old at the time.
“Even though I didn’t like pitching, I was just happy to have the opportunity to play the game I loved,” he said. “I learned to love pitching. It was amazing, taking the opportunity to really learn a new position, how to do it well, and be successful at it. I was very grateful for the chance.”
The young pitcher was not considered a top prospect with the Yankees, but the organization was willing to see what Rivera could do once his pitching talents had been developed by professional coaches. At the tryouts, the radar gun measured the speed of Rivera’s pitches in the mid- to upper 80s. He only weighed 155 pounds and, at 6-foot-2, it didn’t seem as though he could ramp up the speed of his pitches much more. Most pitching prospects were throwing in the mid-90s at the time, but Mo had an ability they didn’t. He could control his pitches, throw them precisely where he wanted to.
In addition, Mo’s athleticism gave his game another dimension—something the Yankees would come to appreciate when watching the heralded fireman field his position with finesse. That was something the scouts valued highly in a young hurler. In February 1990, Rivera began his journey through the Yankees farm system as a starting pitcher. It would not be an easy road.
“I think my minor league career was different than some other players’ because I didn’t know English. The game was easier than I expected. But the language was a factor. I couldn’t communicate with my manager, my pitching coach,” Mo said. “The language of baseball we all speak on the field, even if you don’t speak English. But when it comes to everyday communication, if you don’t speak English you’re in trouble, and that was me.”
Rivera played for the Gulf Coast League Yankees in the summer of 1990, a Rookie League club in Tampa, Florida. Despite the language barrier, which he admits at times got extremely frustrating, Mo put together a 5–1 record and led the league with a 0.17 ERA. He pitched there mostly in relief. However, the young pitcher threw a seven-inning complete game no-hitter on the last day of the season against the Gulf Coast League Pirates, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the second game of a doubleheader and in the minors both games of a double dip are only seven innings each.
Mariano was thrilled with the feat, even though it happened in a shortened game. “I had never pitched a no-hitter. It was a great feeling,” he said.
His pitching skills were promising and he was picking up some English. He got help learning the language from Tim (Coop) Cooper, the team’s third baseman, who had studied Spanish in high school and became a close friend of Rivera’s. Mo’s English lessons took place on the long bus rides between venues in the Gulf Coast League. Coop ended up playing eight seasons of minor league ball and another six of independent league baseball. He never made it to the majors.
In 1991, Rivera found himself in Single-A ball in the South Atlantic League with the Greensboro Hornets in North Carolina. To Rivera’s good fortune, Cooper was promoted to the Hornets as well, so Mo’s English lessons continued. However, the young hurler’s right elbow hurt all season. Despite the pain he was in, Mo never told anyone about that, fearing it would derail his career.
While Rivera had a respectable 2.75 ERA, his record suffered and he finished the season 4–9. Yet he struck out 123 batters while walking only 36. The Yankees brass took note of Rivera’s impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio.
As the 1992 season got underway, Mo was able to handle the pain in his elbow at first. He was a starting pitcher at the Fort Lauderdale Yankees in the Florida State League, Class-A Advanced ball. He made only 10 starts, but compiled a 5–3 record and a 2.28 ERA, when his elbow pain finally sidelined him.
Rivera was sent to see Dr. Frank Jobe, the man who had developed Tommy John surgery. At first it was thought that, to save his career, Mariano would need to undergo the well-known surgery. However, it turned out that Dr. Jobe just needed to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in Mo’s pitching arm, rather than reconstruct the UCL. That meant a much faster recovery time.
On Nov. 17, 1992, while Rivera was still recovering from his elbow surgery, Major League Baseball held its expansion draft to fill the rosters of two new expansion teams—the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins. Rivera was left unprotected by the Yankees, which meant that either expansion team could have plucked the hurler away from the Yankees. As the story goes, the Marlins were going to choose Rivera but, just before they did, the Rockies picked Yankees catcher Brad Ausmus. Two other Yankees had been taken earlier in the draft, and the Ausmus selection blocked the Yankees from losing any more players. Rivera stayed put.
By 1993, Rivera was ready to start playing some pain-free baseball and, after a short stint back at the Gulf Coast Yankees to test his arm, he returned to the Greensboro Hornets as a starter. There, he couldn’t help but notice the play of the team’s new, young, lanky, slick-fielding shortstop, and became fast friends with Derek Jeter.
Rivera saw limited action at Greensboro in 1993, however. The Yankees didn’t want to put too much pressure on Mo’s pitching arm, which was still healing.
In 1994, Rivera began his ascent through the Yankees’ farm system. He started the 1994 season with the Tampa Yankees in Class-A Advanced ball in the Florida State League, moved up to the Double-A Albany-Colonie Yankees in the Eastern League, and ended the season with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers in the International League. He had a combined 10–2 record for the season and was becoming one of the Yankees’ prime pitching prospects.
In need of starting pitching, the Bronx Bombers were keeping a close eye on Rivera, who started the 1995 season at Columbus. He was the same pitcher he had always been in terms of speed, reaching the mid- to high 80s—nothing more. Yet, he was getting batters out.
There was a problem, though, Mo recalled; his shoulder had been aching since the beginning of the 1995 season. But this wasn’t the time to let aches and pains get in the way of his career. By May 16, 1995, Mo was wearing Yankee pinstripes. He’d had a 1–1 record and a low 1.50 ERA with Columbus, and got the call when Yankees starter Jimmy Key went down with an injury.
“The first thing I noticed when I got to Yankee Stadium was my uniform number. It was 42,” Mo said.
Number 42 was the same number Jackie Robinson wore when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rivera was excited about wearing the number made famous by a New York, baseball, and civil rights legend.
Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. As it turned out, Major League Baseball retired the number 42 throughout the majors on April 15, 1997. A few players who were given the number before it was retired were allowed to continue to wear it. Mo was one of those players. All of them left the game long before Rivera, and Mo was the last active player to ever wear number 42 in the history of the game. That’s something the closer is very proud of. He said he always wanted to wear the number with dignity.
His first major league start came on May 23, 1995, seven days after he joined the Yankees. The newest Yankees pitcher would have to fly with the team cross-country to make the start, however, because the Yankees were taking on the California Angels in Anaheim. The seasoned Angels’ left-hander Chuck Finley was going up against Rivera, so the rookie’s first assignment was going to be a challenge.
That first start didn’t go well for Mo. He gave up five runs, eight hits, and three walks in 3 1/3 innings. The Yankees went on to lose the game 10–0. On May 28, the 25-year-old Rivera did better against the Oakland A’s, giving up just one earned run in 5 1/3 innings to get his first major league victory in a game the Yanks won 4–1.
His next two games cast doubt about Rivera among some of the Yankees brass. He lost to Oakland 8–7 on June 6 and then gave up four earned runs in just 2 1/3 innings on June 11 against Seattle. With a 1–2 record and a high 10.20 ERA, Mo’s major league career was in trouble. Major league batters were hitting Rivera’s fastball.
Following the June 11 game, Yankees manager Buck Showalter called Rivera into his office and told him the Yankees were sending him back to Triple-A Columbus.
“He told me I shouldn’t be discouraged and that I’d be back. But I was devastated,” the pitcher said.
He wasn’t going back to Columbus alone, however. Derek Jeter, who had been called up from the Clippers on May 29, was waiting to see Showalter right after Mo. Jeter was batting .234 in 13 games with the Bombers and got the same news Rivera did. The pair grabbed a cab together and headed to the airport for a flight back to Columbus.
With his shoulder still aching, Rivera was put on the disabled list for a couple of weeks when he first got to Columbus. Meanwhile, the Yankees were shopping around for pitching. New York’s general manager Gene “Stick” Michael was talking to the Detroit Tigers about working out a trade for Motown’s starter David Wells. The Tigers wanted Rivera in return. Naturally, before they closed the deal, the Tigers needed to know that the Yankees rookie was not injured. No one would know for sure until Rivera’s next start.
The trade was put on hold. Finally, Rivera was ready to go on June 26, 1995. He was slated to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Rochester Red Wings. Mo remembers that he was feeling great that day; he had hardly any shoulder pain. He was throwing well while warming up.
“I thought the rest really helped me. After the first inning Jorge (Posada), our catcher, came over to me and said, ‘I never saw you throw so hard,’” Mo recalled. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything different.”
After the game, Mo learned that the radar gun clocked his fastball at 96 miles an hour most of the night and the pitch reached 97 and 98 MPH at times during the game. He threw five no-hit innings before the game was halted due to rain. The game counted and Rivera’s performance caught the attention of the Yankees’ front office.
He would find out later in his career that Stick Michael was getting reports about the game as it was progressing. Michael checked with several scouts to make sure the radar guns were working properly. There were a few different scouts watching the game with different radar guns and all the guns were reading the same. Michael called off the deal with the Tigers and kept Rivera. (Wells eventually joined the Yanks as a free agent in 1997.)
“I credit the Good Lord,” Rivera said. “When you think about it, there is no other answer. I can’t tell you how I went from 88 miles an hour to 96 miles an hour overnight. No one else can, either.”
He maintained his blazing fastball for the rest of his career. If God did have a hand in ramping up Rivera’s fastball, the rookie right-hander would soon find that he was doubly blessed. But first Mo had to return to the Yankees, prove that what happened against Rochester was no fluke, and show that his newfound fastball was the real deal.
Rivera was back with the Yankees in July and pitched against the White Sox on Independence Day. He pitched eight innings without allowing a run, while striking out 11 and only allowing two hits. For the rest of the 1995 regular season, the Yankees used Rivera as both a starting pitcher and a reliever. Overall, he notched five wins. The 1995 postseason is what really set the stage for Rivera’s future.
The Yankees were the American League Wild Card team in 1995. They took on the Seattle Mariners, winners of the American League West, in the first-ever 1995 American League Division Series. The Mariners proved to be more than up to the challenge to play the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers won the first two games in the best-of-five series, but the Mariners roared back to win the next three games to claim victory in the ALDS. Some members of the Yankees pitching staff were hit hard during the ALDS, but not Rivera.
During the series, Mo pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in relief, including 3 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 2, when he got his first postseason win. Even Rivera’s extremely successful 1995 postseason still didn’t quite secure him a spot on the 1996 Yankees roster, however.
Many Yankees fans didn’t realize how close they came to not seeing two Yankees superstars reach legendary stature with the team. In spring training of 1996, starting shortstop Tony Fernandez broke his elbow. A replacement was needed and the likely candidate, Derek Jeter, had yet to prove himself on the major league level. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was nervous about fielding a rookie at shortstop, especially when the team had a chance to get to the Fall Classic. Steinbrenner asked the Yankees’ front office to talk to the Seattle Mariners about trading for one of the M’s veteran shortstops, Félix Fermín. It was widely known that Seattle was going to start its promising young star—20-year-old Alex Rodriguez—at short. So the M’s might have been willing to part with Fermín, if they got the right offer.
Seattle wanted some bullpen help in return for Fermín, and had their sights set on Mariano Rivera. Stick Michael, then-vice president of major league scouting for the Yankees, went up to Steinbrenner’s office to talk The Boss out of the deal and convince him to give Jeter a chance and to keep Rivera. Steinbrenner listened and the rest is history, including Jeter going on to become the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year.
Joe Torre was named the new Yankees manager in 1996. Based primarily on the success Mo had pitching in relief in the 1995 postseason, Torre decided to put Mo in the bullpen full time in 1996. He became the setup man for closer John Wetteland. Rivera usually pitched the seventh and eighth innings before turning the game over to Wetteland. He ended up logging 107 2/3 innings in the 1996 season with a hefty 130 strikeouts and a low 2.09 ERA.
The duo of Rivera and Wetteland were very effective, practically guaranteeing a Yankees win if the team was leading in the game after the sixth inning. In the 1996 season, the Bronx Bombers won 70 out of 73 games they were winning after six innings.
“I liked being the setup man. I liked the chance that I was going to play every day. I liked the excitement of it all,” Rivera said.
He added that he felt very comfortable in that role.
Rivera posted a streak of 26 consecutive scoreless innings in 1996 from April 19 to May 21. He also recorded the first save of his career on May 17. It came against the California Angels. By finishing third in the 1996 American League Cy Young Award voting, Mo carved a new place in the game for middle relievers and setup men, whose efforts had often been overlooked when it came to major awards.
The Yankees showed the faith they had in Rivera when they opted not to re-sign John Wetteland during the 1996 off-season and instead gave the closer job to Mo. Rivera’s celebrated cutter had not yet made the scene, but the Yankees felt that Mariano’s fastball had already proved difficult for batters to handle.
“John Wetteland taught me a lot about the bullpen and I will always be grateful to him for that. He taught me that the closer is the leader of the bullpen and he has to make sure everyone knows what their job is and is prepared to do it,” Rivera said.
Years later, Rivera would say he was a bit nervous when he was handed the job, but he never showed any trepidation at the time.
“I was worried. I didn’t want to let the team down,” he said. He had some problems early on, blowing three of his first six save opportunities in the 1997 season, if you can imagine that. Yet Torre didn’t panic, Mo recalled: “He stood by me. I did put pressure on myself. He told me I was the Yankees closer and it’s not going to change. That really helped.”
The right-handed reliever said he changed the way he looked at things after talking to Torre: “I didn’t think about what inning it was. What situation it was. Just about doing my job, getting the batter out.” Soon Rivera was back to his old form. Winning games when Mo was on the mound in relief became a sure thing for the Bronx Bombers.
Mo had 11 saves in a row between April 19 and May 14. He put another string of six together between June 1 and 15. He had 22 saves by the time the team rolled into Detroit for a weekend series, starting on June 23.
During the afternoon before the first game of the Motown series, Rivera was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza, another member of the Yankees bullpen. The pair warmed up as they had before many games. When Mo threw his four-seam fastball, it had strange movement on it.
“He (Mendoza) got mad at me because he thought I was fooling around with him. But I was just throwing the ball to him the way I normally threw it, but the ball was breaking late and hard,” Mo said.
For some reason, Rivera wasn’t able to throw his four-seam fastball straight. That’s how his cutter came into existence.
Without Rivera changing his grip or doing anything different, his cutter moved in on lefties and away from right-handed batters. He talked to Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre in an attempt to figure out what was going on. Nobody knew what was happening, “but the more I threw it, the more I was getting command of it,��� Rivera said. Finally, Mariano just decided to go with the pitch and it worked for him the rest of his career.
It got around baseball that even though batters knew exactly what Rivera was going to throw them when he came in the game, they still couldn’t hit the ball.
“I didn’t look for this pitch, it just came to me. It was a gift from God. That’s the only way to explain it,” the 13-time All-Star said. There was no better explanation at the time—or even now.
Asked whether he was concerned that the pitch might leave him during his career as quickly as it came, the five-time American League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year said he never allowed himself to think about that: “That’s something I had no control over. So I just threw the pitch and didn’t worry about it.” He still says that he was just “The Keeper” of the pitch and it might move on some day.
In all, Rivera won five world championships with the New York Yankees (1996, 1998-2000, 2009). The team rode the reliever’s sensational cutter to four of those championships (1998-2000, 2009). Keep in mind that Mo hadn’t discovered his devastating cutter when he was the team’s setup man in 1996.
He was on the mound to record the final out in four World Series wins (1998-2000, 2009). No pitcher has gotten the final out in the World Series more than twice. A total of 119 of his 652 saves came in games in which he pitched more than one inning.
His favorite World Series? Though Mo was thrilled with the Yankees’ 1996 world championship—his first—his favorite was the 1998 Fall Classic, when the Yankees swept the San Diego Padres in four straight games.
“It was my favorite because it was my first World Series as a closer,” Mo recalled.
The MVP of the 1999 World Series, Rivera was always composed. “You have to be the same, no matter what happens, especially if you lose. You can’t let it get to you,” he said. Rivera was even admired for the way he handled losses.
He was on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series. The Yankees lost that Fall Classic to the Arizona Diamondbacks. A throwing error by Rivera in the bottom of ninth inning in that seventh game contributed, in part, to the loss. He also gave up a bloop single that allowed Arizona to score the winning run.
After the game, Rivera stood by his locker, stoically answering questions from reporters for hours. His willingness to talk to the press at that moment is often cited, along with his legendary heroics on the mound, as one of the closer’s finest moments.
“My greatest memory really wasn’t on the field. It was just putting on the uniform every day, putting on the pinstripes. Every time I put on the uniform I remembered all the great players who came before me, representing the organization with class and dignity,” said Rivera, whose longevity as a closer is unequaled. “After I retired, I had a chance to look back over my career. I felt I had a chance to make it into the Hall of Fame. People would say I would easily get in. But I knew how hard is was for closers to get in.”
He added, “To be elected unanimously is just amazing. I never expected it,” Rivera said.
He added that he was blessed with having a lot of great players around him, especially Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera made up the Yankees’ Core Four.
“Hopefully, Derek will get into the Hall of Fame next year and, God willing, Andy and Jorge will get in one day. Having those guys in the Hall of Fame with me will be the greatest moment of my life,” Rivera said.
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.