Take my hand
We’re off to never never-land
On July 16th, at the All-Star Game played at Citi-Bank Park, Mr. Sandman was played in its entirety in a park other than Yankee Stadium for the first and last time. Manager Jim Leyland called in Mariano Rivera to pitch the 8th inning against the NL’s finest. Rivera took the call, and stood on the mound with watery eyes, perhaps reminiscing about his entire career, and how he had come to this point in time. Then he returned to the business at hand, and proceeded to retire the side in order. The crowd, mostly composed of fans of the rival Metropolitan club, gave him a rousing ovation. For this would be Rivera’s last appearance in the all-star game. We have but three months more to marvel at the man who is without a question the greatest reliever in the history of rounders. But the question is – how did it come to this? That is a most remarkable story…
“Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning”
In 1995, Mariano Rivera was a decent minor-league prospect laboring in the Yankee Minor League system; scouts said he had a good change-up as well as a decent curve, and a fastball that clocked out at around 88-90 MPH. He had a smooth and somewhat deceptive delivery, and good control; he had had elbow surgery at the age of 22, and was fully recovered. A decent prospect, but that was about it. Then out of nowhere, the Detroit Tigers made an incredible offer – through channels they stated interest in trading troublesome but talented David Wells for Rivera.
Puzzled by this offer, Yankee GM Gene Michael, doing his daily diligence, checked the reports from the minor league game the prior evening. He was absolutely stunned by what he read: Mariano Rivera, pitching for Columbus, the Yankee AAA Farm Club, was measured to have thrown his fastball consistently in the 95-96 MPH range. It is virtually unheard of for a pitcher to gain that degree of velocity at 24 years of age. Michaels contacted the Columbus coaching staff, who ensured him that their radar gun was working properly. He instantly cut off all trade talks.
In June of 1997, Rivera was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza, and found that his fastballs were, for some reason, moving sharply and unpredictably. At first, he was annoyed, and wished to straighten out the pitch, until he saw the utility of the added movement, and began using it in games. What we now know as his cut fastball, or cutter, became a frequent part of his pitching repertoire in 1998. The pitch breaks sharply towards left-handed hitters, acting like a slider, but with the velocity of a fastball. There are pitchers who throw harder; there are other hurlers who have more movement on their breaking ball. But there is no one who combines the velocity with the late movement in such a devastating combination. Former teammate Mike Stanton calls the pitch a “freak of nature.” Although Rivera has other effective pitches in his arsenal, he returns invariably to the cutter in pressure situations. The thing is – everybody knows it’s coming, and it doesn’t make a difference. At times former catcher Jorge Posada didn’t even bother giving a sign, he just waved his hands. This knowledge didn’t seem to help batters, however; if anything, it appears to intimidate them. Chipper Jones called the cutter a “buzz saw” after he observed Ryan Klesko suffer through three broken bats during one time up at the plate. Jim Thome described it as the best single pitch in the game. Buster Olney, sports journalist for ESPN, described the cutter as the best “out pitch of this generation.”
“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
Mariano Rivera is certain that a Higher Power is responsible for the inexplicable increase in the velocity of his fastball. During the 1999 season, Rivera stated that he heard a voice while pitching against the Atlanta Braves on July 16th, saying “I am the one who has you here.” Rivera firmly believes the truth of this, stating “the only reason I’m here is because He’s my strength. He put me here. Without Him, I’m nothing.” Whether the explanation for Rivera’s remarkable transformation are from the corporeal or ethereal realm, the results are certainly preternatural.
Something’s wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren’t of snow white
Dreams of war
Dreams of lies
Dreams of dragons fire
And of things that will bite, yeah
His major league career statistics are impressive enough: 638 lifetime saves and counting, the greatest in Major League history. Rivera led the league three times in saves. He has the best active career ERA (2.20), which is also the 13th best of all time. His combined walks + hits per inning – 1.005 – the 3rd best of all time. Rivera’s Adjusted ERA + is the best in Major League History. He has the lowest percentage of home runs per nine innings on the active rolls – .481; his Strike out to Walk ratio is 4th of all time, he has the most career games completed in the annals of the game, currently at 930. Rivera has finished at least 3rd place in the Cy Young voting on four occasions; he is a five time Rolaids Relief Award Winner, as well as being named to the All-Star team on 13 occasions.
As impressive as these statistics are, what Rivera will be best remembered for is his post-season heroics. His Post-Season Career Record is 8-1, with a 0.70 ERA and a WHIP of .759; he has pitched in a total of 96 games, and has 42 saves. In 141 innings he has given up 13 earned runs. He has allowed all of 2 home runs, has given up 5.5 hits per 9 innings, has a K/Walk ratio of 5.24, and during his illustrious career, the Yankees have won five World Championships. In 1999 he pitched a total of 43 consecutive scoreless innings between the regular season and the post-season. There is no reliever who is even remotely competitive in post-season play. One can make a good case that he has been the Most Valuable Yankee over this stretch of their dominance, which began in 1996 and continues throughout 2013. During that run, they have failed to make the post-season one time. Rivera has been amazingly consistent throughout, especially at a position in which dominance is most volatile.
“Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”
Rivera has had very few failures in post-season play. Perhaps the most notable one of his career was against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Rivera is a respected team leader, but he is more comfortable leading by example rather then by words. So it was quite a surprise when he addressed his teammates before the deciding game. He gave the typical exhortations of a top-shelf closer, exhorting his teammates to get the ball to him and the victory would be theirs; but then he started speaking about his faith and fate, and how everything that occurs is meant to happen.
Rivera later gave up two runs in the bottom of the ninth, setting up the loss with an uncharacteristic throwing error, and then giving up the deciding run to Luis Gonzalez on a broken bat blooper over the drawn in infield. The Yankees’ streak of three consecutive World Series victories ended with this devastating loss, and the greatest closer in the history of the game was the apparent goat.
The Yankee victory parade through the Hall of Canyons was, of course, cancelled. Because of this, Enrique Wilson, the Yankees utility infielder, and perhaps Rivera’s closest friend on the squad, changed his plane flight back to the Dominican Republic. The plane that Wilson was initially scheduled to take – American Airlines Flight 587 – crashed in Queens, killing all 260 aboard the plane. After the event, Rivera stated, “I’m glad we lost the World Series, because it means that I still have a friend.” Wilson, as well as his teammates, pondered Rivera’s words about fate.
“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
The day Rivera retires so will the uniform number 42. Mariano is the last ballplayer ever to wear Jackie Robinson’s uniform number. Something tells me that Jackie, far aloft, approves.