Exit Sandman: Baseball bids adieu to Mariano Rivera
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated.
One of the most iconic careers in major league history is ending: Mariano Rivera, two months from turning 44, 23 years removed from his start in professional baseball, will throw his last pitch. Goodbye to the alltime leader in regular-season and postseason saves. Goodbye to his cut fastball, which belongs with Carl Hubbell's screwball, Sandy Koufax's curveball and Nolan Ryan's fastball on the Mount Rushmore of greatest pitches. And goodbye to that trim, tailored figure who could work the noisiest room the way Astaire or Sinatra could, with a preternatural, unhurried cool and a lightness of being that made the difficult look easy. Only the tuxedo was missing.
The son of a Panamanian fisherman became baseball royalty, though it was a hegemony hard-earned, not given. Rivera signed with the Yankees in 1990 at age 20 for just $3,000 and promptly made the first airplane trip of his life to report to spring training in Tampa. He injured his elbow in '92 and had ligament-repair surgery. He was left unprotected by the Yankees in the expansion draft later that year but went unclaimed by the Rockies and the Marlins, nearly was traded to the Tigers in '95 for lefthander David Wells and in '96 to the Mariners for shortstop Felix Fermin, and washed out as a major league starting pitcher with a 5.94 ERA in 10 chances in '95. Only then and in the bullpen, especially in October, did Rivera make his indelible mark.
The end to his career, however, is hardly the end of his imprint. Rivera's personage is so humble, godly even, that his legacy will go on. Few players in any sport have retired with more reverence from his peers. "Probably not since Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect," says Joe Torre, Rivera's manager with the Yankees for four of his five World Series championships.
Like Koufax, Rivera has become an enduring ideal, a template of what it means to be a pitcher, a teammate and a friend. But the oral history of Rivera has only begun. This is the story so far, from some of the lives he has touched.
Glenn Sherlock, Diamondbacks bullpen coach, Rivera's first pro manager: This is in the Gulf Coast League, 1990. Mariano was a reliever on the Tampa Yankees. He was a very athletic kid. Very competitive. Threw a lot of strikes. Quiet. Although the pitchers didn't hit, Hoyt Wilhelm, our pitching coach, used to play a game with them. Mo was one of our best hitters and outfielders.
Toward the end of the season, Mariano had the lowest ERA in the league but needed a few innings to qualify for the ERA title. We asked [farm director] Mitch Lukevics and [coordinator of minor league instruction] Mark Newman if we could start him on the last weekend of the season to get him his innings. It was a seven-inning game as part of a doubleheader against the GCL Pirates.
He threw a no-hitter. I think he received a nice watch from the Yankees.
Rivera joined the Yankees at one of the organization's historic lows. From 1989 through '92 the Yankees fielded four consecutive losing teams for the first time since 1912 through '15. Yankee Stadium was more than half empty. The future of the franchise, however, was robust. The farm system in '91 included Jorge Posada, 19; Andy Pettitte, 19; Shane Spencer, 19; Carl Everett, 20; Sterling Hitchcock, 20; Rivera, 21; Russ Davis, 21; Bernie Williams, 22; Brad Ausmus, 22; Bob Wickman, 22; and J.T. Snow, 23. (Derek Jeter was drafted in '92.) At the end of that season, the Yankees sent a group of prospects to their Instructional League team in Tampa.
Jorge Posada, Yankees catcher from 1997 to 2011: I remember Mo running the 60-yard dash. There were guys like Carl Everett and Jovino Carvajal who could really fly. Mo just had [elbow] surgery, so he wasn't doing a lot of throwing. But there he was running with the outfielders, right there with Everett and Carvajal, the fastest guys in the Instructional League. I thought he was an outfielder the first time I saw him.
I really didn't get to know him until 1994. He was a starter, throwing 91, 92. Mediocre slider, mediocre changeup, but good, live fastball. Then in '95, all of a sudden he was throwing 95, 96. All fastballs. That's when he really took off. You could tell he was healthy, stronger. He was throwing hard with that same smooth delivery. We were in Columbus [in Triple A], and we hung out with the other Latin guys. There were a lot of veterans on the team, and they used to buy us lobster.
Mariano was always very humble, with great family values. He had a lot of energy -- good energy, a positive energy. Just a person you wanted to be around. He was always calling home. He talked about Panama a lot.
In the minors they say you're always just one phone call away from the big leagues, but it seems so hard to get there. Mariano would have none of that kind of talk. He was always very positive.
And he had the perfect body for a baseball player. Still does. He's probably two pounds heavier now than he was then. He was always very tailored -- even in the minors. We would blouse our pants, but he would always look perfect in his uniform. His jeans were perfectly tailored and he was always very well dressed. He would wear these leather sandals from Panama -- I remember because he has ugly feet. Don't tell him I said that. Now he gets manicures and pedicures.
Buck Showalter, Yankees manager from 1992 to '95: The year after his surgery, in 1993, he would throw on a back field at spring training, Field Number 3, with Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry. He was only playing catch at the time. I said to Stick [then general manager Gene Michael] one day, "I don't know about this guy."
Guidry chimes in: "I know I don't want to play catch with him anymore. The ball never goes straight."
His hand and fingers were born to pitch. He has really long fingers and the perfect wrist; he can't move his hand much side to side, but it's very flexible up and down.
Rivera made his major league debut on May 23, 1995, as a starter against the California Angels. He started against Chuck Finley, who had made his debut for the Angels in '86 in relief of Don Sutton, who had made his debut in '66 following Koufax in the Dodgers' rotation.
Rivera was knocked out in the fourth inning of a 10--0 New York loss. Six days later Jeter made his big league debut. Rivera made four starts, pitching to a 10.20 ERA, before the Yankees decided he wasn't ready. On June 11, 1995, immediately after he was pulled from a start after giving up five runs while getting only seven outs, the Yankees demoted Rivera and Jeter, who was hitting .234, to Triple A Columbus.
Between them Rivera and Jeter would combine for 26 All-Star Games and 10 world championship rings, but on this day they were failed big leaguers sharing a car ride over the George Washington Bridge to a hotel in Fort Lee, N.J., on their way back to the bush leagues.
Jeter: We went to eat at a chain restaurant across the street from the hotel. I was miserable. It wasn't like, We'll be back soon one day. We were devastated. You can say depressed. Once you come here, you never want to go back. And we had done all right—at least I thought so.
We got called into the manager's office separately. I got called in to see Buck and Willie [Randolph], who was a coach. We were taking a flight to Detroit after the game. I had a lot of family out there in Detroit waiting for me. They had to pull my luggage off the charter.
Mo was devastated. Absolutely devastated. He thought it was his fault we got sent down. Everybody wants to think, Oh, Mo, he's so calm. . . . Oh, O.K. We were damn near in tears! That was the first time we got demoted. And you never know when you're going to get another chance.
It wasn't exactly current times back then, you know what I'm saying? We had the Boss then. You don't do your job and he'll trade you in a minute. Kids have it easy nowadays. Seriously. It's so different now.
Mike Borzello, Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2007: In 1996 he became the setup guy, and John Wetteland, our closer, started talking to him every day. Wetteland knew Mariano would take over for him the following year. That's something that got lost—how important Wetteland was to him. The closer doesn't usually take the next closer under his wing. Wetteland did, and Mariano did [the same] with every reliever that came through.
Mariano became their mentor. He schooled the relievers one by one. He would sit with each one separately at times and do what Wetteland did for him to make sure they had a better chance at -success. I always marveled at that dynamic. If someone had a tough outing, I saw him talk to them about how to let tough situations go. I always thought that was impressive. Wetteland triggered it, but Mo had the intelligence to absorb it and take it to another level with all the guys through the years.
So many guys get distracted about other things, especially off the field: money, their own personal achievements. I never saw that in Mo. He was always focused on the team, on "What do you need me to do?" In 12 years with him I never heard him mention anything about his contract, his number of saves, his ERA or any personal achievement. I'd say, "We've got to get to 40 saves," and he'd go, "How many do I have now?" He really didn't know.
Joe Girardi, Yankees manager, and Rivera's teammate from 1996 through '99: I'll tell you one of the most amazing things about Mariano. In all the years I caught him, he never threw a ball in the dirt. I don't ever remember having to drop to my knees to block a pitch in the dirt. I know he never threw a wild pitch that bounced. His control is that good.
I had two signs with Mo: one for the fastball, and a wiggle if we wanted the fastball up. I would also give location -- in or out. One day a kid named Mike Figga comes in to catch. I tell him with Mo it's simple: Just one [finger] and wiggle. Well, he thinks wiggle means what it does for other pitchers: a changeup. So he wiggles his fingers, gets ready for the changeup, and instead a high fastball goes flying past him. We were all cracking up.
He was so easy to catch because he always put the ball right there. I don't think there's ever been a pitcher that great who was so easy to catch.
Borzello: I don't think he ever threw a ball that bounced in my 12 years of catching him in the bullpen. He would pitch up and down and in and out but never in the ground. It's the most amazing thing. He wasn't trying to strike you out. He was looking to get you out in one or two pitches by shattering your bat.
Rivera has pitched in 96 postseason games and lost just once: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. The game was played just seven weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, under such heightened security and national tension that the manhole covers outside Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix were welded shut.
Leading 2-1 entering the ninth, and having already taken care of all three outs in the eighth inning, Rivera was undone by an odd string of calamities. The rally began with a single by Mark Grace with the stadium clock reading 9:11. With the field moist thanks to a freak desert rainstorm, Rivera threw away a bunt for only the second error of his career. And Luis Gonzalez, who in five previous at bats against Rivera had never gotten the ball out of the infield, much less gotten a hit, dumped a broken-bat single over Jeter's head, barely onto the outfield grass, to drive in the winning run.
Joe Torre, Yankees manager from 1996 to 2007: I'm not sure how long my tenure with the Yankees would have been if not for Mo pitching the seventh and eighth innings in 1996. He allowed me to manage just six innings of a game.
In 2001, before Game 7 in Arizona, we were struggling to score runs. I was looking for something to elevate the mood. I asked Gene Monahan, our trainer, to speak to the team. Gene is always very stern. Even when he is funny, he does it in a stern manner.
After he was finished, Mariano asked if he could speak. I said, "Go right ahead." He was very spiritual, talking about putting trust in ourselves. It was really all about his spirituality and that we had to go out there and win this ballgame. Just because a guy is very spiritual doesn't mean he's not competitive. One thing about Mo: When he feels something needs to be said, if he thinks a player is in need of some attention, he's not shy. He'll say what needs to be said so that they understand they are a part of a team.
Gonzalez: I choked up on the bat after he struck me out earlier in [Game 7]. I never choked up. I was trying anything off that guy. If you've got a good bat you really like, you don't use it against him because there's a good possibility he's going to shatter that bat.
I have so much respect for that guy, not just what he's done but more for his on-field demeanor. You look at guys closing games out now and they're untucking their shirt, shooting a bow and arrow, all kinds of antics. With him it was always Mr. Smooth. There's no show, not any kind of animation.
I was very fortunate to get that hit off one of the best of all time. I think a lot of relievers would have been crushed by that loss. With Mariano, that was just a small bump in the road that didn't slow him down any.
My home is in Tampa, and a few years later [in 2007] I was back home during spring training when I was with the Dodgers. One day I was walking in the International mall, and who do I run into? Mariano at the mall. We both said hi. We never discussed baseball—just out of mutual respect. 2001? We didn't discuss any of that.
Jason Zillo, Yankees director of media relations: I remember that night in 2001. He had showered -- he always showers before he talks to the media -- and he had a suit on. He's in front of his locker. He stands up so the first wave of 30 reporters can hear him. Then he does the next wave of 30 reporters, and so on and so on. He just kept toweling off, with the lights on him and still being amped up after the game. He answered every question.
That night we fly back to New York. Everything is still on high alert after 9/11. When we landed the airport was packed with police, state troopers, military . . . these guys had shotguns and weapons drawn. Mo and I are waiting for our luggage. It was hours after the most disheartening loss you ever can have on a baseball field, and we're surrounded by police and the military and the sun is just coming up. Everybody was kind of numb and thinking, What is going on around here? And he just puts his arm around me and says, "Don't worry. It's going to be all right." I never knew what he meant and I didn't ask. But whether he meant the game or the post-9/11 world, I just knew that it would be O.K. I don't write much. But when I got home I wrote that sucker down -- the whole scene with Mo.
Borzello: When I was with the Dodgers [in 2010] I asked Mariano to meet Jonathan Broxton. He was our closer and had had a rough postseason the year before. So we're shagging at Dodger Stadium, and Mariano comes running over, and they start talking about Matt Stairs. Broxton had walked Stairs on four straight pitches [in the 2009 NLCS, against the Phillies]. Mariano immediately brings that up. He says, "Last year I was watching the game and there was nobody on and you walked him on four pitches." Broxton wound up giving up a double [three batters later] to Jimmy Rollins that ended the game.
Mo asks him, "How come you walked that guy?" Brox goes, "I don't know." And Mo goes, "No. You know. You walked him because he hit a homer off you the year before to win a game."
Brox goes, "Yeah." And Mariano says, "One thing you have to do as a closer is if a guy beats you the day before, he has to be the guy you want to face the next day. It's, O.K., you got me, but let's go again."
That shows how Mariano is. Mariano really believes that. He's not afraid. He always believes, You got me that time, but I'll get you the next.
No one in baseball history has finished more games than Rivera: 949 through Sunday. Only five of those games ended with Rivera allowing a walk-off home run: to Bill Selby in 2002, Bill Mueller in '04, Vernon Wells (who's now a teammate) in '06, Marco Scutaro in '07 and Ichiro Suzuki in '09.
Rivera has faced 1,007 batters in his career. Only two have completed a career cycle (single, double, triple, homer) off Rivera: Juan Gonzalez and Wells.
Wells: It was a tie game [in July 2006, when Wells was with the Blue Jays]. My approach against him was to always to look cutter in and force yourself to swing at it. When he releases it, it looks like it's going to be a ball and it cuts back over the plate.
That at bat, he threw ball one, and the next pitch was a cutter in. I swung and I hit it high. I'm watching the ball and trying to make sure I don't miss first base. The ball goes over the fence and I get goose bumps. I knew I just hit a walk-off home run against the greatest closer of all time. Going around the bases, I'm trying to hold my smile in. It's something I will remember for a lifetime because in my generation, my era, he's the biggest name there is when it comes to pitchers.
Larry Rothschild, Yankees pitching coach since 2011: It was my first spring with the team. Mariano had not picked up a baseball all winter. He gets to spring training, throws three times off a mound and tells me, "I'm ready." I go, "Ready? For what?" He says, "To pitch in a game." I couldn't believe it. So I say, "Uh, how about we just have you throw a simulated game first?"
So he throws 10 pitches in the bullpen and goes out to the mound. He threw 20 pitches, and 15 of them were exactly where he wanted them to be. After that he goes, again, "I'm ready." The next time we pitch him is in a game. He strikes out the side on 12 pitches.
I don't want to say he doesn't work hard, because he does, but it's amazing how easy he makes it look.
Roy Halladay, Phillies righthander: During batting practice before the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, in 2008 [when Halladay was a 20-game winner for the Blue Jays], I went up to him in the outfield and asked him, "Man, how do you do it? How is that cutter so consistent?"
He told me he was playing catch one day [in 1997] and it just came to him, he found this grip and started using it and all of a sudden it was something he could throw all the time. I said, "If you don't mind, can you show me how you hold it?"
Well, his fingers are so much longer than mine, so I can't hold it exactly like he holds it. Nobody can. It's like Pedro Martinez. Their fingers and hands are so big they can do stuff with the ball other people just can't do. But the biggest thing was his finger placement and how his thumb was under the ball. I was throwing a cutter, but it was inconsistent. Once he told me about the thumb, it became a big pitch for me. You're so used to playing catch and four-seaming the baseball that your hand wants to go to that natural position. You have to keep reminding yourself, thumb underneath, thumb underneath.
After that meeting I took a baseball and marked it with my finger and thumb placement for the cutter. If the pitch was ever off, I could go back to the baseball and hold it. I still have that ball.
What he did for me was unbelievable. It's something you want to pass down. That to me is what great players do: They leave marks on the game, an impression that is about who they are and not just about their numbers and accomplishments. My favorite players of all time have done that -- left a mark based on their character: Derek Jeter, Chase Utley and Mariano Rivera. I wish more people could talk to Mariano because he's probably one of the best things to ever happen to baseball.
After the All-Star Game that year, I pitched against the Yankees [three times] and beat them each time. I found out later that they fined Mariano in kangaroo court for me beating them with the cutter he taught me.
CC Sabathia, Yankees lefthander: I didn't pitch well my first month with the Yankees [in 2009]. There was a game where I gave up six or seven runs against Oakland. I was definitely frustrated. After the game Mariano talked to me for 45 minutes about not trying to live up to anything and just go out and pitch: "We believe in you and you have to believe in yourself." Forty-five minutes! It was exactly what I needed at the time.
This is what I would tell people about Mariano: Believe everything you hear about him, because it's all true. You always hear nobody can be that nice, nobody can be like him, nobody can shrug off wins and losses the way he does. . . . It's unbelievable. I never met or played with a guy like that. If you want to be a better player or a better person, you watch him.
Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, psychologist, Yankees mental-skills coach from 1996 to 2002: I have worked with elite performers ranging from Navy SEALs, U.S. Secret Service, NASA astronauts, to athletes. Mariano Rivera may be the single most impressive performer and leader I have ever known. He is the exemplar that I point to when I discuss the mental attributes of champions. If we accept that an operational definition of leadership is the effect you have on others around you, then Mo rates among the most powerful leaders in any domain.
Most of us have deployed all of our attention to ourselves and to our own needs, with little left over for the needs of others. Mo has a presence that creates an atmosphere of teamwork, of an impossibly high regard for the integrity and worth of the people around him.
Rivera thought about retiring last season, but when he blew out his knee shagging batting practice fly balls in Kansas City on May 3, 2012, he vowed he would not leave baseball on the back of a cart. Knowing this would be his final season, he approached Zillo with an idea: In each road city he wanted to personally meet "behind-the-scenes" people who had dedicated their lives to baseball or had known illness or tragedy. While baseball wanted to say goodbye to Rivera, with the attendant going-away gifts and photo ops, Rivera wanted to say goodbye to baseball, which for him meant all the people who toil in anonymity.
On May 11, Rivera met Ryan Bresette, his wife, Heather, and their three sons, Joe, 13, Sam, 9, and Tyler, 6, in the media room at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium. (The Bresettes' daughter, Anna, 14, was unable to attend the pregame gathering because of a soccer game.) Bresette worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Royals from 1982 to '94 and had never met Rivera.
On March 22 the Bresettes, while returning home from a vacation in Florida, had been standing next to a mammoth flight-status display board in the -Birmingham, Ala., airport when the board, estimated to weigh more than 300 pounds, fell on the family. Luke Bresette, their 10-year-old son, was killed. Heather suffered two broken legs. Sam suffered a broken leg and head injuries.
Ryan Bresette: It was only seven or eight weeks out from the accident. My wife was in a wheelchair. Getting around was difficult. But we decided this would be a huge bright spot. It was an opportunity to put smiles on our kids' faces, which is the Number 1 priority in our lives. It was three or four hours before the game, and there were probably three or four other families there. Mariano came in and just lit up the room. That big smile, the bright eyes. . . .
People started talking and introducing themselves. I said, "We're the family involved in the Birmingham, Alabama, accident and lost our son."
He said, "I know. God bless you." I started to get emotional and couldn't talk anymore. My wife took over and said, "Luke would have loved this. Luke loved baseball. He loved all sports, but baseball was his very favorite sport." And then she started to get choked up.
Then our son Joe blurts out, "But Luke hated the Yankees!" The room erupted with laughter. Mariano just loved it. It broke the ice and the tension in the room.
Mariano addressed each one of our children and said, "Luke will always be with you. There is a plan for everything. We don't always know what it is, but we have to keep putting one step forward at a time. My situation is nowhere near what you are going through. I had an injury right here in Kansas City and overcame it to play again. My only message is you have to keep on trying and keep on giving effort."
I just asked my wife, "What would you want to say about what that day was like?" She said, "Mariano provided hope and inspiration at a time when they needed it the most." The best part, and it never made the papers, was after the meet and greet was over my nine-year-old said, "Mariano, if you pitch tonight, would you give me the ball from the last out?" Mariano looked at him and said, "You got it. It's yours."
Our seats were all the way in rightfield behind the foul pole, to accommodate the wheelchair. Mariano came in to pitch the ninth. By the time we packed up, with three kids and a wheelchair, I said, "We're never going to make it around the concourse [to the Yankees' dugout]. Let's just go home."
I'm literally pulling out of our parking spot when I get a call from the Royals. They ask, "Can you come back in?" I said, "Why?" They said, "As soon as Mariano got into the dugout his first question was, 'Where is the family I promised the ball to?' "
The Royals meet us, and they take us to the clubhouse level. Mariano comes out and says, "Sam, what did you ask me before the game?" Before he answered I said to myself, He remembers Sam's name!
Sam answers, "If you pitched would you give me the ball from the last out?"
Mariano says, "That's right." He opens up a bag and says, "Here it is." You could tell by the sticker on it. It had been authenticated by MLB. I just looked at Mariano and I said, "Thank you very much. You have no idea how much this means."
About six weeks later I got a call from [the Royals]. It had dawned on Mariano that he had not autographed the baseball. They put me in contact with a lady from his charitable foundation. Mariano wanted me to send the ball back to him so he could sign it and send it back.
This is something I haven't told too many people. When Mariano came over to me, I stuck out my hand to shake his hand, and he gave me a hug, pulled me close and whispered in my ear, "You're a stronger and braver man than I ever could be."