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42 things you need to know about Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera, Yankees Photo: Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

If the Yankees fail to make the playoffs, Mariano Rivera’s final day in a major league uniform will come one week from Sunday. In honor of his career, here are 42 things you should know about Mo, a future Hall of Famer and the greatest relief pitcher of all time.

1. He was born on Nov. 29, 1969 in Panama City, Panama. Now 43, Rivera is the oldest player in the majors and the last active player to have been born in the 1960s.

2. His father, also named Mariano, was the captain of a fishing boat in Puerto Caimito, on which the younger Mariano worked six days a week after graduating high school at the age of 16.

3. In his youth, Rivera played baseball not with proper equipment but with found objects, using discarded cardboard for gloves, tree limbs and broom handles for bats and balled-up fishing nets wrapped in electrical tape for balls. His father bought him his first real baseball glove at age 12. Rivera joined a local amateur team as a shortstop at the age of 18, didn’t start pitching until he was 19 and didn't debut in the majors until he was 25.

4. Rivera signed with the Yankees for $3,000 at the age of 20 on Feb. 17, 1990. Rivera spoke no English and had never been on a plane or out of Panama until the Yankees brought him to the United States. By Rivera’s own account, at the time he signed, “I wasn’t even a pitcher.”

5. Rivera’s first pitching coach in the minor leagues, with the Gulf Coast League Yankees, was Hoyt Wilhelm, the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Hall of Fame and first official all-time saves leader.

6. Rivera spent most of his first professional season as a reliever, but was given a start in a doubleheader on the final day of the season so that he could qualify for the ERA title. He threw a seven-inning no-hitter. He finished that 1990 season with a 0.17 ERA, 0.46 WHIP, 8.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 58 strikeouts in 52 innings.

7. Rivera had surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on Aug. 27, 1992. Contrary to many reports, however, it was not Tommy John surgery. The ligament was merely frayed, and Dr. Frank Jobe, who invented Tommy John surgery in 1974, simply cleaned it up rather than replace it.

8. Rivera was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft, but neither the Marlins nor Rockies drafted him. The top picks in that draft were righthanded starting pitcher David Nied (Rockies) and outfielder Nigel Wilson (Marlins). Nied posted a 5.47 ERA in 218 2/3 innings over four seasons for the Rockies before an arm injury ended his career. Wilson’s major league career lasted just 22 games, only seven of which came with the Marlins. Florida did, however, draft Trevor Hoffman, the man whose all-time saves record Rivera would ultimately break, though Hoffman recorded just two of his 601 saves for the Marlins.

9. Rivera made his major league debut with a start against the Angels in Anaheim on May 23, 1995. He struck out the first two men he faced, Tony Phillips and Jim Edmonds, but didn't make it out of the fourth inning. He gave up eight hits and five runs, all earned, in 3 1/3 innings in a 10-0 Yankees' loss.

10. Rivera and Derek Jeter were both optioned back to Triple-A on June 11, 1995 after Rivera’s start that day. Having made four major league starts, Rivera owned an ERA of 10.20. “Mo was devastated,” Jeter told SI's Tom Verducci. “We were damn near in tears!”

11. After his demotion, Rivera's fastball -- which had been around 90 mph in the majors -- suddenly and inexplicably improved to 95 mph in a Triple-A start on June 26, prompting his recall to New York.

12. In his first start after being recalled, in Chicago on July 4, Rivera dominated the White Sox, holding them to two hits over eight innings while striking out 11 in a 4-1 New York win. In all, Rivera made just 10 major league starts, none after 1995, and only three of them were quality starts.

13. Rivera’s first career relief appearance came at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 1, 1995. He started the sixth inning of a game New York was leading 3-2 in relief of fellow rookie Andy Pettitte and quickly gave up the lead. Rivera pitched two innings that day, allowing three hits and three runs, though he was credited with the win after the Yankees rallied to go ahead in the seventh.

14. The first flash of Rivera's future greatness came in the 1995 Division Series versus Seattle. Working exclusively in relief, he threw 5 1/3 innings, didn’t allow a run, stranded all six runner he inherited and struck out eight against a walk and three hits.

15. The Yankees almost traded Rivera twice before he broke out. In the middle of the 1995 season, general manager Gene Michael nearly dealt him to the Tigers for David Wells only to be dissuaded by Rivera’s increase in velocity. The following spring, in reaction to owner George Steinbrenner’s unease about having a rookie (Jeter) open the season at shortstop, new general manager Bob Watson explored a trade that would have sent Rivera to Seattle for shortstop Felix Fermin only to have Michael talk Steinbrenner out of it.

16. Rivera emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball in 1996, a season he spent as the set-up man to closer John Wetteland. Rivera threw 107 2/3 innings that season, posted a 2.09 ERA (240 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, struck out 130 men (10.9 per nine innings) and finished third in the Cy Young voting and 12th in the MVP voting. No middle reliever since has topped Rivera's 130 Ks from that season. He replaced Wetteland, who left for the Rangers as a free agent, as the closer the next season.

17. In April 1996, after Rivera completed a hidden no hitter with three straight appearances in which he threw three innings without allowing a hit, the latter two against Minnesota, Twins manager Tom Kelly offered the kind of praise that would become common over the next 17 years. “He belongs in a higher league, if there is one,” said Kelly. “Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal.” Rivera extended his hitless streak to 14 innings before finally giving up a single to the White Sox’ Tony Phillips.

18. Rivera earned his first save on May 17, 1996 against the Angels at Yankee Stadium. Pettitte got the win. Rivera has saved 72 of Pettitte’s wins, a record for any starter/closer combination.

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19. Like his jump in velocity two years earlier, Rivera now considers the discovery of his cut fastball to be a miraculous event. While playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza in June 1997, Rivera’s fastball suddenly started darting to the left. It was the birth of his cutter, the pitch with which he would dominate baseball for the next decade and a half. However, Rivera didn’t immediately realize what he had discovered. His first reaction to the sudden cut on his fastball was to try to get it to stop doing that.

Mariano Rivera, Yankees Rivera demosntrates the grip on his famous cut fastball. (Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated)

20. Rivera made the first of his 13 All-Star teams in 1997. The only pitcher to make more All-Star teams was Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, who made it in 14 seasons. Rivera's four All-Star Game saves are an MLB record.

21. Rivera blew a career-high nine saves in his first year as the Yankees closer, not counting the one in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Indians. He entered that game with one out in the eighth and New York leading 2-1, just five outs from advancing to the American League Championship series. With two out, Sandy Alomar Jr. hit a game-tying home run. Mendoza then lost the game in the ninth and the Yankees lost the series the next day. Alomar’s home run was one of just two Rivera has allowed in 141 postseason innings (the Mets' Jay Payton hit the other in Game 2 of the 200 World Series).

22. After Alomar’s home run, Rivera threw 33 1/3 postseason innings across 23 games before allowing another run in Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, breaking the record of 33 consecutive scoreless postseason innings set by Whitey Ford from 1960 to 1962.

23. Rivera was on the mound for the final out of the 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009 World Series. No other pitcher has recorded the final out of more than two World Series. Including those four, Rivera has closed out 16 postseason series, eight of those coming in save opportunities.

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24. Rivera has actually thrown the final pitch of five World Series. In 2001, however, that final pitch was hit over a drawn-in infield by the Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez to drive in the winning run of Arizona’s 3-2 Game 7 win. That remains Rivera’s only loss in 96 postseason appearances.

25. Rivera has blown just five of his 47 postseason save opportunities, but four of them came in situations in which converting the save would have clinched a series the Yankees ultimately went on to lose (the 1997 Division Series, 2001 World Series and two in the 2004 American League Championship Series).

Rivera ran to the mound and collapsed in tears after Aaron Boone's home run beat the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. (Bill Kostroun/AP) Rivera ran to the mound and collapsed in tears after Aaron Boone's home run beat the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. (Bill Kostroun/AP)

26. Rivera twice pitched three scoreless innings to enable the Yankees to win postseason game in extra innings. Most famously, he pitched the final three innings of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, which the Yankees won on Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th. However, in his very first postseason appearance, in Game 2 of the 1995 Division Series, he threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings against the Mariners starting in the 12th inning, earning the win when Jim Leyritz hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 15th.

27. Rivera is also the only player be named the most valuable player of a World Series (1999), League Championship Series (2003) and All-Star Game (2013).

28. Rivera’s postseason records include most games pitched (96, Jeff Nelson is second with 55), most saves (42, Brad Lidge is second with 18) and lowest ERA (0.70, minimum 30 innings pitched). Rivera has appeared in 16 postseasons and has only been charged with multiple runs in two of them: 2000 and 2001.

29. Rivera recorded his 500th career save on June 28, 2009 at Citi Field but that may not have been his most impressive achievement of the night. In the top of the ninth, making one of just seven plate appearances in his major league career, he reached base for the first and only time and recorded his first and only RBI when he drew a bases loaded walk from the Mets' Francisco Rodriguez.

30. In 2010, Rivera, Jeter and Jorge Posada, all of whom made their major league debuts in 1995, became the first trio of teammates in any of the four major American team sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) to play together in parts of 16 straight seasons. They would make it to 17 straight before Posada retired at the end of 2011. Rivera and Jeter have since tied the record for two teammates of 19 consecutive years together set by the Tigers' double-play combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.

31. From 2008 to 2012, Rivera’s annual salary was $15 million, which remains the highest single-season salary for a relief pitcher in major league history. Rivera posted a 1.64 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 6.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging 39 saves a year on his three-year contract from 2008 to 2010, but when it expired, he didn’t attempt to leverage the Yankees for a higher salary, though they could clearly afford it and he reportedly had a higher offer from at least one other team and a matching offer from the Red Sox. He simply re-signed for two more years at the same price.

32. Rivera recorded his record-setting 602nd career save on Sept. 19, 2011 when he worked a perfect ninth inning to preserve a 6-4 win against the Twins at the new Yankee Stadium. Rivera struck out Twins firstbaseman Chris Parmalee on three pitches for the final out.

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33. Rivera has more saves (652) than Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, the former career leader at 341, and Goose Gossage (310) combined. His 949 games finished are also a major league career record and he ranks fourth in pitching appearances with 1,111, which is a record for righthanded pitchers.

34. The most significant current threat to Rivera’s record comes from the Braves' 25-year-old Craig Kimbrel, who has 137 saves. Even if Kimbrel keeps up his current pace of 45 saves per season, he wouldn’t break Rivera’s record until 2024.

35. A remarkable 119 of Rivera’s saves lasted more than one inning. Since 1996, the long-since retired Keith Foulke is second with 55 such saves. Rivera has an additional 31 multi-inning saves in the postseason alone over that span, 14 of which required him to record at least six outs. Both of those are postseason records. Goose Gossage is second in both categories with seven multi-inning postseason saves, six of which lasted at least six outs.

36. Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Rivera ranks first in career ERA+ of 204, third in WHIP (1.00) and fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.09).

37. Rivera had considered retiring after the 2012 season but decided to come back after he tore the ACL in his right knee while shagging flyballs before the Yankees' game in Kansas City on May 3, 2012. He missed the rest of the season.

38. Rivera is the sixth pitcher in baseball history to spend at least 19 years exclusively with one team, just the second who debuted after World War II (the Orioles' Jim Palmer is the other) and the only relief pitcher ever to do so.

39. Since Rivera became New York's closer in 1997, the Yankees have had used just one other pitcher as their primary closer in a season: Rafael Soriano, who only go the opportunity because of Rivera's injury in 2012. Defining a “primary closer” as a pitcher with 20 or more saves in a season, the other 29 teams have averaged 7.5 primary closers each over the past 17 seasons, ranging from the Padres, who had Trevor Hoffman and were the only other team to need as few as four, to the Brewers, Marlins and Phillies, who have used 10 each.

40. Rivera’s 16 seasons with 20 or more saves is a major league record, as are his 15 seasons with 30 saves, his nine seasons with 40 saves (tied with Hoffman), and his two seasons with 50 saves (tied with Eric Gagné). In total, 157 pitchers other than Rivera have had seasons of at least 20 saves since 1997 and 69 of them only got that many once.

41. Trevor Hoffman’s entrance to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” during the 1998 World Series inspired the Yankees to find comparable entrance music for Rivera. The team tried Guns N’ Roses' “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” in early 1999 before settling on Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The song was eight years old at the time, but Rivera had never heard it and for years couldn’t name the title or artist. “I don’t listen to that type of music,” Rivera told the New York Times in 2006, when a brief controversy erupted over the fact that new Mets closer Billy Wagner also used the song. Five years later, he told MLB.com, “I never said I didn’t like it, but I didn’t care about the song. I didn’t pick the song. I don’t pay attention to the music. When I go in there, I’m going to business. I have a job to do, that’s it.”

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42. Rivera has worn the number 42 his entire career, and will be the last man in baseball to wear it. The number was retired throughout the major leagues in honor of Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut. (That night, Rivera blew what would have been his ninth major league save.) Rivera was one of 14 active players who were wearing the number at the time and were thus allowed to keep it for the remainder of their careers. The last player to wear 42 other than Rivera was Mo Vaughn, who retired after the 2003 season.

Sources:

Pepe, Phil. Core Four: The Heart and soul of the Yankees Dynasty. Chicago: Triumph, 2013.

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees. New York: Rodale, 2006.

Hoch, Bryan. “Cue the ‘Sandman’: Mariano, song synonymous.” MLB.com. Sept. 14, 2011.

Miller, Lisa. “Saved.” New York , June 9, 2013.

Smith, Claire. “Rivera Completes ‘No-Hitter’ In Victory.” New York Times. April 29, 1996.

Shpigel, Ben. “For Wagner and Rivera, Play It Again, Metallica” New York Times. April 5, 2006.

Verducci, Tom. "Exit Sandman", Sports Illustrated, Sept. 23, 2013

Baseball-Reference.com

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