The following is excerpted from CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the ’90s Dynasty by Bill Pennington. Copyright © 2019 by Bill Pennington. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
In the dark, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera checked into a gritty budget hotel next to Newark Airport and glumly walked across the street to Bennigan’s, an Irish pub-themed casual dining chain popular in the New York area during the mid-1990s. It was the kind of New Jersey place that would have been filled with Yankees fans on this evening, June 11, 1995. But no one recognized the two players who had just been dispatched to the team’s farm system after disheartening big league debuts.
Jeter and Rivera slumped into a booth and faced each other across the table.
Rivera had started that day’s game at Yankee Stadium against Seattle and given up seven hits and five runs in a little more than two innings of work. In his previous start, he had been bashed for seven runs. Most disturbing to the Yankees brain trust, Rivera’s velocity was down. A fastball and cutter that had once been delivered at about 90-to-91 miles an hour was now only registering at 87 or 88. His E.R.A. was 10.20.
Jeter had played shortstop in the game, with a single in four at-bats. As the replacement for injured starter Tony Fernandez, Jeter was hitting .234 with only two extra-base hits. But Jeter, who was days from his 21st birthday, was never meant to be the everyday shortstop in 1995. With the Yankees in last place and sinking, Yankees general manager Gene “Stick” Michael had little interest in exposing the franchise’s best prospect to the rocky tumult of what had been a confounding season. Especially since George Steinbrenner was already grousing that Jeter might be overrated as a front-line major league shortstop.
Chumps to Champs
by Bill Pennington
Yet some 25 years ago, the New York Yankees were a pitiful team at the bottom of the standings. This is the untold story of the time when the Yankees were a laughingstock—and how out of that abyss emerged the modern Yankees dynasty, one of the greatest in all of sports.
Michael wanted Jeter out of the spotlight. Rivera, who had hinted about on-going shoulder soreness, needed a break. Besides, he was still drawing considerable interest as trade bait and Michael was determined to find out what he might fetch for Rivera, the undrafted, unrecruited Panamanian free agent the Yankees signed for a paltry $2,000 in 1990.
Late in the afternoon, the team’s traveling secretary handed Jeter and Rivera airline vouchers for their flight the next day to Charlotte, where the Yankees’ top minor league team, the Columbus Clippers, were continuing a road trip.
Rivera recalled that the taxi ride from Yankee Stadium to New Jersey was silent. Once seated at Bennigan’s, Rivera immediately apologized to Jeter, suggesting had he pitched better, maybe the two of them wouldn’t have been sent down.
Jeter dismissed that idea. “I just said that we would have to prove ourselves again,” Jeter remembered. “It was the only way to get back up there. And I said so – once or twice.”
Jeter smiled, adding: “Maybe I said it more than that.”
Rivera quietly nodded in agreement. He also said he was going to confess to the Columbus coaches how much his shoulder was bothering him, something he was reluctant to do during his past two starts with the Yankees.
Arriving in Charlotte the next day, Jeter started at shortstop.
“Derek had a walk and two hits that night – a double and a triple,” said Stump Merrill, the Yankees manager during the disastrous 1990-91 seasons who by 1995 was a Yankees roving minor league advisor. “I think he stole two bases, too. I thought to myself: So much for the kid reacting badly to the letdown of a demotion.”
Rivera, meanwhile, was placed on the 14-day disabled list. The hope was that some rest would do Rivera’s usually resilient arm some good. If that didn’t work, the Detroit Tigers and at least three National League teams wanted to acquire the 25-year-old Rivera and would offer pitching help in return. In meetings inside the Yankees front office, Michael talked of trading Rivera while he still had some worth. The team would do it, as Michael liked to say, before the rest of baseball discovered what the Yankees already knew about their struggling pitching prospect.
As Mariano Rivera rested his shoulder on the bench of the Columbus Clippers in June 1995, Gene Michael was in New York preparing to trade him to the Tigers for left-handed starter David Wells.
Joe Klein, the Detroit general manager, had an extensive background as a minor league scout and manager. Though he had also been the general manager of the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, Klein happily continued to roam the backroads of the rookie-level leagues in Florida and the Carolinas. He was a fixture at Class AA Eastern League games, where he had once been a player and manager.
Klein had seen Rivera pitch dozens of times, as early as 1990 when he first made notes about Rivera’s fluid delivery and mound poise for the Gulf Coast League Yankees. He saw Rivera the next season in Greensboro and again in 1994 with the Albany Yankees.
“It’s easy to say this now, but back in the mid-1990s I believed he was miscast as a starter and would make a better reliever,” Klein said in 2017. “I’m not saying I knew he would be good as he became – I’m pretty confident that no one did. But I thought he had a big upside as a guy who pitched in limited outings rather than someone who a batting order saw two or three times in one start.”
Wells, who was 32 at the time, was having a good year for the Tigers. In late June, he had a 5-3 record with a 3.11 E.R.A. But Wells was making more than $2.3 million, a princely sum at the time, and the Tigers were a .500 team gasping to keep up with the surging Boston Red Sox in the A.L. East.
Wells was going to be traded that summer to some team and for some prospect and Klein’s first choice of compensation was Rivera. Klein, like every general manager, watched the waiver wire and saw that Rivera had been sent back to the minors. And like all baseball executives at the time, Klein also knew that Gene Michael was under unending pressure from his owner to make a move that might turn around the waning Yankees, who one year earlier had the best record in the American League until the 1994 baseball strike wiped out the rest of the season.
At that moment, Klein ramped up his pleas for a Wells-for-Rivera trade.
“You’re often discussing various trades but I think Gene and I both thought that Wells might thrive in New York,” Klein said. “And that proved to be true eventually when David went there later. But in ’95, it was about whether they were willing to part with Rivera.
“The way he had been pitching, I was very sure they were going to make that trade.”
But Michael stalled. And Klein, understandably, wanted to wait until Rivera returned from the disabled list. He had to know that any injury was not serious.
“I had not agreed to trade Mariano,” Michael recalled. “But we were certainly leaning that way. At that juncture of the season, we certainly needed a proven starter.”
On June 26, Jeter’s birthday, Rivera returned to the mound against the Rochester Red Wings. He was pain-free and his shoulder felt strong and loose.
In the second game of a two-night doubleheader at Columbus, Rivera mowed down the Red Wings in the first inning, striking out two of three batters. The third batter was retired on a weak grounder to Rivera.
Behind the plate for Columbus was Jorge Posada, and he was stunned by the velocity of Rivera’s pitches.
“His fastball was exploding out of his hand,” Posada said, recounting the scene. “He was hitting my glove with that loud smacking sound. The hitters had no chance.”
Posada approached Rivera in the dugout, jokingly asking him if he had eaten something different that day.
“He told me to just keep doing whatever I was doing,” Rivera said.
A rainstorm shortened the game after five innings. Rivera had not given up a hit and faced only 15 batters, the minimum for five innings.
The next morning, in his Yankee Stadium office, Michael received the team’s minor league reports from the day before as he always did. He saw that Rivera’s pitching line had zero hits but the numbers that jumped off the page were the radar gun readings on Rivera’s fastball. Most were at 95 and 96 miles an hour.
Rivera had never consistently thrown that hard in any start. Michael doubted that Rivera had ever been clocked at more than 91 miles an hour.
He called Columbus to verify that the report wasn’t a mistake and was assured that everyone in Columbus was as flabbergasted as Michael by Rivera’s newfound velocity.
“They said the ball was flying out of Mariano’s hands,” Michael said, retelling the story in 2017. “But, you know, this was 1995. The radar guns weren’t as sophisticated. They could be wrong. Or something odd might have happened. I said to myself: ‘It’s one reading. I need another reading from that game.’ ”
Michael had the phone numbers of a vast network of scouts and player personnel directors who worked for a variety of major league teams. As a group, they were a close-knit tribe, a collection of baseball lifers united by their nomadic lifestyles and the tedium of sitting in the creaky seats of broken down minor league parks night after night. Since they tended to stay in the same mid-level hotels and eat and drink in the same sports bars on the road, they became friends and communicated regularly, not to give away team secrets or fess up about a top prospect they might have uncovered, but to kibitz and convey basic, relevant data – like the news that a new, pristine Holiday Inn had opened in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Since he had been a scout for decades, Michael was treated like a charter member of the group, and within that community he had a friend, Jerry Walker, the St. Louis Cardinals’ director of player personnel. Michael had known Walker since the 1960s, when each played in the American League. Walker became a pitching coach when his playing career ended then moved into a series of front office jobs. Two years earlier, Walker had been the Detroit Tigers’ general manager.
Michael knew that Walker was likely a witness to Rivera’s June 26 five-inning, no-hitter because St. Louis was interested in Rivera as well. The Cardinals were hoping the Yankees-Tigers trade fell through.
Michael dialed Walker’s phone number and confirmed that Walker had been in Columbus the evening before. As he usually did, Michael asked Walker generally about a variety of players. It was all a pretense, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Everyone did the same kind of casual nosing around. Then in an off-the-cuff sort of way Michael asked Walker if had gotten a radar gun reading on Rivera.
Walker gave him the number.
Michael engaged in small talk for a few minutes longer then hung up.
“The next person I called was Buck Showalter,” Michael said, referring to the Yankees manager since 1992. “I told him, ‘We’re recalling Rivera to New York right now. I don’t know how he did it, but he’s throwing 95 in Columbus.’
“Then I called Joe Klein and told him the deal was off.”
Returned to Showalter’s Yankees, Rivera started a game on July 4th inside Chicago’s Comiskey Park and struck out 11 batters in eight shutout innings. Rivera gave up just two hits in a victory – the third in four games for the Yankees – that moved the team into third place. More importantly, the team was within four games of something new in baseball that season: a wild card playoff berth.
For most of the rest of his 19-year career, Rivera threw in the mid-90s. Accentuating that ability, he refined his inimitable hard-breaking cut fastball. But the success of each of those pitches was dependent on the existence of the other. Neither works without the threat of a baseball arriving at home plate around 95 miles an hour.
But how does a 25-year-old in his sixth year pitching professionally suddenly increase his velocity from a norm of 90 miles an hour to 95 or higher? And how does he do it in two weeks?
The deeply religious Rivera has always called the transformation an act of God.
Michael and Showalter, much less inclined to ascribe developmental baseball skills to spiritual intervention, were dumbfounded at the time.
“I questioned if he had somehow been throwing harder before but I never noticed,” Showalter said. “But we had radar gun readings from hundreds of days. The fact is, it didn’t really make sense. And it still doesn’t make sense.”
Said Michael: “I’ve never seen it happen to anyone else. I’ve seen it happen to a really young pitcher over the course of a couple years. But that wasn’t the case here.”
Glenn Fleisig, a sports medicine researcher who has been studying biomechanics in athletics since he was an engineering major at M.I.T. in the early 1980s, has no explanation for Rivera’s jump in velocity.
“I don’t know of any situation where a pitcher went from 90 to 95 in two weeks,” Fleisig said. “I have no idea how that could happen. There have been pitchers who change their mechanics and then also undergo a vigorous strength and conditioning program.
“After six weeks, although probably more, they’ll have some gain in velocity, which over time and with more work, they can continue to build on.”
But Rivera did not change his pitching mechanics. He did not alter his diet or anything else about his routine. He rarely lifted weights throughout his life, unless you count the arduous labor of six days a week at sea as a teenage fisherman on his father’s boat.
“But to go from 90 to 95 in two weeks?” Fleisig said. “Two weeks? That’s phenomenal. That’s extraordinary. Maybe Rivera’s right. Maybe God did something.”
There were other unconventional theories. Posada, who along with Jeter was one of first to witness Rivera’s sudden jump in velocity, offered an uncommon hypothesis.
“Jeter always used to say that Mariano had Jedi powers,” Posada said.
Seated in a lounge at the Yankees spring training complex in 2017, months before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 79, Gene Michael stifled a giggle when he remembered how close he came to trading the greatest relief pitcher of all time.
“As they say, sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make,” he said.
Then Michael laughed heartily.
“Who knows how Mariano found that extra five miles an hour,” he said. He shifted in his chair and quickly added: “But I’ll tell you what. At the time, we didn’t give a shit about how it happened.
“We were just going to get him out on that mound as often as we could.”