The game had ended an hour earlier. Mariano Rivera--Mo to his
teammates on the New York Yankees--was the last player out of
the shower. Closers work the late shift. The Panamanian
righthander was standing in front of his spring training locker
in Tampa removing his street clothes from hangers with his long,
bony fingers. He put on white jeans and an expensive white
pullover, underneath which he dropped a mammoth gold crucifix
that hung from a chain around his neck. He slipped his feet into
shiny brown loafers, no socks.
Shortstop Derek Jeter was nearby, sitting at a long buffet
table, signing baseball cards. "Look at you, man," Jeter said.
"All in white," the young shortstop said, mocking the ensemble.
March 24, 1997
"This is new, bro," Rivera said, defending his threads, stroking
his shirt's fineness as if it were the emerging hair on his
infant son's head.
"You used to be bro," Jeter said. "Now that you're a closer,
you're all changed."
Last year the Yankees won the World Series, and Rivera was, one
could argue, the best pitcher in the American League. But he was
a setup man, the modest bridge that links the starting pitcher
to the closer, and his 2.09 ERA in his first full season was
overshadowed by Andy Pettitte's 21 wins and John Wetteland's 43
saves. Then came the off-season. Wetteland lit out for Texas,
where the Rangers were offering the free agent $23 million for
four years. New York owner George Steinbrenner didn't even try
to match that. Instead, the Yankees gave Rivera a raise, from
$131,000 to $550,000, and a promotion, from setup man to closer.
"If we didn't give him the chance," says his manager, Joe Torre,
"it would've been a slap in the face."
And now Mo Rivera is the man. Strutting about, moving things out
of his way with his chest. He's all changed.
A clubhouse attendant, a kid, comes by Rivera's locker, asks the
pitcher if he wants his cleats shined. "Thanks," Rivera says,
handing over the mud-caked shoes. If you've ever been in a big
league clubhouse, you know that please and thank you are not
magic words. They are, by custom, practically forbidden.
Earlier, from the stands, a Spanish-speaking fan from Puerto
Caimito, the fishing village where Rivera was raised, presented
him with a gift, a T-shirt stenciled with Rivera's name and
jersey number 42. "Gracias," Rivera said, inspecting the shirt,
then folding it with care. If you've been around ballplayers,
you know that many would rather have cocktails with Marge Schott
than endure a gift-giving presentation from a fan. They see a
fan with a wrapped box, they run. Not Mo.
Jeter was joking, of course. Rivera is not all changed. He
remains an unassuming man, in every regard. He's the same guy he
was last year, with a slightly altered job description. "Mo used
to be our closer in the eighth inning," says Mel Stottlemyre,
the New York pitching coach. "Now he's our closer in the ninth."
But he is, in some ways, an unlikely closer. During the past
three decades or so--as the complete game has headed for
extinction and the job of ninth-inning reliever has become one
of the most celebrated in baseball--the closer has become
identified with certain traits. He has an oversized body. Or an
outsized personality. Or, at the very least, the sinister face
of a 19th-century outlaw. (That is to say, he has facial hair.)
Rivera has none of those markings. He's a thin man,
clean-shaven, modest. He's quiet, in the clubhouse and on the
hill. All he does is get people out.
"There ain't no secret to it," Rivera says. He's not a baseball
philosopher, not in English, not in Spanish, either. What he
does is keep everything simple, especially his graceful
delivery, so effortless it looks as if he's playing catch with
his nephews on the street where he learned to play back home.
"Just play baseball. Throw strikes," says Rivera. "Go after
hitters. When they're in the batter's box, they're the enemy. If
you give them a chance, they'll kill you. Don't let them
breathe. Never get beat with your second-best pitch. I learned
that from Wetteland. Play hard. God gave me this talent, so I
use it." Rivera extends to hitters, especially big swatters, the
most enticing offer in baseball: a pitch over the plate. Here it
is. Hit it--if you can.
Last year at spring training the report Torre received on Rivera
did not describe an exceptional talent: nice kid, hardworking,
good rising fastball, good 90-mph slider, O.K. changeup, lacks a
fourth pitch. If Rivera's name came up in trade talks, nobody
shouted, "He's untouchable!" Then, last season Torre got to know
him better, and Rivera became untouchable. Torre used him in 61
games, usually in the seventh and eighth innings, and in those
games, spanning 107 2/3 innings, Rivera allowed a meager 25 runs
and only one homer, winning eight games and losing three.
Starters could go into games on days when they didn't have their
best stuff knowing that six good innings was a good day's work
and that Rivera and Wetteland could take over from there.
Most of the time Torre used Rivera regardless of who was due to
bat. Rivera retired lefties (they batted .215 against him)
nearly as well as righties (who hit a demoralizing .157). In the
postseason it was more of the same. He pitched 14 1/3 innings
and allowed one run, for a 0.63 ERA. Ouch. When Torre realized
that Wetteland would not be returning, his first thought was
not, What do I do now for a closer? Rivera had had five saves
during the year; the manager could envision Rivera as his final
pitcher night after night. The question was, Who will be the
setup man for Rivera? The answer is a pair of lefthanders,
Graeme Lloyd and Mike Stanton, and two righthanders, Jeff Nelson
and David Weathers. How effectively this committee of four works
will determine to a significant degree whether the Yankees can
continue their winning ways this season.
Rivera is 27 years old, but he looks and acts older. Last year
Rivera's first cousin, Ruben Rivera, a promising Yankees
outfield prospect, went AWOL from the Triple A Columbus Clippers
for a brief period. Discussing this situation, Mariano shook his
head and said, "Immature." Then he looked lost for a moment, as
if he were thinking about some faraway time and place. "Now he's
Rivera grew up the way many Panamanians in fishing villages do,
in a cozy little world dominated by church, family, work and
soccer, with a little baseball on the side. The Riveras weren't
poor, and nobody around was rich, except maybe the man who owned
the commercial fishing boat on which Rivera's father, also named
Mariano, was captain. As long as the boats went out, there was
food. Everybody had clothes. A Christmas gift might be a
baseball, and that ball had to last until the following
Christmas, no matter how roughed up the leather cover became.
Rivera likes the Panamanian life he leaves behind each season.
He and his wife, Clara, who is also Panamanian, have two sons, a
three-year-old named for his father and one-month-old Jafet. The
Riveras plan to raise their children in Panama. They want them
to be around family members and to attend Panamanian schools.
"The United States, it is very nice, but it is not home," Rivera
says. He again looks temporarily lost. "Panama is home."
Rivera has a kind face and a relaxed smile that reveals two
decks of large square teeth and two dimples that look like
commas carved into his lean cheeks. He has slightly protruding
ears that seem to pick up anything said in Spanish in any corner
of the clubhouse. His brown eyes are his most arresting feature,
sad and wide-spaced and dark. His spoken English is good, but
from a distance of 60 feet, six inches, he communicates with his
eyes. It is not uncommon for Rivera to throw five consecutive
fastballs to a hitter. The batter knows what's coming. What he
doesn't know is where Rivera will throw it. Yankees catcher Joe
Girardi doesn't make a target for Rivera. The beams from
Rivera's eyes tell Girardi all he needs to know.
"He's sneaky," Girardi says, resorting to the word baseball men
use when they attempt to explain the inexplicable. "Because he's
small [6'2", 168 pounds] and because his delivery is so free and
easy, so smooth, his stuff doesn't look as if it's coming at you
as fast as it is. Then it's by you."
Rivera works quickly, and he throws strikes, so fielders like
playing behind him. They're alert, though underworked. "When
Mo's pitching, you don't field nothing," says Jeter. "He strikes
out a lot of guys." Last year Rivera faced 425 batters and
struck out 130 of them, the most ever by a Yankees reliever,
breaking a team record held by Goose Gossage, who struck out 122
Gossage returned to the Yankees this spring as a bullpen coach.
He, too, was a setup man who became a closer, and he was brought
in to help all the relievers, particularly Rivera. Gossage
believes Rivera will make the move to closer easily for one
reason above all others. "He has no fear of failure," Gossage
says. "The first time I saw him was on TV when the Yankees were
playing Seattle in the playoffs, year before last. He pitches
like five innings over three games, doesn't allow a run. Comes
on in the eighth in Game 5. Bases loaded, tie game. Strikes out
a guy on three pitches. He's intense, but very focused, very
calm. He has the toughness to pitch inside and knock you down."
Rivera is likely to work fewer innings this year than last.
(Wetteland pitched 63 2/3 innings last year.) But there will be
times when he is needed for three consecutive games and some
occasions when he is needed four days in a row. That is
something Rivera has never done. He cannot afford to get tired,
cannot afford to lose any of those precious pounds stretched out
over his frame. If he loses several miles an hour off his
fastball, as he did for a brief period last year, he loses his
effectiveness. He must find a way to keep up his strength and
keep down his pitch counts, both in games and in bullpen
warmups. An important task for Stottlemyre will be to
continually monitor Rivera's arm strength.
Then there is the more subtle question, the one about Rivera's
mental strength. Can Rivera withstand the immense pressures of
finishing a game? "You're standing on the mound at the end of
the game," says Gossage, "and you're either the hero or the
goat. It's that simple. Can you come back from the nights you
fail and start all over again?" That is something that cannot be
taught, says Gossage. That has nothing to do with having a large
body or a flamboyant personality or a bearded face. It has
everything to do with who you are.
Rivera says, simply and believably, that he is not someone to
feel pressure. Pressure was parting from home for the first time
at 20, speaking not a word of English, boarding a plane for the
first time, leaving behind a weeping mother, weeping himself,
going to the States to play professional baseball. In 1990
Rivera pitched 52 innings in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) and
had an ERA of 0.17. He hasn't felt any pressure since then. He's
getting paid to play baseball. He figures he's way ahead of the
When Rivera was 16 and finished with high school, he went to
work for his father on the fishing boat. Every night Rivera
smelled of sardines. At sea, untangling nets, his mind would
drift to the game of his youth, soccer, to dreams of playing
professionally. His body, however, could not withstand the
rigors of soccer. Baseball, to Rivera, was a pastime, something
he played on the street, with his buddies, using his Christmas
baseball, all wrapped with tape by midsummer, and a glove made
from a cardboard box. The idea of baseball as a profession never
crossed his mind. "Baseball was fun," Rivera says. "Just fun."
He played amateur baseball for his district. He never knew the
scouts were watching.
"On the boat I liked looking at all the different fish, but my
father's life was not for me," says Rivera, who owns a modest
house near his parents in Panama. "There's no future in
fishing." He did not say, "Baseball, that has a future for me."
He did not need to.
Now the Yankees' newest closer is scurrying about the clubhouse,
looking for a teammate with an extra pair of size-11 cleats for
a friend visiting from Panama, a friend who grew up playing with
a taped baseball and a cardboard glove. Rivera knows about
pressure. Pressure is searching for sardines when the sardines
don't want to be found and there are a half-dozen mouths at home
waiting for food. Bases loaded, no outs, ninth inning, one-run
lead? No problema, bro.