When rain mixed with soda bottles fell from the sky, when armed
police officers stood guard over the field and when the 1999
American League Championship Series turned nearly raucous enough
to wake the dead (isn't that exactly what the Boston Red Sox and
their Ruthless fans wanted?), Mariano Rivera was the right man
to restore order. The Jerry Springer-level nonsense and Game 4
ended on Sunday night at Fenway Park when Rivera, the New York
Yankees' righthanded closer, calmly blew one of his famously
elusive fastballs past Boston catcher Jason Varitek. That save
wasn't the most difficult of his career--the Yankees won
9-2--only the most symbolic.
"He is," New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says, "as much
of a known factor as anything or anyone we have on this team. You
know exactly what you're going to get with Mariano."
Rivera was the one sure thing in a bizarre series in which
Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, Red Sox shortstop Nomar
Garciaparra and the umpires traded one outrageous error after
another; Boston manager Jimy Williams flipped his lid
(literally) and Yankees righthander Roger Clemens lost his head
(to Sox fans' chagrin, figuratively); New York lefthander Andy
Pettitte joined Rube Marquard of the 1912 New York Giants, Hippo
Vaughn of the 1918 Chicago Cubs and Bob Ojeda of the 1986 New
York Mets as the only southpaw starters to beat Boston at Fenway
Park in the postseason; and even those charged with keeping the
peace at Fenway yelled obscenities at the damn Yankees.
Curses? There were plenty to be heard in Boston, where the crowd
provided a sometimes witty, sometimes profane Greek chorus to a
familiar story. On Monday night the Yankees and Rivera finished
off the Red Sox in Game 5, 6-1, for their 36th American League
pennant in the 80 seasons since Boston owner Harry Frazee sold
Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
Of more recent vintage, Rivera continued to be a virtually
unhittable and unbeatable force in what is now an 18-3 run
through the playoffs by New York over the past two years. He has
closed out 14 of those 18 wins while allowing no runs in 19
innings, a streak that lowered his career postseason ERA to
0.42, the best ever for a pitcher with at least 30 postseason
innings. He has done so with a tranquility that is nearly
angelic. So cool is Rivera that he is known to nap in the early
innings of games. The only time he exhibits emotion, according
to Yankees righthander David Cone, is when he talks about the
church he is building in his native Panama. "My arm," Rivera
says, "is a gift from God. I am blessed. All of my life is
Rivera is tougher to hit than the lottery. In 1996 New York won
world championship number 23 with Rivera firing high, four-seam
fastballs as a setup man to closer John Wetteland. New York then
allowed Wetteland to leave as a free agent and handed his job to
Rivera. Early in the 1997 season Rivera was throwing in the
bullpen when he suddenly noticed that his fastball began darting
sharply to the left. "It was just from God," he explains. "I
didn't do anything. It was natural."
Armed with one of the nastiest cut fastballs in the business,
Rivera learned to harness it. He discovered he could control the
break of the pitch by sliding his fingers slightly to one side
of the baseball. Then last season lefthanders David Wells and
Graeme Lloyd, his teammates on the road to world championship
number 24 (both were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the
off-season for Clemens), taught Rivera he could get even more
break on his pitches with balls that happened to get scuffed
during games, such as those that had bounced in the dirt.
"I never knew that," Rivera says. "If I had a scuffed ball
before, I'd throw it out. One day they played catch with me with
two balls. One was scuffed, one wasn't. I saw the way the
scuffed ball moved and said, 'Uh-oh. This is fun.' For me it was
like learning the letters. You know, first A and then B. I had
been on A."
Rivera's cut fastball, which has been clocked as fast as 97 mph,
is so vicious that New York bench coach Don Zimmer, 68, says,
"I've never seen anybody break more bats of lefthanded hitters.
Never. Every time he pitches he gets two, three, four. We count
'em and laugh. It's the darnedest thing I ever saw." The cut
fastball is so good that Rivera hardly bothers to throw his
slider, his only other pitch. "Hitters know what they're going
to get," Yankees catcher Joe Girardi says, "and they still can't
hit him." Through Monday night Rivera hadn't allowed a run since
July 21, a streak of 38 1/3 innings.
The adventuresome Knoblauch, on the other hand, is the
anti-Rivera. If chaos were a communicable disease, Knoblauch
would be quarantined. The New York second baseman is a carrier
of trouble. It's not just that you could find a more reliable
arm on a Vegas slot machine. Knoblauch also happened to be smack
in the middle of two flagrantly blown calls by umpires.
The first occurred at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 13, in the 10th
inning of Game 1, when Rivera got what looked like a double-play
grounder to third base while protecting a 3-3 tie. Knoblauch
clearly dropped the throw from third baseman Scott Brosius.
Umpire Rick Reed, however, ruled that Knoblauch made the catch
and had dropped the ball only when beginning an attempt to throw
to first. Reed called the runner, Jose Offerman, out. New York
won in the bottom of the inning when Bernie Williams smashed the
second pitch from righthander Rod Beck over the centerfield wall.
Knoblauch gained another pardon in Game 4, again while trying to
put out Offerman on a double-play grounder. This one occurred in
the eighth inning with Rivera called on to protect a 3-2 lead.
Knoblauch fielded the bouncing ball and reached to tag Offerman,
who swerved slightly to avoid the tag. Umpire Tim Tschida
mistakenly ruled that Knoblauch had tagged Offerman. Knoblauch
threw to first to complete the phantom double play. "When calls
go against you, it makes you think, How many obstacles do you
have to go through?" lamented Boston centerfielder Darren Lewis.
Last year Knoblauch blew Game 2 of the League Championship
Series against the Cleveland Indians when he stood on first base
blowing bubbles with his gum while an errant throw to him from
first baseman Tino Martinez rolled near his feet. This year he
nicked Zimmer's left ear with a foul line drive into the
Yankees' dugout in Game 1 of New York's Division Series against
the Texas Rangers. Then his notorious throwing troubles worsened
against Boston, growing so bad that in Game 4 he fired balls
into the Red Sox dugout during warmups between innings. Martinez
has had to make so many saves with Knoblauch around that he
should get consideration for the Vezina Trophy. "When you play
in the middle of the field, a lot of things can happen,"
Knoblauch said on Sunday night with a shrug.
Garciaparra could vouch for that. The Yankees began the series
concerned about his bat. Their scouting report on him included
this warning: "Make a good first pitch! Start him off like 0-2
count.... Make someone else beat us!"
Garciaparra wound up with more misplays afield (six) than RBIs
(five). He committed two harmless errors in Game 1 and another
in Game 3, but he sabotaged Boston more than Tschida did in Game
4. He Knoblauched a throw in the fourth inning, launching into
the Red Sox' dugout what should have been the second out. The
Yankees parlayed that mistake into two runs and a 3-2 lead for
Pettitte. Garciaparra helped the Yankees toward a six-run ninth
inning by dropping two throws, though each time the error was
charged to the teammate who made the throw.
In the bottom of that inning Garciaparra hit a grounder to third
and was called out in a close play at first base by umpire Dale
Scott--another blown call, it appeared. Jimy Williams, upon
bolting from the dugout in protest, finally lost his composure,
not to mention his cap, which he flung in the air in disgust.
Scores of fans took Scott's call and Williams's burlesque act as
a cue to bombard the field with trash and plastic soda bottles.
"Jimy Williams incited the crowd," Yankees owner George
Steinbrenner charged after the game. The Yankees were waved off
the field and into their dugout by home plate umpire Al Clark.
Once they were there, according to New York manager Joe Torre, a
member of the Fenway security force shouted profanities at them
while ordering them to remain in the dugout. Yankees relief
pitcher Jeff Nelson had to be restrained by teammates from going
after the security man, identified by a Red Sox public relations
official as Steve Corcoran. Torre also erupted. "It was as angry
and as emotional as I've ever seen Joe," Cone said. Giving new
meaning to pitching out of trouble, Rivera closed the game under
(One hour after the game, Corcoran was eating food from the
Yankees' catered buffet in their clubhouse. An incredulous New
York first base coach Jose Cardenal chased him out of the
clubhouse with a string of profanities. Corcoran refused comment.)
To think the weekend had begun in Boston with such promise for
the Red Sox and their fans: a 13-1 rout of the Yankees in Game 3
last Saturday, the worst of 98 defeats in 255 postseason games
for New York. Boston's beloved ace, righthander Pedro Martinez,
thoroughly outpitched the city's erstwhile one, Clemens.
Martinez toyed with the Yankees that afternoon the way he
puttered with the begonias in his backyard garden in Chestnut
Hill that very morning. Even with a subpar fastball Martinez
played with New York hitters, laughing out loud in the third
after Knoblauch buckled at the sight of one of his curveballs.
"It looked funny because Knobby was running away," Martinez said
Meanwhile, a discombobulated Clemens was torched for five runs
and departed to gleeful taunts from the crowd only one batter
into the third inning. In the seventh the fans broke into a
"Where is Roger?" chant, and after the game they stormed a cloth
banner inside Fenway that commemorates Clemens's two
20-strikeout games as a member of the Red Sox. Security
personnel turned away the mob just as a corner of the banner was
ripped from a wall.
The inferior Red Sox had tried gallantly on the field and
crassly off it to break the great Curse of the Bambino. They
even left tickets to Saturday's game for Wells, whose 4-0
postseason last year for New York haunts Clemens. "That's
classless," Steinbrenner said. "It would have been more
classless if David had showed. He asked me for my Tampa Bay
hockey tickets [Friday] night."
On the coldest and bleakest of New England winter days, Red Sox
fans can warm themselves with thoughts of that fabulously clear
autumn afternoon when they cheered the humiliation of Clemens
and the triumph of Martinez. It is, measured against the usual
emptiness of their winters, a veritable bounty. The Yankees,
meanwhile, marching on to yet another World Series, have
something even more powerful. They have Rivera.