The wild rumor was--as wild rumors often are--not true. After a
15-year major league career in which he hit .295 and stole 267
bases, Mickey Rivers did not become a professional bingo player.
Nor did he become a professional jai alai pelotari, another rumor
that made the rounds. Though if he had made either career choice,
would anyone have been surprised? ¬∂ The only seemingly safe bet
was that Rivers would become a professional gambler. In his
playing days he enjoyed making wagers on the ponies so much that
in 1978 the New York Yankees removed the phones from their
clubhouse so Rivers couldn't call in bets to the track. "I
remember [pitcher] Ken Holtzman in the bullpen, and he'd
tellMickey [who was playing centerfield] if he won or lost a race,"
says Sparky Lyle, a Yankees reliever from 1972 through '78 and
now the manager of the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League.
"If Mickey lost, he'd be in the outfield like this," says Lyle,
trying to demonstrate a man lackadaisically pursuing a ball. "So we
told Holtzie, 'Just tell him he won every day. That way he'll run
all the fly balls down. Then, at the end of the game, we'll tell
him he lost.'"
These days the 54-year-old Rivers, who retired from the majors in
1984, spends far less time playing the horses (or parlaying his
money at the bingo hall or jai alai fronton) and much more time
working with kids. He lives in his hometown of Miami, near his
14-year-old son, Jonathan, and his two sisters, Sandrell, 55, and
Rena Young, 52. (Jonathan lives with his mother.) With Sandrell
he has started the Mickey Rivers Outreach Program, which sends
him all over the city talking to kids about competing in sports.
He also helps coach a handful of youth baseball teams, one of
which is the Carroll City Chiefs, made up of 13-and 14-year-olds
from north Miami, many of whom have no idea that Rivers was the
man who ignited the Yankees' teams of the late 1970s, the Bronx
Kids love Rivers for one reason. "Mickey was a kid at heart,"
says Lyle. "He still is." He's also as flaky as ever. Writer
Roger Kahn observed of John Milton Rivers, "He may well be the
only person named for John Milton who has never heard of John
Milton." Actually, Rivers is named for his father, not the author
of Paradise Lost. Though he has written a book that is scheduled
to be published this summer called Ain't No Sense Worryin': The
Wisdom of Mick (the Quick) Rivers, no one will confuse Milton and
Mick. Milton once asked, "Who shall silence all the airs and
madrigalls that whisper softness in chambers?" Rivers once asked,
"What was the name of the dog on Rin Tin Tin?"
Then there was Rivers's description of his relationship with
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin: "Me
and George and Billy are two of a kind." One season he said his
goals were "to hit .300, score a hundred runs and stay injury
prone." The list of his malaprops is long, but Mick also
displayed a quick wit. When Reggie Jackson boasted he had an IQ
of 160, Rivers asked, "Out of what? A thousand?" Perhaps his most
memorable witticism led to his book title. "Ain't no sense
worrying about things you got no control over, 'cause if you got
no control over them, ain't no sense worrying," he said in 1979.
"And ain't no sense worrying about things you got control over,
'cause if you got control over them, ain't no sense worrying."
It's hard to argue with that. In fact, it's hard to argue with
anything Rivers says, because getting a word in during a
conversation with him can be difficult. Lou Piniella, the
Yankees' leftfielder from 1974 through '84 and now the manager of
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, described Rivers's speech as "a funny
way of speaking that made it hard to understand him, especially
when he didn't want you to understand him."
In the Bronx Zoo no one was immune from ribbing. Before the 1978
season the Yankees signed relief ace Rich Gossage as a free agent
despite the fact that Lyle, their closer, had won the Cy Young
Award in '77. It was a combustible situation that was further
fueled when Gossage gave up a game-winning homer to Richie Zisk
of the Texas Rangers on Opening Day. A week later Gossage threw
away a bunt, costing New York a game against the Toronto Blue
Jays. In another game soon afterward Martin summoned Gossage from
the bullpen. Gossage hopped into the bullpen cart only to find
his path blocked by Rivers, who was standing in front of the cart
with his hands in the air, yelling, "Don't bring him in! We want
Eventually the Yankees began to win, overcoming a 14-game deficit
in July to catch the Boston Red Sox and force a one-game playoff.
Rivers contributed that day, but he did so from the on-deck
circle. Bucky Dent was at the plate in the seventh inning with
two on and New York trailing 2-0. Dent had borrowed a bat from
Rivers in the seventh, but it had been cracked in batting
practice. Rivers noticed it when Dent fouled a pitch off his
foot; when Dent walked toward the on-deck circle to receive
treatment, Rivers had a batboy hand him another bat. "Next pitch
..." Rivers says.
Dent's homer sent the Yankees on their way to their second
straight World Series win, but in 1979 the club was broken up.
Lyle was traded to Texas, and Rivers joined him midway through
the season in another deal. He retired five years later but made
a brief comeback in the Senior Professional Baseball Association
in '90. He now makes a living at card shows and fantasy camps,
and for several years he worked as a coach for the Yankees in
spring training. But the only coaching he does now is in Miami.
After a Chiefs game in June, Rivers was holding court with his
fellow coaches. He told the Gossage story, only in this version
he threw his body in front of the cart like a dissident in front
of a Chinese tank. The kids, meanwhile, were oblivious. You
wanted to grab them and tell them to pay attention, that this was
history, but they were too busy running around and cracking wise.
Then you realized they weren't disrespecting Rivers. They were
paying him tribute. They'd turned their team into the Carroll