A front-row seat to Mariano Rivera, MLB's greatest closer ever

Mariano Rivera earned his first postseason victory in

Mariano Rivera earned his first postseason victory in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS with 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief against the Mariners. The Yankees won the game, 7-5, in 15 innings. (Oct. 4, 1995) (Credit: Newsday file photo)

All the way through an unforgettable era, batters have known what was coming and they could not do a darned thing about it. Mariano Rivera's cut fastball always has moved in a mystifying way that the pitcher never planned and still cannot technically explain, other than to call it "a gift from God." A hitter swings, but by the time his bat finishes its sweep, the ball suddenly has changed course, sideways.

Rivera can make it finish on the inside corner or the outside. Much of the time, the hitter makes no contact whatsoever. Often, he is left holding a broken bat. Very rarely does it end poorly for Rivera, whose imminent retirement means that he is that much closer to being enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame and Yankee Stadium's Monument Park -- closing out a journey, for the son of a Panamanian fisherman, as unlikely as the path of a cut fastball.

That is the legacy of the pitcher who will be honored by the Yankees at the Stadium on Sunday. His signature pitch is a genuine original, and so is he.

"Mo" Rivera's story is not just about the fact that he is the game's greatest relief pitcher ever. His records -- most saves in both the regular season and postseason, lowest postseason earned run average -- attest to that. So do his five World Series rings (one earned as a setup man, four more as a closer). The real essence of Rivera is that he is not just better, he is different.

In a world of self-promoters, he is conspicuously quiet. In a specialized sport that has ballplayers concentrating on specific skills almost from birth, Rivera did not become a pitcher until he was 18, did not become a reliever until he reached the big leagues and did not develop his remarkable pitch until he became a closer. He is different.

"I think it's the way he has handled success. That's the biggest thing," said Buck Showalter, the manager who first put him into a big-league game 18 years ago as a starting pitcher. "It's never been a 'look at me' mentality. Substance has always been his style. What draws attention to him is how he pitches, and nothing else. Take the Yankees out of it, it's something baseball can be proud of. He's a great beacon of the way you're supposed to handle yourself and the great things this game gives you."

He is the only major-league player who wears No. 42 and will be the last ever to do so. Rivera was allowed to keep the number when it was retired in perpetuity in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson. All of the other 42s from 16 years ago are long gone.

Rivera is identified with the edgy, ominous entrance song, "Enter Sandman," yet his favorite verses are in the Bible. In a decidedly secular culture, Rivera always has remained a person of determined faith. The subtitle of a religious publisher's book about him is "The Closer Who Got Saved." His beliefs have been as consistent as his thin waistline, even as he has lost his hair and a few miles per hour off his fastball.

"I always have to talk about God because that's the most important thing in my life," he said after he broke the major-league saves record two years ago. "Yes, there have been bumps in the road, but God gave me the strength."

At a position, the closer, that is known for flair and histrionics, Rivera is placid. He is the same after huge triumphs and resounding failures. In an age when seemingly every little athletic achievement -- a scoreless inning, a quarterback sack, a slam dunk -- is marked by an exaggerated celebration, Rivera's most memorable reaction came when he wasn't even pitching. It was his collapse on the mound from joy and exhaustion after Aaron Boone's home run that won Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.

His second-most chronicled expression was his broad smile in Boston at the start of the 2005 season, when the crowd roared to thank him for having blown a key 2004 ALCS game. Rivera's stoicism mirrors the unhurried, smooth pitching motion that paradoxically produces such an explosively volatile pitch. Very different.

"He has never been one to grow facial hair or do the normal closer's stuff, where he had to have a tattoo," said Robin Ventura, who faced him as an opponent and knew him as a teammate.

Now he sees him from the opposing dugout as the White Sox manager, in town last month when Joe Girardi mused about the possibility of talking to his closer about considering playing another year. The next day, Ventura joked, "Is he retiring before tonight's game?"

"He is a good person who just has incredible stuff. He is a humble, polite, good guy, unassuming," Ventura said. "He can throw 96 and make it go all over the place. What embodies him more is his kindness as a person. He's just not very kind when he goes on the mound."

In an environment that sets clear, albeit unseen, boundaries, Rivera is a gate crasher. On baseball clubs, pitchers almost always associate with other pitchers, batters hang with batters. But Rivera is the one Yankee who can razz Derek Jeter, a friend since the minor leagues, or Alex Rodriguez about a slump. He can pump up a rookie second baseman.

"I remember he was the guy who was next to my locker," said Alfonso Soriano, now a veteran outfielder back for his second run with the team. "He gave me a lot of motivation every day when I came to the ballpark. He joked with me. He'd say that he talked with the [opposing] pitcher and the pitcher told him he was going to get me with two strikeouts. That gave me motivation, like, 'OK, we'll see.'

"He still does that to me, I think, to make sure I have concentration," Soriano said.

In a milieu that is fueled by big personalities, Rivera stands out by not flexing whatever ego he might have. The 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field always will be remembered as a One-Star Game. He jogged onto an empty field, with his Yankee Stadium anthem playing in the Mets' ballpark, surprised to see all of the other stars applauding for him. Very different.

"You look at him, you look at greatness. You're looking at somebody who's going to have a statue in New York. We cherish the moment, shaking his hand, listening to him speak. It's like, 'Wow, I'm looking at greatness. I can tell my grandkids,' " All-Star teammate Torii Hunter of the Detroit Tigers said before that game. "It's about him. Today is about him. We want to win, we want to get home-field advantage for the American League, but it's about him. We love him, even though he broke all my bats, and just killed me. He's a great guy. We're going to try to do it for him, trust me."

One stark distinction for Rivera has played out all season. No one in recent memory has had a farewell tour like his. The tributes at every road stadium have gone beyond the usual requisite respect. They have had a deeply personal and warm dimension, almost as if he were a hometown player. The Twins presented him a rocking chair made from broken bats. The Rays said goodbye to the Sandman with an intricately designed sand castle.

Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle never had a sendoff like this. Rivera's is unique partly because, unlike those icons, he is going out at the top of his game. It also is partly because this is a more sentimental, sensation-driven time. Mostly, though, it is because Rivera is just different.

Witness this: He has insisted on being a giver as well as a recipient at each stop. Rivera meets with a cadre of regular folks in every city -- ballpark cooks, security guards, concession stand workers. He tells them that what they do has helped him do what he does. Each visit has been called a "Mo-ment of Thanks."

In Cleveland, he made sure an invitation went to John Adams, the longtime Indians fan whose incessant banging on a bass drum for 40 years has gotten under the skin of many opposing ballplayers.

Adams' love for his ballclub is matched by his disdain for the Yankees. But he respects Rivera, especially after having shaken the right hand that throws the cut fastball. He told the closer during the meeting in April that beating the drum is a stress reliever, "and you've given me a lot of stress."

It is only natural that the American public would treat this retirement differently than others, in the opinion of Robert Boland, professor of sports management at NYU and a sports agent. He believes Rivera stands alone on a number of counts.

"The first one is the dignity of his entire career. Mariano Rivera has been an unusual athlete in terms of always being dignified, being able to conduct himself in a serious and professional manner. The fact that his image is so good, and that that is so rare, is significant in its own right," he said.

"I also think that as the demographics change in the U.S., we're really starved for heroes from other countries, particularly those who straddle both stages. He straddles the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking stages with equal grace. He bridges the big-country/small-country gap," Boland said on the phone from his office on campus.

In his classes, Boland tells students there are good reasons why ballclubs do not invest heavily long-term in relief pitchers. Their performances generally go up and down from year to year. Rivera has been drastically different in that regard. "At his worst, he has been really, really good," the professor said.

"One more thing is that the greatest advantage that baseball players have as ambassadors is that they are normal size. They look like the rest of us. Rivera could be the guy sitting next to you on the subway or the Long Island Rail Road," he said.

Rivera's modest physique has built a larger-than-life career. A true closer, he wanted to end it in style, so he pushed himself at 43 to come back from a season-ending knee injury in 2012. "I didn't want to leave like that," he said on March 9, when he announced that this would be his final season. "I felt like I wanted to give everything, and that I still had something left."

The man with the cut fastball, reflecting on where he came from, is grateful that life threw him such a wonderful curve.

Humble beginnings

Panama is the quintessential "just passing through" place, the world's shortcut because of the Panama Canal. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and revolutionized travel and trade when it opened 99 years ago (a new one is scheduled to open in 2015). Residents, of course, do not feel as if they are on the way to somewhere else.

The second of Mariano Sr. and Delia Rivera's four children has good memories about growing up in Puerto Caimito, playing baseball with his cousins using a stick and a ball made of fish netting wrapped in electrical tape. Young Mariano's favorite sport was soccer, but he sustained ankle injuries.

He worked on his father's fishing boat and played for a good amateur baseball team, the Vaqueros, that made the national playoff final. He played shortstop and outfield. Once, to spare a beleaguered pitching staff, he voluntarily took the mound.

Rivera was offered a tryout with the Yankees, and even though he did not throw extremely hard, his live arm impressed Herb Raybourn, the Panama-born head of Latin American scouting for the team. That was despite the fact that Rivera wore worn, torn cleats to the tryout. His big toe was sticking out as he was pitching.

Just short of three months after his 20th birthday, Rivera signed as an undrafted free agent for a $3,000 signing bonus. He struggled in the minors with homesickness, the language barrier and an elbow that required surgery and a stint in the 1991 Instructional League. "I remember he was going through rehab and he was just throwing the ball around," said Jorge Posada, who was at the same camp, learning to be a catcher. He would be Rivera's teammate at Triple-A Columbus in 1994 and catch more than half of his major-league saves. Years later, Posada said, "I just can't put him into words."

At Class A Greensboro in 1993, Rivera was on a strict pitch count. In case someone on the bench missed something, the shortstop kept track of the pitches in his head. The shortstop was Jeter, who with Rivera, Posada and Andy Pettitte formed the Yankees' famed Core Four of home-grown championship players.

Without seeing him, the Yankees hierarchy liked Rivera from the start. They looked at his Gulf Coast League statistics and were impressed that he hardly walked anyone (seven in 52 innings in 1990).

"We used to have pickup games on Sunday, let the pitchers play against each other to break up the boredom. He was the best athlete on the field," Showalter, now the Orioles' manager, said before a recent tense playoff-race game between his current team and Rivera's.

The skinny pitcher loved playing centerfield, a feeling that propelled him to keep shagging fly balls during batting practice as a major-leaguer.

The Yankees called him to the big leagues in 1995 and, starved for the postseason after a drought that began after 1981, nearly traded him to the Tigers for David Wells. But general manager Gene Michael decided against it when Rivera inexplicably began throwing his fastball in the mid-90s. He still has no explanation for that other than to say it was one in a series of gifts from above. He had a 5-3 record with a 5.51 earned run average in 19 appearances, 10 of them starts.

Showalter said, "I remember the grief I took for putting him on the playoff roster in '95. They were like, 'Are you kidding me?' It didn't take Johnny Superscout to understand he was going to be pretty good, I tell you."

His ERA was 0.00 in three appearances, with eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings, as a reliever in the Divison Series against the Seattle Mariners, and he never started another game for the Yankees. They resisted the temptation to deal him to the Mariners for infielder Felix Fermin the next season (a certain Yankees club owner was skeptical about Jeter being the everyday shortstop) and made him the setup man for John Wetteland.

Yankee Stadium shook with noise when Rivera struck out Javy Lopez of the Atlanta Braves to end the eighth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. The setup man was so good that the Yankees let Wetteland go the next year and promoted Rivera to closer for 1997.

It was in the middle of that season, before a character-building hiccup of allowing a costly postseason homer to Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians, that he experienced the now-legendary problem. He was unable to throw his four-seam fastball straight.

Rivera was playing catch with fellow reliever Ramiro Mendoza when the ball kept cutting. Mendoza thought Rivera was just fooling around and he told his buddy to stop.

Rivera couldn't stop. He decided to deal with it and roll with it. To this day, he thanks God for it. The cut fastball was born, and it ushered him right into history.

In its own little way, it followed in the footsteps of electricity and penicillin, an accidental discovery. All that the world knows and respects about Mariano Rivera stems from that unwieldy pitch:

Rivera being named Most Valuable Player of the 2003 ALCS, having pitched three innings in Game 7. Rivera on the mound at Shea Stadium in 2000, slamming shut Game 5 of the first all-New York World Series since 1956. Rivera accepting the heat for blowing a save and losing Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks in Arizona. Rivera hoisting the World Series trophy at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009, having dusted the Phillies. Rivera helping charities. Fundacion Dominicana Little Leaguers in the Bronx wearing Mariano Rivera patches because he supports their team and shows up at their games at least once a year.

From the first guitar chords of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" -- a tradition begun on a whim by control booth employee Mike Luzzi in 1999 -- the starter-turned-reliever's entry galvanizes Yankee Stadium in a way not seen at least since reliever-turned-starter Ron Guidry in 1978, the Yankees' last pre-Rivera championship season.

At the same time, his one-of-a-kind approach always has had the opposite effect on the Yankees. Rivera has given them cause to relax in the ninth inning. "Well, you're actually thinking that in the sixth," Ventura said, recalling his days as a Yankees third baseman. "You know that there is a better chance than not that you're going to win the game if you can get him in it."

Yankees rookie catcher Austin Romine said there is one word to describe the duties for the man behind the plate when Rivera pitches: "Easy. He pretty much hits the glove every time, so I don't have to do too much. He's really easy to talk to. He knows what he's trying to do, he knows all these hitters. It's really easy."

Mark Reynolds, a newcomer toward the end of this season, said the closer's easygoing feeling penetrates the clubhouse the minute he enters it. "He's actually a normal guy. He doesn't act like a guy who is a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

Joe Torre, likely to make the Hall of Fame as a manager, has said for years that he owes his managerial success and reputation to Rivera. The closer is that kind of difference-maker.

The difference about him is that he likely is the most respected ballplayer outside of his own clubhouse and beyond his own city.

"At first, it was a thrill and honor just to get to talk with him," said the Rangers' Joe Nathan, the former Stony Brook University shortstop who became an elite major-league closer. "I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and talk to him when we were in New York. We had a 20- to 30-minute conversation so I could pick his brain."

At Citi Field in July, Nathan had the rare chance to close for the closer. Manager Jim Leyland put Rivera into the All-Star Game in the eighth to make sure he had a proper entrance and exit. Nathan, having pitched the ninth, had the honor of handing the game ball to Rivera.

"We definitely wanted to see him in the ninth, but it's a situation where you want to guarantee that he goes in and has his moment, regardless of what inning he got to pitch," Nathan said. "That moment was pretty cool for us as players, pretty cool for the fans, and I'm sure it was absolutely amazing for Mo."

A benefit of winning the World Series in 2005, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said, was having the honor of telling Rivera to be ready in the ninth for the following year's All-Star Game.

"He's got an aura about him, he's got a presence," said Cooper, who grew up in Queens and pitched for New York Tech. "He's a solid guy, a solid Christian. He knows that all the success and talent do not come from him. There is a peace about him. It looks like he is a comfortable guy in his own skin, on and off the field. That's a lifelong project."

Rivera's post-retirement project is to finish building a Pentecostal church, Refuge of Hope, in New Rochelle, where he lives with his wife and three sons. His wife, Clara, will be the pastor. He evidently is working on a book as well. Pre-orders are being taken on amazon.com for "The Closer" by Mariano Rivera, with a publication date of May 6, 2014.

He has written his own different kind of final chapter this year. There was no way he was going to end his career crumpled on the warning track in Kansas City after a freakish injury while shagging fly balls last May. A day after the injury, he told reporters, "I'm coming back. Write it down in big letters. I'm not going out like this."

Rivera knows something about exits. Even those who spent years rooting against him recognize that he is in a class by himself.

"From somebody who is as big a Mets fan as they come, I find it very hard not to admire everything he has done," said Boland of NYU.

Showalter paid one last compliment to the guy he saw as a rookie, a statement the rest of baseball can relate to and any ballplayer can appreciate:

"From our standpoint, we're pretty excited that he's retiring."

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