Mariano Rivera: Closer to the end for Yankees legend

Mariano Rivera blows a kiss to the crowd Mariano Rivera blows a kiss to the crowd to acknowledge cheers after recording his 602nd save. (Sept. 19, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

advertisement | advertise on newsday

TAMPA, Fla.

The convergence of the two biggest stories of Yankees spring training, though few knew it at the time, occurred Feb. 29 on a quiet, muggy morning just after 8:30 at Steinbrenner Field.

Mariano Rivera, throwing his second side session of camp, fired 34 nearly perfectly placed cutters to bullpen coach Mike Harkey, who hardly moved his glove to catch them.

Among the usual cast -- including Harkey, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and vice president of player personnel Billy Connors -- that watched the morning bullpen sessions was guest instructor Andy Pettitte.

After Rivera threw, he spent several minutes chatting with his former teammate.

"Pitching,'' Rivera said minutes later of the topic of discussion. "Just how many young pitchers we have here.''

Of course, two weeks later, it became clear that wasn't the only topic addressed by the 42-year-old closer, the sport's all-time leader in saves, and the 39-year-old lefthander, the sport's all-time leader in postseason victories.

In the very same bullpen two weeks later, with the morning fog still burning off at 7:30 a.m. March 13, Pettitte threw a covert session in front of general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, team executive Gene Michael and Rothschild.

Pettitte's stunning comeback announcement would come three days later.

All of which sent reporters scurrying to Rivera, who to that point had been the biggest Yankees story of spring training. He admitted to having pushed Pettitte to return, starting on the morning of Feb. 29, when they chatted in the bullpen.

"I did,'' Rivera said. "Andy can help us big time. It pays for me to say something.''

Whether there will be an intervention for Rivera, or if one is even possible, has yet to be determined.

Last go, Mo? Yes, no . . .

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Rivera, entering the final year of his contract, surprised the Yankees by showing up on time; with the team's blessing, the closer has been on his own spring training regimen for years. Immediately after reporting, he engaged in a playful but serious meeting with the media, strongly suggesting this will be his final season.

But he did it without saying so, instead repeating several times that he had made up his mind what he will do after the season, that the decision was tough but irrevocable and that it would be announced on his time frame and no one else's.

"Even if I save 90 games, even if they want to pay me as much money as they want,'' the closer said, his mind won't change.

Would he characterize the decision as difficult?

"Definitely,'' he said. "Decisions like that always are hard. Always. Always when it involves what you do, involves what you have done for 22 years. Decisions like that are always hard and difficult. But at the same time, they have to be made.''

Things he's done subsequently haven't dimmed the speculation that this spring training was his last -- spending an extra few minutes signing autographs; sitting in his chair in front of his clubhouse locker talking for long periods to whomever stops by, tapping his heart acknowledging the standing ovations at Steinbrenner Field that accompanied his walk from the mound to the dugout in his first seven appearances, just to name a few examples.

Some of those closest to Rivera believe this season will be his last, but at the same time suggest he's withholding making a public pronouncement to give himself an "out,'' so to speak, if he changes his mind.

Yankees fans, not to mention the Yankees, hope he does. This spring training provided another reminder of what they'll miss when the closer retires.

Once again on his own throwing program, Rivera looked dominant, going unscored upon in his first seven appearances before allowing one run against the Marlins April 1. It was the first exhibition run that Rivera -- his cutter still boring in at 90 to 92 mph -- had allowed since March 15, 2008, ending a streak of 28 scoreless innings.

"That pitch," an opposing team talent evaluator said of Rivera's cutter, "is a freak of nature."

And although it has been some time since it flummoxed and frustrated hitters by coming in at 95 to 97 mph, his performance hasn't suffered.

Rivera has recorded 39, 44, 33 and 44 saves the last four seasons with corresponding ERAs of 1.40, 1.76, 1.80 and 1.91.

"I can describe not being able to hit it [Rivera's cutter] to you," said new teammate Raul IbaƱez, 2-for-16 with five strikeouts (and just as many broken bats) in his career against the closer. "You swing at where you saw it last, and by the time you swing where you last saw it, it's on your handle. That's what it feels like."

Girardi has tried to explain what it feels like to have something few managers have on a year-to-year basis -- certainty in his closer. "It's a blessing," he said more than once.

Derek Jeter, among the small number of people to whom the closer has disclosed his intent, dropped no hints but said, "I think you just appreciate him while he's here."

Pressed, Jeter said: "You're not going to get anything from me about Mo. Mo told you what he wanted to tell you. He'll share his thoughts and opinions with you when he's ready. I'm not going to sit here and get into the speculation of what people assume he meant. Like I said, you appreciate him while he's here. Focus on that instead of if and when he's going to retire."

It will be Cashman's unenviable task to find a replacement when that happens. On the surface, it doesn't look impossible. David Robertson seems to have the stuff -- and mentality -- of a closer. Rafael Soriano has done the job. So has David Aardsma. If Joba Chamberlain is ever healthy again . . .

But that's the point. All discussions of the aforementioned pitchers, and those potential heirs who aren't even on the radar yet, start with the word "if." "If" Robertson proves he can handle a role different from setup man. "If" Soriano can recapture the form that helped him save 45 games for the Rays in 2010. "If" anyone can handle the spotlight of replacing the unquestioned best closer ever.

Cashman still amazed

Cashman has been with the franchise since 1986, around to see Rivera's climb from undrafted free agent -- for the almost absurd figure of $3,000 -- out of the Panamanian fishing village of Puerto Caimito to icon.

Not given to emoting, the general manager has no trouble doing so regarding Rivera.

"Who he is as a person, what he's done as a player with one pitch coming from a small fishing village out of Panama and coming to the biggest media market in the world, playing the game of baseball and being the greatest [closer] of all time and for as long as he's done it, there isn't a story close to that," Cashman said. "What he's done and what he's meant to this franchise. And he's still the same guy that we signed back in the day. He hasn't changed one bit.

"He's amazing. He really is amazing and you'll never see anything like that again. We're thankful that he's still with us and still doing what he's doing. Hopefully he can continue that again this year for us."

Beyond that, of course, is the question no one around the Yankees wants to ponder.

You also may be interested in: