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John Wetteland makes Old-Timers’ Day debut at Yankee Stadium

New York Yankees pitcher John Wetteland reacts after

New York Yankees pitcher John Wetteland reacts after the last out is made and the Yankees win Game 6 of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves Saturday, Oct. 26, 1996, at Yankee Stadium. Photo Credit: AP / Roberto Borea

Former Yankees closer John Wetteland, an instrumental player in 1996 at the beginning of the team’s modern dynasty, made his debut at Old-Timers’ Day on Sunday to polite applause. The bigger fan reaction will come in August when Mariano Rivera, Wetteland’s successor and a certain future Hall of Famer, will receive a plaque in Monument Park.

Wetteland, 49, realizes his place in Yankees history and is content to have been a part of the championship run.

Wetteland came over from Montreal in 1995 and had 31 saves but struggled in the Division Series against the Mariners with a 14.54 ERA. Then Joe Torre replaced Buck Showalter, and the rest became a rich part of Yankees history.

Rivera flourished as Wetteland’s understudy in 1996, setting him up by pitching not only the eighth inning but often the seventh, too. Wette land compiled 43 saves in the 1996 regular season and also had four saves in the World Series win over the Braves, earning Series MVP honors.

And then he was gone, as the Yankees let him leave via free agency, with Rivera replacing him. The Yankees went on to win three more titles under Torre.

“We had a choice,’’ said Gene Michael, who in 1996 became an adviser to owner George Steinbrenner. “We could sign him to a big contract for the big money or we could let Mariano take his role.’’

Wetteland said: “I remember [general manager] Bob Watson saying just after we had won in ’96 that the No. 1 priority was to re-sign me. But I knew in my heart that Mariano was ready. I cost a lot back then. Mariano wouldn’t have cost a lot. He was ready, more importantly. I just waited two, two and a half months to get a call [from the Yankees] before I started testing the free-agent market. That call never came, and I kinda expected that.”

Torre said the Yankees “saw enough of Mariano to be comfortable with’’ the decision to let Wetteland go. Steinbrenner was on board with that. “Trust me, if it was a hard decision, [Steinbrenner] would have let us know about it,’’ Torre said. “I think he saw not only the fact that Mariano was able to pitch two innings but that he pitched in very stressful situations.’’

Wetteland received a four-year deal worth a reported $23 million from the Rangers and finished his 12-year career with 330 saves. He cherished his time with the Yankees, saying: “I have no complaints. I got a World Series ring out of it and some great memories. I’m very thankful for my time with the Yankees. Mariano was ready. He deserved the other three [championships].”

Notes & quotes: Hideki Matsui celebrated his 42nd birthday by hitting a two-run home run into the second deck in rightfield off a grooved pitch from David Cone for the Bombers in a 5-3 victory over the Clippers in the four-inning Old-Timers’ Day game. Torre was joined by fellow Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson and Rickey Henderson. The most sustained applause came for Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series . . . Joe Pepitone was a no-show. The Yankees had no information on his absence.

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