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Taking Mo back to where it all began

New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera (42) takes the

New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera (42) takes the field as he is introduced before ALDS Game 3 against the Minnesota Twins. (Oct. 9, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

In 1762, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his first public work. He was 5 years old.

In 1889, Pablo Picasso painted his first oil painting, called "El Picador." He was 8.

In 1997, Mariano Rivera recorded his first postseason save. He was 27.

Rivera may have been less precocious when he achieved the first of his major league-record 41 postseason saves, but he is no less an artist than the two prodigies described above.

Rivera doesn't use brush or pen. He uses a singular pitch, the cutter. He uses a steely resolve that defies explanation.

These days, as the Yankees prepare for the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers, Rivera uses experience that is unmatched in baseball history.

But on Sept. 30, 1997, no one was calling Rivera the greatest closer in postseason history, as they do today. He had pitched in the postseason before, but he never had been called upon to save a postseason game.


Torre goes to Mo

In the top of the eighth of Game 1 of the 1997 Division Series at Yankee Stadium, manager Joe Torre signaled for Rivera in the middle of an at-bat, asking for a four-out save.

It is said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Rivera took that step out of the home bullpen. He jogged to a mound from which, 11 years later, he would throw the final pitch of the final game.

Metallica's "Enter Sandman" did not play from the public-address system; that tradition had not yet begun. The crowd of 57,389 cheered, but not with the reverence they do today.

Rivera got the save. It was the start of something huge, an unparalleled run that someday will land Rivera in the Hall of Fame.

The funny thing? Rivera has no memory of it. None.

"I don't remember," Rivera said the other day. "I don't know nothing about it."

Neither does Rivera's catcher that night, Joe Girardi, who is now his manager.

"I don't really remember," Girardi said. "I think he'd had so many saves during the course of the season [43], you didn't really think about it. And it wasn't like he was an unknown commodity."


The rookie remembersTrue. You have to go back two years to when Rivera was relatively unknown. Rivera, just a rookie, would make his first career postseason appearance in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle. He had pitched in 19 games with the Yankees that season - 10 of them starts - and was 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA.

Hardly a Hall of Fame beginning.

But, oh, that first postseason appearance. Pitching in extra innings, Rivera went 31/3 scoreless and allowed two hits with five strikeouts. He became the winning pitcher when Jim Leyritz hit a two-run home run in the rain in the bottom of the 15th.

For Rivera, it was a glimpse of things to come - and that game has stuck with him.

"What I remember - that game here, Game 2, it's raining, Jim Leyritz hitting the home run," he said. "That's what I remember. I was a rookie. A blessing. A blessing."


A tough first test

But that first postseason save? The one no one recalls? Here's what happened:

The Yankees, who fell behind as the Indians scored five runs off David Cone in the first, took an 8-6 lead with five runs of their own in the bottom of the sixth.

It still was 8-6 in the top of the eighth when Jeff Nelson fell behind Bip Roberts with two outs and a man on first. Torre brought in Rivera, who completed the walk.

Rivera then retired Omar Vizquel on a grounder to first to end the inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Rivera faced four batters. Two of them are Hall of Fame candidates. The other two were All-Star-caliber hitters. The four batters - two still active - have totaled 1,827 regular-season home runs.So that first postseason save wasn't going to be easy.

Manny Ramirez led off with a single to center to bring the tying run to the plate. Jim Thome - whom Rivera struck out last Saturday for the first out of the ninth inning of the series-clinching ALDS Game 3 win over the Twins - lined out to shortstop Derek Jeter, as did future Yankee David Justice.

Matt Williams was the Indians' last hope. He struck out swinging at a 1-and-2 pitch. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.


Hard to forget

Rivera did not appear again until the eighth inning of Game 4 in frigid Cleveland. That one he remembers. With a chance to close out the series, Rivera allowed a game-tying solo home run to Sandy Alomar Jr.

The Yankees went on to lose in the ninth with Ramiro Mendoza on the mound. They lost the series the next night.

Rivera's reaction? All he did was convert his next 23 consecutive postseason save opportunities, starting with Game 1 of the 1998 ALDS against Texas and ending with a blown save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona.

"A blessing," he said of his success.

And it had to start somewhere.


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