COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — In the end, Mariano Rivera closed with a love letter.
On a hot Sunday in the middle of July, Rivera took his time composing it — a 25-minute sonnet, seemingly from memory, or from decades full of memories — about the things he loved the most. He loved his wife and kids, his parents and “Mr. George Steinbrenner.”
He loved Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, his “brothers,” and Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada, too. All five of them were there. He loved Panama, and his home village of Puerto Caimito, where the “leather” gloves were made of cardboard milk boxes. He loved baseball (it certainly loved him back). He loved his faith, and he loved wearing pinstripes.
“It’s a privilege and honor to be part of one organization,” Rivera said. “I did it with dignity, honor and pride. I tried to carry the pinstripes the best I could. I think I did all right with that.”
And there’s one other thing Rivera loved. Maybe one of his greatest loves: his cutter.
It’s the pitch that arrived one day, almost like magic, and changed his life. It broke and baffled and frustrated the best hitters in the world, and it brought Rivera here as the first player ever unanimously selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Everything he ever did on a field was a tribute to that cutter: a pitch that, like Rivera himself, was of humble origin but nonetheless shattered bats and brought entire teams into submission.
That includes a record 652 saves in 19 seasons with the Yankees. He had a 2.21 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP — and he got better in the postseason with a 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP, along with five World Series rings to show for it.
Pretty good for a guy who was signed for $3,000 and had to be given a glove and spikes because the cleats he owned had holes in them.
At first, he struggled as a starter, but he joined the Yankees for good in 1996, as a setup man for John Wetteland. Rivera did well that season, posting a 2.09 ERA and finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting. That was before he even had a cutter, which showed up one day the year after, by accident. By then, he had assumed the closer role.
“The Lord gave me the best pitch in baseball,” Rivera said.
He recalled how he and Ramiro Mendoza were playing catch in 1997 and suddenly, Rivera’s ball started moving. That part of the lore is long established. But then there’s this other part: He tried to get it to stop.
“I was afraid,” Rivera said. “I didn’t know what to do. Imagine a closer who didn’t know where the ball is going to go.”
He and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre gave up trying to figure it out, though, because Rivera thought it was just meant to be. He kept at it and established his following. By 1999, when Yankees executives decided he should exit the bullpen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” his legacy of domination was well established.
But while the Sandman in the song warned “sleep with one eye open,” Rivera took a personally less aggressive stance. He didn’t really care about the song. He was willing to give advice, even to opponents, when they asked. And, oh yeah, he kept at the cutter because, well, what choice did he have?
Not that it made him any less competitive.
“I said, ‘Mel, leave it like this, because whatever is going to happen is going to happen,’ ” Rivera said, recalling the day when they realized the pitch wasn’t going to stop moving. “I learned to use that pitch. I used that pitch for 17 years and I used it well. I used it until the last day that I pitched at Yankee Stadium, when my two brothers came in and took me out of the game. That moment was special for me.”
Jeter wasn’t even supposed to be allowed on the field — he was on the disabled list — but the crew chief permitted it. Pettitte came along with him, and both walked to the mound to take the ball from Rivera. Rivera buried his face in Pettitte’s shoulder and began to cry, and the moment instantly was emblazoned in Yankees lore.
“I was grateful to the good Lord who allowed me to play with the greatest fans and [allowed me to end] my career the way I did,” Rivera said, “with my two brothers next to me, and me hugging them and crying over them. Derek, Andy, Mr. Posada, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez: I love you guys. You mean so much to me.”
A letter, spoken aloud, and all but signed, Love, Mo.