With induction weekend upon us, I thought I’d share a couple of flashbacks from my (very) early days covering Mariano Rivera, one of the three players on my ballot this year. We could be waiting a long while — maybe forever — for the other two, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but that’s a story for another time.
The first involves a rookie Yankees’ beat writer (yours truly) and a rookie righthander just called up from Triple-A Columbus for his second big-league stint in 1995. Rivera was 25 already and in the midst of an extended comeback from UCL surgery on his right elbow — a repair, not the replacement involved with the Tommy John procedure.
The Yankees had just lost Jimmy Key to season-ending surgery and summoned Rivera for a July 4 start against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Optimism was high on Rivera, despite a 10.20 ERA that preceded his earlier demotion, and he was coming off a five-inning no-hitter for the Clippers.
I guess what happened next was sort of a preview into Rivera’s eventual greatness, but nobody imagined such things that holiday afternoon. The White Sox, with Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and John Kruk at the heart of their lineup, had averaged over seven runs in their previous 11 games and stacked their lineup with seven lefties. But they scraped together only two hits off Rivera, who struck out 11 over eight scoreless innings.
“I didn’t expect that,” Rivera said after the game, “but hey, I did my best.”
Incredibly, Rivera threw 129 pitches, something that would never be allowed these days for a rookie with elbow history, and John Wetteland closed out the 4-1 victory for a Yankees’ team that moved to three games under .500 (29-32).
“His track record in the minor leagues dictates that he’s capable of that,” then Yankees’ manager Buck Showalter said at the time. “You just never know if it’s going to carry over to the major-league level.”
Rivera was convinced, adding, “I know I can pitch here. Without a doubt, I know I can pitch here.”
Turns out, Rivera was as smart as he was talented. But that didn’t stop George Steinbrenner from nearly trading him to the Mariners during the 1997 offseason because of his infatuation with Randy Johnson.
This was after Rivera’s first season as the Yankees’ closer, taking over that role after being the set-up man for Wettleland during the ’96 championship year. Rivera earned 43 saves in 52 chances, but couldn’t finish the four-out opportunity to eliminate the Indians in Game 4 when Sandy Alomar burned him for a tying home run and the Yankees went on to lose the Division Series.
As if that disappointment wasn’t enough, Rivera’s name began surfacing as trade bait, with Steinbrenner trying to include him in a package with Ramiro Mendoza and top outfield prospect Ricky Ledee for Johnson. The Mariners wanted both Rivera and Andy Pettitte, however, so the talks stalled.
In the meantime, I managed to get Rivera on the phone at his home in La Chorrea, Panama, to ask him how he felt about possibly getting traded. All this time later, it strikes me how accessible Rivera was in the pre-text, pre-Twitter era, when somebody would just answer a landline at their house. Also, you could hear the sadness in his voice.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but it bothers me a lot,” Rivera said during that November conversation. “I can’t do anything about it. I thought I was always going to be a Yankee.”
As fate would have it, Rivera was right about that, too. Steinbrenner never got around to trading his closer, and 22 years later, he’s going into Cooperstown, immortalized wearing a Yankees’ cap.
Received a few emails after Aaron Boone’s viral-video rant involving rookie umpire Brennan Miller and it made me think a little more about the whole episode, beyond the entertaining use of the expletive-laden “savages” remarks.
The audio and transcript, as distributed on Twitter by @Jomboy, provides a rare listen into a manager-umpire confrontation, as did the leaked forbidden audio from the Terry Collins-Tom Hallion “jackpot” exchange back in 2016 that was quickly squashed by MLB.
The Yankee Stadium crowd roared, and Boone launched a thousand T-shirts with his amusing quotes, not to mention earning more admiration from his frustrated team. But as a few emailers pointed out, Boone also sent a less-desirable message that could encourage bad behavior against umpires and referees at levels far below the majors.
On Friday, Boone seemed to realize that upon serving his one-game suspension. He called the profane language regrettable, with kids getting a hold of the video. “You’re not necessarily proud of that stuff,” he said.
And Boone also did the right thing in saluting Miller, who was working only his fifth major-league game. Miller behaved by the book. He didn’t incite Boone or the players, and even with Boone in his face, pointing and yelling, Miller stood his ground without firing back, only mentioning to Boone that he made “contact” when their two visors clipped. That contributed to Boone’s suspension, but Miller never flinched, letting the manager vent before leaving.
“I thought he certainly handled the situation with a lot more class than I did,” Boone said Friday. “But also, I thought [he] turned in a really good game. So, I respect the job that they have to do.”
Bottom line, both Boone and Miller fully understand they work in a very intense, super-competitive, high-stakes environment. While Boone did his job in sticking up for his players, albeit crossing a bit over the line, Miller also did his, acting professionally in extremely trying circumstances. And for those in youth leagues or at the amateur level, hopefully there are productive lessons to be learned from both.
The Home Run Derby stole the All-Star show for the third straight year, again producing far more drama than the Midsummer Classic itself. But as long as there is a Derby, everyone will wonder about the toll it takes on the participants, if any at all. With that in mind, here’s an early glimpse at how they performed in just over a week back at their regular jobs, listed in order of OPS through Friday.
1. Matt Chapman ... A’s ... 6G ... .563 (9-for-16) ... 1 HR ... 1.526 OPS
*HRD finish: 13 HRs, eliminated first round
2. Alex Bregman .... Astros ... 8G ... .346 (9-for-26) ... 3 HR ... 1.244 OPS
*HRD finish: 16 HRs, eliminated first round
3. Ronald Acuna Jr. ... Braves ... 8G ... .278 (10-for-36) ... 2 HR ... .806 OPS
*HRD finish: 44 HRs, eliminated semifinals
4. Carlos Santana ... Indians ... 8G .... .167 (5-for-30) .... 2 HRs ... .698 OPS
*HRD finish: 13 HRs, eliminated first round
5. Joc Pederson .... Dodgers ... 7G ... .182 (4-for-22) ... 1 HR ... .614 OPS
*HRD finish: 60 HRs, eliminated semifinals
6. Pete Alonso ... Mets ... 7G ... .100 (3-for-30) ... 2 HRs ... .500 OPS
*HRD finish: 57 HRs, champion
7. Vlad Guerrero Jr. ... Blue Jays ... 7G ... .214 (6-for-28) ... 0 HR ... .481 OPS
*HRD finish: 91 HRs, lost in finals
8. Josh Bell ... Pirates ... 7G ... .130 (3-for-23) ... 0 HRs ... .374 OPS
*HRD finish: 18 HRs, eliminated first round