Harvey Frommer / Yankees
MARIANO RIVERA: ALMOST PERFECT!
"Without question we're talking about the best reliever in the history of baseball. This guy has become branded with the Yankee logo. People are going to remember this man for so long for what he's done." Brian Cashman
By Harvey Frommer
Mariano Rivera quite deservedly is the first to become a unanimous choice slotted to be inducted into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.
Talk about coming out of nowhere, out of humble beginnings.
Out of Panama City, Panama, Mariano Rivera was a skinny kid who used a milk carton for a glove, tree limbs and broom sticks for bats, fishing nets that were balled up and wrapped in electrical tape for balls.
Never in his wildest imagination did he dream he would play 19 years for the New York Yankees and become the greatest relief pitcher, the all-time gold standard for relief pitchers.
He spoke no English. He was a teenage shortstop who was a converted pitcher who couldn’t hit much. He didn’t even begin pitching until he was 19. Taking a flyer, the Yankees signed him for $3,000.
Talk about coincidence. Rivera’s first pitching coach with the Gulf Coast League Yankees, was Hoyt Wilhelm, the first relief pitcher ever elected to the Hall of Fame and first official all-time saves leader.
At Single-A ball in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rivera pitched and no one thought he was going anywhere. He was not even protected by the Yanks in the '92 expansion draft. Rivera, however, knew what it was like to grind, to endure.
After five plus seasons in the minors, on May 23, 1995, the slim and serious 25-year-old made his Yankee debut as a starter against the California Angels. The quiet Panamanian wore jersey Number 42. It what was handed to him by a clubhouse attendant. The number had no special significance for the rookie. Never did he even have the thought that he would be last to wear that number in the majors, Jackie Robinson’s number retired by Major League Baseball.
It soon became evident that the smooth-throwing right-hander was better suited to working out of the bullpen. He proved that point in a setup role in 1996, going 8-3, setting a Yankee reliever record with 130 strikeouts.
John Wetteland left the Yankee and signed as a free agent with Texas after the 1996 season. Rivera was given the closer role. It was one of the of the smartest moves manager Joe Torre ever made.
"He's the best I've ever been around,” Torre said. “Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse. He's very important for us because he's a special person."
“Mo” made terrorizing batters and shattering pitching marks part of his method of operations. Averaging 41 saves and a 1.86 ERA from 1997 through 1999, he was as dominant as any stopper had ever been. He was the 1997 and 1999 Fireman of the Year
In 1999, the Yankee scoreboard staff tried out different songs to use to introduce Rivera coming in from the bullpen at home games. Finally, Metallica’s
“Enter Sandman” was settled on. The image of Rivera jogging across the grass of the outfield in a straight line to the pitcher’s mound, the blaring of the opening cords of the song, is a Yankee ritual that will never be forgotten. It is now part of the legend and lore of the franchise. “Mo” becoming “Sandman.”
Mariano Rivera was arguably the nuts and bolts of Yankee success in the World Series from 1996-2000 and also 2009 – the seven pennants, the 11 AL East wins.
In 2001, Mariano Rivera became the best paid relief pitcher ever. He signed a $39.99 million, four-year contract. And George Steinbrenner donated $100,000 to Rivera's church in Panama as well.
"I think the good Lord is a Yankee,” Rivera said.
What hitters said about the modest Rivera was something else. Facing him, they knew what was coming – the cut fastball that moved as much as eight or nine inches ad shattered bats, the devastating pitch that made him more times than not, unhittable.
"He's the most mentally tough person I've ever played with," said Derek Jeter.
"He's as automatic as anybody ever has been,” said Mike Stanton
The stats for one-time kid from Panama who played with a cardboard glove are mind-boggling: He never allowed a run to be scored against him in nine All-Star game appearances. He was the first pitcher ever to make 1,000 appearances for one team. His 652 saves record with one team is a stat that probably will never be broken. He saved 23 postseason games in a row, and in 19 of those games he pitched more than one inning. A member of four World Championship teams, Rivera was on the mound as the Yankees closed out titles in 2000, 1999 and 1998. He is just the third reliever to be named World Series MVP (1999).
A religious and charitable quiet man, a competitor like no one else, Mariano Rivera had a plaque in August 2016 honoring him put up in the Stadium’s Monument Park. Deservedly, admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame is part of the future for the closer of all closers.
One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on all things baseball having written many books on the team including the classic REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK.
A professor now for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of www.HarveyFrommerSports.com.