Mariano's Final Act
Flickr | Keith Allison
As the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end. Yankee fans knew the day where iconic closer Mariano Rivera would announce to the world that 2013 would be his final in pinstripes was coming someday soon.
The announcement wasn’t much of a surprise, but it’s a day that Yankee fans rue. At 42 and with only one year remaining on his contract, Rivera seemed to be plotting his retirement last spring, dropping hints that 2012 would be his swan song.
During spring training, he said that he had made his “irrevocable” decision and that he would reveal it during the All Star break. However Rivera, a firm believer that God has a plan for everyone, had a monkey wrench thrown into those plans by the man upstairs during one fateful May afternoon in Kansas City.
As the Yankees were preparing to open up a four-game set against the Royals, the unimaginable happened. The man known for ending games was shagging flies in the outfield and crumpled to the warning track at Kauffman Stadium, tearing his ACL and meniscus, ending his season and leaving the baseball world wondering if that was the last of the iconic closer.
While the whole baseball world was busy writing their eulogies, he spent a sleepless night in his hotel room debating his baseball future. The fear was that the spiritual Rivera would conclude this was God telling him that it’s time to move on to the next phase in his life.
Ultimately, he decided that he didn’t want the final image of himself on a baseball diamond to be riding in the back of a groundskeeper’s four-wheeler. Had it have been a blown-out elbow or shoulder that destructed his golden right arm, maybe he would have packed up and went home. In the end, he was still the best in the business and a scientific marvel.
Rivera has definitely earned the right over the years to walk away from baseball on his own terms, throwing one of his nasty cutters at the end of a game and receiving a standing ovation. On Saturday, he made it official that we will witness his final legendary cutter at the conclusion of this season.
The Yankees surely never thought that Rivera would last this long or become the near mythical figure he is now. He’s arguably the greatest bargain in baseball history, with his main competition most likely another Yankee icon, Babe Ruth, who was bought by the Yankees for $125,000 in cash and some $300,000 in loans because Red Sox owner Harry Frazee needed to finance his Broadway show “No, No Nanette.”
On February 17, 1990, a 20-year old Rivera was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent, receiving a mere $3,000 signing bonus. He would leave his native Panama for the first time, without speaking any English, and was at best a marginal prospect.
He grew up in a poor fishing village in Puerto Caimito, Panama, where his father worked as a ship captain. Once Mariano was old enough he worked as a mate, but in his spare time he played baseball with a flattened milk carton for a glove and tree branches for a bat.
His initial desire was to become a professional soccer player, but God had different plans. Despite living in a poverty-stricken environment and not receiving his first leather mitt from his father until he was 12, he was noticed while playing shortstop for the Panama Oeste by then Yankees director of Latin American operations Herb Raybourn nearly a quarter-century ago.
He was converted to a pitcher and went on to have a marvelous season as a reliever in the Gulf Coast League, allowing just one earned run in 52 innings pitched to put him on the Yankee map. He then began transitioning into a starter, starting 15 of 29 games the following year.
In 1992, Rivera was promoted to the Class A-Advanced Fort Lauderdale Yankees where he started 10 games. While attempting to improve the movement on his slider, though, he accidentally caused damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. He underwent elbow surgery in August 1992, ending his season and putting his career in doubt.
Coincidentally, his rehab overlapped with the 1992 MLB expansion draft to fill the rosters of the newly introduced Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. The slender right-hander was left unprotected by the Yankees, but the two clubs took 41 pitchers and none of them were Mariano, further adding to his legend.
To the amazement of then General Manager Gene Michael, Rivera came back from the injury throwing harder and better than ever. At the time he was still only ranked the ninth-best prospect in the Yankees' organization, while his cousin Ruben Rivera, also a Yankee farmhand, was ranked the second-best in all of baseball.
Well, so much for that. Ruben ended up being out of the league by 2003 and became famous only for stealing Derek Jeter’s glove from the Yankee clubhouse; whereas Mariano went on to have an immortal career of nineteen years, including this one.
Mariano finally got called up in May of 1995 for a spot start against the Angels, in which he allowed 5 earned runs in 3 1⁄3 innings pitched. He had mixed results in the majors as a starter, and split time between the minors and majors.
Team brass had considered trading him to the Detroit Tigers for David Wells or to the Seattle Mariners for Felix Ferman. His improvement during the year and success in the 1995 American League Division Series against the Seattle Marines, in which he pitched 5 1⁄3 scoreless innings of relief, convinced Yankees management to keep him and turn him into a full-time relief pitcher. Mariano’s pitches began hitting between 95–96 mph in one of his starts, roughly 6 mph faster than his previous average velocity.
In 1996, the first of the Yankees’ five Championships with him, Rivera served in an apprenticeship role under veteran John Wetteland, pitching mostly the 7th and 8th innings. He finished with a 2.09 ERA over 107 2⁄3 innings and set a franchise record for strikeouts by a reliever in a single season with 130.
His play allowed the team to let the All-Star Wetteland sign with the rivaled Texas Rangers for $23 million in the off-season. At the start of the 1997 campaign, the 27-year old was installed as the Yankees closer, a role he has yet to relinquish.
During the dynastic years of long ago, he established himself as one of baseball’s top relievers, leading the league in saves in 1999, 2001, and 2004 while anchoring the Yankees to six Pennants and four Championships in eight years. He was the greatest weapon on those Yankee teams and a main reason behind the team’s sustained success since 1995, where they’ve only missed out on the postseason once.
Since earning his first save against the Angels on May 17, 1996 at the old Yankee Stadium, Rivera has accomplished just about everything. He’s a 12-time All-Star, five-time recipient of the AL Rolaids Relief Man award, and 1999 World Series MVP.
In September of 2011, the greatest closer ever fittingly broke Trevor Hoffman’s all-time record of 601 saves. His record of 608 saves (and counting) is one of the few near-unbreakables in baseball; right up there with Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, and Cy Young’s 511 wins.
Additionally, his 2.21 career ERA is second-best in history among pitchers who have thrown 1,000 or more innings to Eddie Cicotte's 2.20, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and his 0.998 WHIP is the lowest mark in baseball’s live-ball era.
He's also the only pitcher in the live-ball era who has allowed fewer base-runners than innings pitched. He has saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons and posted an ERA under 2.00 in 11 years, both of which are records.
However, what he has accomplished in the postseason will always be as remarkable as anything else he did. While so many relievers have fizzled under the bright lights of October, Rivera has flourished.
He has a lifetime 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings with a 0.759 WHIP and 42 saves. To put things into perspective, he has allowed just 86 hits and 21 walks, and he hasn’t allowed a homer since Jay Payton took him deep in the 2000 World Series, 81 playoff innings ago.
He has accomplished all of this with a rare combination of longevity, consistency, and humility. While guys like Eric Gagne, Robb Nen, Billy Wagner, and Troy Percival have all come and gone, Mariano has stood the test of time like no other, and amazingly he’s done it wearing only one uniform.
What’s even more astonishing is that he’s done so while relying on that same cut-fastball to work its magic. The pitch, while predictable, is hard to hit from either side of the plate, as it scoots away from right-handers and saws lefties’ bats into pieces.
Ironically, the pitch just appeared one day in 1997, aided by God and the advice of former Yankee reliever Ramiro Mendoza. Rivera threw his fastball and it cut, resulting in one of the most remarkable careers in sports history.
But, it’s his grace and humbleness on and off the field that makes him even more special. He has a respect for the game, his teammates, and his opponents that everybody has come to appreciate through the years.
He has been involved in charitable causes and the Christian community through the Mariano Rivera Foundation. The deeply-religious Rivera financed the building of a church and an elementary school in La Chorrera, Panama and when he hangs up the spikes, he plans to devote most of his time to his church.
Luckily, baseball fans will be able to watch Mariano continue to perfect his craft for one more season and then he will ride off into the sunset and await the call to Cooperstown. The last active player born in the 60’s will be celebrated throughout the league this season, similar to how Chipper Jones was last year.
At every ballpark Jones entered for the final time, he was showered with parting gifts and a huge standing ovation from fans, some of which he tormented for years. Part of the mystique and respect surrounding the 40-year old Jones was watching him at the same position and in the same uniform since he broke into the bigs as a youngster back in 1993.
His career was celebrated throughout the league not only because he was one of the game’s greats, but because he was someone who never left the club who drafted him. It doesn’t get much more special than doing it all for one team, especially in a day and age where money trumps loyalty.
Other than Rivera and his longtime Hall of Fame teammate Derek Jeter, only Todd Helton and Paul Konerko have been with the same organization since the 90s. Ever so rarely do franchise players come around, and it’s even more uncommon that they stick around. Just look at Albert Pujols.
Mariano will hang around for a final victory lap, despite the fact he’s already cemented himself atop the Mount Rushmore of Yankees along with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and of course, Jeter.
He is a rare breed of athlete and human being, and what he has done on the most visible and historic team in professional sports is a testament to his hard work and faith. For sports fans, it’s been a blessing over the years to watch him humbly dominate the 9th inning like no other, and baseball is a better place with him.
We are now left with a full season to say goodbye, and we should use that time to savor every cutter he has left in that golden right arm, and every bat he leaves shattered on the infield grass, because there will never be another Mo.