Baseball 82: Mariano Rivera
I wrote this in 2009, before Sports Illustrated hired me to be a senior writer; it's one of my favorite pieces and one that I suspect led directly to my hire. I've adjusted the stats and tenses for clarity -- Rivera pitched another four seasons after this one.
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"They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."
-- The Old Man and the Sea
No team has as many legends as the New York Yankees ... and no team celebrates their legends quite to New York Yankee excess. This is what makes the Yankees so beloved and despised, depending on which side of the pinstripes you stand. And the man who probably represents the Yankee mythology better than anyone is the man who hit in 56 straight and played centerfield like a dream and, according to Yankee lore, never threw to the wrong base. "I thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee," Joe DiMaggio famously said. People wrote songs about him. Hemingway wrote literature about him.
"I must have the confidence," Hemingway's old man says to the sea, "and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio, who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel."
DiMaggio was, indeed, a sturdy hero. It's funny, though, there's actually another Yankees player who, perhaps even more than DiMaggio, lived up to the Yankee mythology. He too was the son of a fisherman, and he grew up poor enough to understand. His career ended almost before it began, and he was almost traded (twice) before the Yankee pinstripes looked right on him. On the field, he triumphed under the most intense glare in American sports. Off the field, he was quiet to the sound of invisible. And all the while, he looked calm, stunningly calm, the sort of superhuman calm that Hollywood sees in its heroes.
Yes, if there is an expression that conveys the Yankee myth, it would be the profile of Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning.
"Have faith in the Yankees, my son," Hemingway's old man says to the boy. "Think of the great DiMaggio."
If Ernest Hemingway were alive and writing today, those words would be: "Think of the great Rivera."
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One pitch. Think about that. Mariano Rivera saved 652 baseball games by essentially throwing one pitch, that same cut fastball. He did much more than save 652 baseball games with the cut fastball ... you can choose a thousand numbers to show his brilliance. Consider ERA+, a statistic that measures a player's ERA against the pitchers of his own era. In ERA+, 100 is exactly league average.
Here are the greatest career ERA+ in modern baseball (more than 1,000 innings pitched):
1. Mariano Rivera, 205 2. Clayton Kershaw, 159 3. Pedro Martinez, 154 4. Lefty Grove, 148 5. Walter Johnson, 147 (Tied) Hoyt Wilhelm, 147
Look at that -- Rivera's ERA+ is more than FORTY POINTS higher than anyone else's. How about WHIP -- walks-plus-hits per inning pitched?
1. Addie Joss, 0.968 2. Ed Walsh, 1.000 3. Mariano Rivera, 1.000 4. Clayton Kershaw, 1.004 5. Chris Sale, 1.030
How about number of seasons with an ERA under 2.00? Walter Johnson did it 11 times -- all in the Deadball Era. Mariano Rivera did it 11 times too, several of them during the biggest explosion of offense since the 1930s.
Of course, you can't compare Rivera to Walter Johnson, or any other starter; Rivera never even threw 85 innings in a season since he became a closer in 1997. He's no starter; that role didn't fit him.
Then again, you can't compare Walter Johnson, or any other starter, to Rivera, either, because of the 1,283 innings the man pitched, about 1,150 of them were eighth inning, ninth inning or later, with the game on the line, with the crowd freaking out, with the tabloid editors at the Post and Daily News holding the back pages in case of a delicious blow-up (How's this for the headline: "Cry Me A Rivera?" Or "Oh no, Mariano!"), with the opposing team, as it says in Casey at the Bat, clinging to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast.
And with Rivera on the mound, Mighty Casey did strike out ... or, even more likely, he busted his bat on contact. And Rivera threw just one pitch, a low-to-mid-90s cut fastball. One pitch. It seems impossible.
[caption id="attachment_24235" align="aligncenter" width="478"] Few players were better in the biggest moments than Rivera.[/caption]
What a pitch. It was a low-to-mid-90s cut fastball. That's it. But to reduce Mariano's cutter to mph and pitch-type is to call a Ferrari a car or to call the Grand Canyon a 1,902-square-mile hole. Jim Thome called it the greatest pitch in baseball history, and who could argue? There's Sandy Koufax's curveball, Satchel Paige's fastball, Steve Carlton's slider, Carl Hubbell's screwball, Bruce Sutter's splitter, Gaylord Perry's spitter, Pedro Martinez's change-up, but all of them threw other pitches, set-up pitches. Rivera had no opening act. He had no warm-up routines. He came into the game, and he came at hitters with the same pitch, one pitch, again and again, fastball, sharp break to the left at the last possible instant. That pitch undoubtedly broke more bats per inning than any other, left more batters frozen per inning than any other, broke more hearts than Brian's Song.
Rivera says he learned the pitch while fooling around one day in 1997, playing catch with his friend and Panama countryman Ramiro Mendoza. By then, Rivera was already the Yankees closer. And he was already terrific -- he was coming off a superhuman 1996 season. That year, as a setup man to John Wetteland, he pitched 107 innings, struck out 130, and allowed the league to hit only .189. He had done that with pure power -- a high-90s fastball and impeccable control.
Rivera remembers playing catch with Mendoza, coming up with a new grip, and the pitch came out whole, unblemished, perfect -- "a gift from God," he always says. From the first day, it attacked lefties like a swarm of bees. And righties? They couldn't even reach it.
That year, 1997, he finished with his first sub-2.00 ERA. And from that point on, Mariano Rivera threw that one pitch in ballparks across America, to the best hitters of his generation. The best hitters of his generation could not catch up. They never did catch up.
"You know what's coming," a five-time All-Star, Mike Sweeney, once said. "But you know what's coming in horror movies, too."
* * *
Mariano Rivera grew up in Puerto Camito, Panama, and he will happily admit that he did not grow up with big dreams. He never expected to leave. He worked as a fisherman as a young boy -- cleaned fish, pulled up nets, like the boy in Hemingway's vision. He wanted to play ball. The Yankees signed him for $3,000, Rivera promised his mother he would always come home. When he was 22 years old, he had Tommy John surgery.
His first game in the big leagues in 1995 -- Rivera did not make it until he was 25 -- he started against the California Angels and lasted just 3 1/3 innings. After four starts, his ERA was 10.20. He didn't pitch again for more than three weeks. Then, on the Fourth of July, he threw eight innings, allowed two hits and struck out 11 against the White Sox. The Yankees were not entirely sure what they had.
They would not really know what they had until (fittingly) the playoffs -- the Yankees' first playoff appearance in 14 years. Rivera pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in relief against the Seattle Mariners. He dominated those innings too, something seemed to light up inside him when the pressure was its heaviest. The next year, with Joe Torre as the new Yankees manager, Rivera was moved to the pen full-time, and he was immediately so awesome that in late April, Twins manager Tom Kelly made this statement: "He needs to pitch in a higher league if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."
Of course, quite a few closers have been virtually unhittable for one year, two years, three years. But sooner or later, something happens. Hitters figure things out. The constant duress wears the pitcher down. The closer's money pitch loses one mph of speed or one millimeter of break. And then, like an NFL cornerback who loses a half step, the closer is lost.
But Rivera's one pitch never lost its power. He just kept going, year after year. Here's a challenge for you: Pick out Mariano Rivera's best year. Do you want 1998, when he saved 36 games for the almost unbeatable Yankees and posted a 1.91 ERA? Or do you prefer the next year, when he led the league with 45 saves and opposing batters hit .176 against him? Do you like 2004, when he saved 53 -- 32 by the All-Star Break -- or 2005, when he had a 1.38 ERA and an absurd 38 1-2-3 innings?
You could always choose 2008, when Rivera had a 77-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and punched up a 0.665 WHIP -- only Dennis Eckersley in his heyday had ever put so few batters on base.
Or you could choose 2011, when at age 41 the cutter had clearly lost velocity, and he only managed to save 44 games with a 0.897 WHIP and a 60-to-6 strikeout to walk.
He always looked so comfortable in the moment. It isn't that Mariano Rivera never failed -- he actually has four of the most famous defeats in recent memory. In 1997, he gave up an eighth-inning home run to Sandy Alomar with the Yankees just four outs away from clinching a spot in the ALCS. In 2001, he gave up two broken-bat singles -- Rivera broke bats the way Chuck Norris broke bones -- and committed an error and allowed two runs in the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series. In 2004, he blew two saves against Boston, a performance so shocking that the next year Red Sox fans wildly cheered him when his name was announced.*
*Rivera just smiled, of course. "I felt honored," he said. "What was I going to do? Get upset and start throwing baseballs at people?"
No, it isn't that Rivera never failed, it's that he never let that failure define him or knock him off course. Even with those four defeats, he's the greatest postseason closer in baseball history, probably the greatest postseason pitcher ever. He's 8-1 in the postseason with 42 saves (nobody else has even half that many) and a ludicrous 0.70 ERA. Eighty-five times in his postseason career, Mariano Rivera appeared in the late innings of a playoff or World Series game and did not give up a run -- nobody else is even close.
Rivera doesn't talk much about it, at least not publicly, but he will say that to pitch well in those heart-pounding moments you have to enjoy the heart-pounding moments, you must have balance in your life (the moment is important but not THAT important; losing is difficult but it won't kill you), and you have to forget the failures and successes of the past.
Rivera doesn't seem the type to write a book, but if he ever did, it should be something about peace -- Zen and the Art of Closing Out A Baseball Game -- because that seems to be his greatest gift of all. Mariano Rivera always seems at peace.
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It's probably worth noting here that Mariano Rivera has not written a book. Other Yankees have -- Derek Jeter has written multiple books, Paul O'Neill wrote one about his father, Jorge Posada has written a children's book, and so on. Rivera doesn't claim to have anything to say. He seems happiest in the stillness of the background, a hard place to find in New York City.
But he found that quiet place in New York. And this, perhaps, is the most remarkable thing about Mariano Rivera. He's the ultimate Yankee, the embodiment of the Yankee myth, and yet for 19 seasons he did not spark a controversy, was not caught in the bright lights and did not inspire boos anywhere in America.
How many Yankees greats can say any of that?
Oh, every so often, for a couple of weeks or a month, he would give up a few runs and look to be human, and there would be some who would start to prepare the eulogy.
Then he would emerge again, late inning, close game -- Metallica's Enter Sandman blaring in Yankee Stadium -- and he would warm up with the crowd buzzing hopefully or feeling doomed, and opposing players psyching themselves up, and announcers giving out-of-town scores, and the Great Rivera had the look on his face, that placid look, a look that promised that, for Yankee fans anyway, everything would turn out all right.
"They have other men on the team," the boy said to Hemingway's old man.
"Naturally," the old man said. "But he makes the difference."