Mariano Rivera’s resilient journey to becoming baseball’s greatest closer

Mariano Rivera 5

He’s a 13-time All-Star in his 19 career seasons. He’s a 5-time World Series Champion. He holds the MLB record in career saves. He’s a man of class, a man of dignity, a man that honors his word. He is a man that is a guaranteed Hall of Famer. He…is Mariano Rivera.

Mariano Rivera is a legend, he’s a part of a Yankees Dynasty, he’s a regular fixture in the Yankees bullpen, fans believing that year after year, Rivera will be there. Fans have gotten used to Rivera showing up to Spring Training, throwing bullpen sessions, signing autographs for fans and shagging fly balls in the outfield. Fans have gotten used to Rivera warming up in the Yankees bullpen when a crucial game is placed in his hands. Fans have gotten so used to Rivera—that they never thought that one day; Rivera wouldn’t be in the bullpen closing games, signing autographs for fans and pitching for the New York Yankees. Father Time would eventually catch up to Rivera, forcing him to make the biggest decision of his career—the decision to retire.

Retirement was on the mind of the Yankees closer in 2012, but an ACL tear in his knee changed his tune, vowing that he would return the following season, claiming he didn’t want to end his career on a down note. Mo had been put in a situation where his career was in danger once before, but due to his resilience, he put his career back on the right track, where that glimmer of hope, emerged him as the greatest closer of all time.

Rivera constantly had an open mind, processing the different careers he could have before ultimately becoming the Yankees closer. Rivera wanted to be a mechanic, a fisherman, even a soccer player. Multiple ankle injuries prevented Rivera from being a soccer player, a death in the family plus the hard work caused Rivera to change his mind about being a fisherman and baseball, which started as a hobby, became a passion. However, in 1988, he wasn’t a closer. Mariano Rivera was a shortstop. He had the athleticism and talent but Herb Raybourn, the New York Yankees director of Latin American operations didn’t project him as one.

Rivera became a pitcher a year later after the current pitcher on his amateur team ‘Panama Oeste’ pitched poorly. Rivera volunteered, and once he took the mound, he impressed his teammates with his dominance. Rivera’s pitching earned him an invitation to Yankees tryout camp where Raybourn visited the young talented players, all of them with the same dream in mind: to play for the New York Yankees. Raybourn admitted he was surprised when he spotted Rivera pitching, especially after Rivera was passed on as a shortstop the year prior. Raybourn saw raw talent in Rivera, ultimately deciding to sign Rivera to a minor league contract with the Yankees organization.

With no knowledge of the English language, Rivera flew to the Gulf Coast League, the Rookie Affiliate of the New York Yankees. Rivera started as a reliever in the GCL in 1990, giving up one earned run in 52 innings (0.17 ERA). In 1991, Rivera was promoted to the Class-A Greensboro Hornets (Yankees Minor League Affiliate from 1990-2002) where he also saw success. He had a 2.75 ERA in 114.2 innings, striking out 123 batters and walking 36. Buck Showalter, who was the Yankees manager at the time, believed that he had seen something in Rivera, stating his strikeout-to-walk ratio was impressive in any league. He also knew that Rivera was going to make it big when his time came.

1992 was the year Mariano Rivera suffered a setback, which threatened his budding career. Rivera was attempting to improve the throwing motion to his slider by snapping his wrist. Unfortunately, that change caused damage to Rivera’s ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Rivera had to go under surgery, effectively ending his season and stalling his minor league career. Rivera was also in danger of having Tommy John Surgery, but Rivera dodged the bullet when doctors discovered that he did not need ligament replacement. Rivera had to rehabilitate his arm, and in 1993, his rehabilitation paid off, putting his career back on track.

Unfortunately, Mariano struggled as he made his way through Triple-A, posting a 5.81 ERA in a six start span. Rivera was once considered trade bait by Yankees management, but general manager Gene Michael refused to trade the young pitcher, especially after hearing his velocity reached 96 MPH in one of his starts.  Rivera was a Yankees starter in 1995, but his starting numbers weren’t anything to write home about. He went 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA. The Yankees experimented by putting Rivera in the bullpen during the postseason, and that was where Rivera found his calling. Rivera pitched 5.1 innings in scoreless relief during the 1995 ALDS, convincing the Yankees that in 1996, Rivera would be in the bullpen to start the season.

Rivera was the set-up man to John Wetteland, occasionally pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. Rivera’s numbers were impressive, posting a 2.09 ERA in 107.2 innings. Rivera’s dominant 1996 season earned him the closing spot in 1997, after management decided not to re-sign Wetteland. Rivera’s transition to the closer role wasn’t a smooth one, blowing three of his first six saves. After reassurance from Yankees manager Joe Torre, Rivera settled down into the role, making his first All-Star game after posting a 1.96 ERA and 27 saves at the halfway point.

The year 1997 changed Mariano Rivera’s career forever. That was the year Mariano Rivera learned how to throw the cutter. He learned the pitch by accident after he threw one during a bullpen session. In 1998, Rivera abandoned throwing the slider, making the cutter his “bread and butter” pitch. Rivera’s cutter would be the ultimate tool to his success.

In 1999, the Yankees scoreboard production staff started to play the hit Metallica song “Enter Sandman” in association to Mariano Rivera. The staff’s theory was that the song excited the fans the same way San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman’s walk-up song “Hells Bells” by AC/DC did. Rivera was originally indifferent about adding “Enter Sandman” as his walk-up song, but “Enter Sandman” became a part of Mariano Rivera, the same way his famous cutter did. Year after year, Rivera continued to meet success, becoming one of the most dominant closers in the league, and one of the most feared yet respected players. Once Rivera picked up a ball…that was it. Game Over.

Throughout Rivera’s 19 career seasons, he gained the respect of fans, opposing players and teammates. He was a leader in the Yankees bullpen, most recently taking current set-up man David Robertson under his wing, teaching him every bit of knowledge he possesses. Rivera has full belief that in 2014, Robertson will be the heir to the Yankees closer throne. Rivera always finds time to support his teammates and friends, convincing fellow “Core Four” member Andy Pettitte to properly announce his retirement. Pettitte originally planned to announce his retirement the day after the regular season ended, until Rivera told him he owed it to the fans who cheered him on in every start. Rivera was always about the fans, he was about charity, and he was about grace, dignity and honor. Rivera’s success is gratifying to anyone who has watched him, but the road to becoming the closer was a difficult yet rewarding journey. Rivera’s battles, strength and courage is what truly makes him the greatest of all time, and as his journey as the Yankees closer comes to an end, it is a time where we should thank Mariano Rivera for all he’s done, but it is also a time where fans come to realize that there will never be another player like Mariano Rivera in Yankees pinstripes again.

Photo credit: (September 14, 2013 – Source: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)

 

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3 Responses to Mariano Rivera’s resilient journey to becoming baseball’s greatest closer

  1. Michael R says:

    Thank you Maiano. Thank you Andy. You guys are a big part of the reason I've supported the Yankees and why I love baseball.

  2. Michael R says:

    Sorry MARIANO for omitting the R.

  3. hotdog says:

    doesn't seem that long ago when Charlie Hayes pulled in that pop fly to end the 1996 World Series…Mo was such a dominant reliever behind Wetteland…can never forget Pettites dominance in the 2009 post-season…lots of other moments but these are some of things that stands out for me…time flies