From humble start, Rivera closes as baseball great
NEW YORK • Herb Raybourn first came across Mariano Rivera in 1988, when he scouted a youth tournament in Panama and saw a slim 17-year-old playing shortstop. Raybourn wasn't interested at all.
"I didn't think he would be able to hit in the big leagues, as far as the long ball," he recalled last week. "I just couldn't project him playing in the big leagues as a shortstop, so I just gave up on him."
Raybourn returned in February 1990 for another tournament, by then the director of Latin American operations for the New York Yankees. He was unpacking in his hotel room when he received a phone call from Claudino Hernandez, the catcher on the Panama Oeste team, who told him he had to see a certain pitcher.
Raybourn didn't know Rivera had switched to the mound. So he arranged a workout behind Rivera's home in Puerto Caimito.
"It didn't even have a mound. It was just a slope," Raybourn said. "He threw nine pitches. I saw enough at nine pitches."
And with that, a star was born. Or in the making, anyway.
Rivera agreed to a minor league contract with the Yankees Raybourn says the signing bonus was $3,000; Major League Baseball records say $2,500 left home and reported to their complex in Florida.
Best money the Yankees ever spent, at least since anyone can remember.
Two months shy of his 44th birthday, the man called Mo will finish his big league career this weekend as the Yankees complete a disappointing season with a series in Houston, the end of a farewell tour launched in March when he announced this would be his final season.
He's met with team employees and fans in every city the Yankees have visited, received enough gifts to stock his own museum; a chair of broken bats presented by the Minnesota Twins might have been the most clever.
The closer it's gotten to the end, the more emotional it's been for the closer with first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials.
With Metallica playing a live version of his "Enter Sandman" theme music, New York retired his No. 42 last Sunday during a 50-minute ceremony. And tears flowed Thursday night when he got four straight outs in his final Yankee Stadium appearance the 465th perfect outing of his big league career, including the postseason.
His 652 regular-season saves are a record, as are his 42 in the postseason. But Rivera isn't defined by numbers. His smile remains infectious, his voice soft, his demeanor calm. Fame didn't cause flakiness. Fortune didn't lead to flamboyance.
He became the Yankees' security blanket. When he was in the bullpen, the manager's dugout telephone might as well have had a sign reading: "In Case of Emergency Break Glass." At the slightest sign of trouble, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi reached for Mo. The temptation could not be overcome.
"Not too many people worked 12 years for George Steinbrenner, especially as a manager, at least in one stint," Torre explained. "I can honestly say that it would not have been possible unless he was around."
And the Yankees almost let him go.
Rivera needed surgery in 1992 to repair a damaged elbow ligament, an operation that slowed his development. When he finally made his debut with the Yankees in 1995 he struck out the Angels' Tony Phillips to start his first appearance he struggled to a 5-3 record in 10 starts and nine relief appearances. He bounced back and forth between the Bronx and the minors; Rivera and Jeter were demoted together after a loss to Seattle that July 11.
Still, he caught the attention of manager Buck Showalter.
"We used to play pickup games on Sundays. The pitchers used to play against each other to break up the boredom," Showalter recalled. "He was always the best athlete."
Gene Michael, now a special adviser and then New York's general manager, says that when the Yankees were interested in trading for Detroit's David Wells that summer, Rivera's name was included on a list of eight prospects the Tigers would accept.
"No way that was going to happen," Michael said.
But when Jeter got off to a slow spring training in 1996, Steinbrenner pushed for a deal that could have sent Rivera to the Seattle Mariners for light-hitting infielder Felix Fermin. Current GM Brian Cashman, then an assistant to Bob Watson, said the baseball staff met with Steinbrenner for 1Â½ hours to talk him out of a deal.
"We thought we didn't need a shortstop," Cashman said. "We did not know we were sitting on a Hall of Famer."
By the following month, Rivera had made his mark.
Torre, who replaced Showalter, had Rivera relieve David Cone at Kansas City that April 22, and Rivera retired nine in a row. Four days later at home against Minnesota, Rivera came in for Kenny Rogers and got nine straight outs again. He did it a third time two days later when he followed Jimmy Key versus the Twins a relief pitcher's perfect game; 27 up, 27 down. Rivera went on to pitch 26 straight shutout innings.
"This Rivera guy, we don't want to face him again," Minnesota manager Tom Kelly said then. "He should be at a higher level. We should ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."
Rivera became John Wetteland's setup man and they formed baseball's top bullpen duo, helping the Yankees to their first World Series title in 18 years.
But the best was yet to come.
Wetteland left as a free agent during the offseason, with the Yankees content to give Rivera the closer's job. One day Rivera was throwing on the side with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, experimenting. The ball started darting around like a bee.
Rivera wasn't sure why. He has called it "a gift from God."
"I don't want to play catch with him no more," Mendoza said in a friendly, forceful way. "Too much hurting."
It quickly became the most dominant pitch in baseball Rivera's famed cutter, boring in on left-handed hitters and snapping their bats like a chain saw.
Chuck Schupp of Louisville Slugger once estimated Rivera averaged at least one broken bat for every two games pitched. During the final inning of the 1999 World Series sweep of Atlanta, Chipper Jones could only chuckle as he watched Rivera break Ryan Klesko's bats three times in a four-pitch span.
"That thing was just wicked. I had never seen anything like it," Klesko said two years ago. "You can't help to laugh. I couldn't believe it. It was like a 97 mph Wiffle Ball that has no rotation. I told Chipper, 'If he breaks one more of my bats, I'm going to have none left.'"
Rivera became a 13-time All-Star and broke Trevor Hoffman's career saves record by more than 50. And in the postseason, he has 42 saves in 47 chances to go along with an 0.70 ERA, the biggest factor in the Yankees' five titles during his tenure.
Sure, there have been hiccups.
Sandy Alomar's go-ahead home run in the eighth of the 1997 AL division series, when the Yankees were four outs from advancing. Luis Gonzalez's broken-bat single that capped a ninth-inning comeback in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Kevin Millar's walk, Dave Roberts' steal and Bill Mueller's single as Boston rallied in the ninth to tie Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, preventing the Yankees from sweeping a series they would go on to lose.
But now he has just one record left to break: Tom Seaver received the highest-percentage of votes for Hall of Fame induction at 98.84 percent when he was selected on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992.
Rivera says he isn't thinking about the 2019 Hall election. He's busy funding construction of the Church of Hope in New Rochelle, N.Y. "Phil. 4:13" is stitched into his baseball glove, citing a Biblical verse from Philippians: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Rivera broke down and sobbed when he came off the Yankee Stadium mound for the final time to a thunderous ovation. He then talked about his faith, which teammates say defines him more than his baseball career.
"It's humbling to myself, being able to finish the way the Lord allowed me to finish," he said. "It was spectacular."