07/16/06 4:10 PM ET
Rivera reflects on remarkable career
With 400 saves, Yankees closer remains a constant
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
When that song begins to play, all eyes turn toward the Yankees' bullpen, where greatness is set to emerge.
Mariano Rivera knows how good he is.
He knows that his 400 saves rank him not just fourth among the elite closers of all-time behind Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and John Franco, but also that his stellar postseason career may be the best in the sport's history, and that over the past 10 years, there aren't many pitchers that hitters dreaded facing more.
Looking at Rivera on the mound, his lanky frame doesn't appear to be that of a man who is about to terrorize his opponent. Yet that's exactly what he has done, earning the reputation as arguably the best closer in baseball history.
"Personally, I think it's a great number for a reliever," Rivera said. "I never thought I would be talking about getting close to 400 saves, especially with one team. It's amazing. Without my teammates, I couldn't have accomplished anything."
"Mo has done things that nobody else in the history of the game has done," said Derek Jeter, who came up through the Minors with Rivera. "We wouldn't have the success we've had without him. Only a few teams in history have had the luxury of having someone they can count on every single day. He's been pretty much automatic."
Rivera's resume includes much more than 400 regular-season saves. His 34 postseason saves are the most in baseball history, he has won MVP honors in both the 1999 World Series and 2003 ALCS, has four top-3 finishes in AL Cy Young voting, three saves titles and seven All-Star selections, making him as close to a lock for the Hall of Fame as a player could be.
"None of those 400 saves even happened in postseason, and that's what I judge him on," said Joe Torre, who has managed Rivera for the past 11 seasons. "Mariano, what he has done in postseason, it's so remarkable. His coolness, his ability to stay hungry."
In 24 postseason series, Rivera has gone 17-7 with 34 saves, posting a remarkable 0.81 ERA in a big-league record 72 appearances.
Yet despite all of his accomplishments, Rivera isn't concerned with his place in baseball history.
This man who has dominated his profession for the past 10 years is much more interested in how he has touched the lives of the people he has played with. Fortunately for Rivera, his record there rivals his excellence on the mound.
"When he sees a player is having trouble, Mariano will take them to lunch, talk to them," Torre said. "He takes an active role in the well-being of this whole team. He doesn't need to do that, but it's important for him."
"Mo reaches out to everybody; he's a great teammate and motivator, especially to young guys," said Bernie Williams, the only current Yankees player to wear the pinstripes longer than Rivera. "He likes to take them under his wing, share his faith with them and take care of them. As good a guy as he is, he still has the killer instinct to go out there and do what he does."
Rivera's faith plays a major part in his life, both in baseball and in his everyday life. He's not the type of person to force his religious beliefs upon anybody, but speaking with him at length, it becomes clear that his faith is what guides him on a daily basis.
"That's why the good Lord put me here, to make a difference in my teammates' lives," Rivera said. "I share the gospel with them, we share moments with each other's families. That's what it's all about.
"It's not about the money or the fame, it's about the people. This game won't be here forever. This is all temporary. If I can give my teammates something in their lives that they can remember years from now, that makes it all worth it for me."
Rivera's journey to greatness took a few turns along the way.
The Yankees signed Rivera as a non-drafted free agent on Feb. 17, 1990. Despite his domination of the Gulf Coast League as a reliever that year (5-1, 0.17 ERA in 22 games), the Yankees toyed with the idea of making Rivera a starter.
Rivera made 68 starts in his 103 career Minor League games, going 23-18 with a 2.35 ERA. He got the call to the Majors in 1995, going 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games with the Yankees, 10 of which were starts.
"I was happy coming to the big leagues, and it didn't matter what they wanted me to do," Rivera said. "If I had been a starter, I would have adjusted and done anything in my power to be successful."
"Mo would have been successful at anything he wanted to do or any position they put him in," Jeter said. "He would have been a successful starter, setup man or closer. I came up with Mo when he was a starter, and no one hit him then. It was pretty impressive."
In 1996, New York decided to convert Rivera into a full-time reliever, using him as the setup man for closer John Wetteland. Rivera responded by going 8-3 with a 2.09 ERA, striking out 130 batters in 107 2/3 innings.
Rivera played an integral role in the Yankees' 1996 World Series title, allowing one run over eight postseason outings. Wetteland, who earned MVP honors in the Fall Classic, was a free agent, but the Yankees had already made their decision: Rivera was going to be their new closer.
"Wetteland was at the end of his contract, and we knew we couldn't keep pitching Mo two innings a day," Torre said. "We felt Mo was ready for this job."
"I was happy with what I was doing, so I went back to Panama after the World Series and assumed I would be the setup man again, which I was excited about," Rivera said. "Then I got a call from the team, telling me that Wetteland wasn't coming back and that they were going to make me the closer. I told them I'd be there."
His first month on the job was a tough one, though. On April 8, Rivera blew a save against the Angels in Anaheim. Three days later, he served up a game-tying home run to Mark McGwire in the ninth inning, blowing the save opportunity against Oakland. Four days after that, he blew another save against the Angels, this time in front of his home crowd.
"I was young and had never done it before," Rivera said. "I asked a lot of myself and beat myself up a lot when I didn't do my job."
Rivera relied on some advice he had gotten from his mentor, Wetteland. Turn the page after a bad game, or you'll never be able to survive as a closer.
"I recognized that as long as I did my best, I would be able to sleep at night," Rivera said. "Whatever happens, you have to be able to put it away in this job. A short memory is a requirement for this job."
Rivera also had the full-fledged support of Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
"The beginning was tough, especially April," Rivera said. "Joe and Mel were there for me, giving me the support that I needed. Joe told me, 'It doesn't matter what happens, I'm going to give you the ball.' That was the boost that I needed at that time."
Rivera went on to save 43 games in 52 opportunities that year, but the Yankees' season ended with a disappointing first-round exit against the Indians. Rivera played a significant role in the loss, giving up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr., in Game 4 of the series, when a save would have clinched the series for New York.
That was the first true test for Rivera. How would it affect him in 1998?
"When he gave up the home run against Cleveland in '97, everyone wanted to see how he would respond," Jeter said. "You saw how he responded."
Rivera went 3-0 with 36 saves and a 1.91 ERA in '98, helping the Yankees to 114 wins in the regular season and a near-flawless run through the postseason. Rivera made 10 appearances in October without allowing a run, as the Yankees completed one of the best seasons in history.
"As much as Jeter has meant to this club, and Jorge (Posada), (Paul) O'Neill or Tino (Martinez), you can't end the game unless you get those last three outs," Torre said. "Nobody has ever been as good at that as he has been."
Rivera did the same thing over the next two seasons, as New York went on to capture two more titles, making it four in five years. He made eight scoreless appearances in the 1999 playoffs, winning the World Series MVP award by saving three games. In 2000, he showed a human side by allowing three runs in 10 games, but the Yankees breezed to another championship.
"If we don't have Mariano Rivera, we don't win four World Series," Posada said. "It's as simple as that."
"We've had a lot of players that make up each of our world championship teams, but he's one constant we couldn't replace," general manager Brian Cashman said. "It doesn't happen without him."
Rivera faced another test of his character and resolve after blowing the save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, but once again, he responded in typical Rivera fashion, posting All-Star seasons in three of the next four years.
"He has a strong faith, and that enables him to have the confidence that is needed to go out there, no matter what happens," Williams said. "As important as baseball is in his life, I don't think that's his driving force. He's a great family man and a person with a strong faith. That's what carries him through everything."
Once again, it comes back to Rivera's faith. Each of his teammates spent more time talking about Rivera as a person than as a pitcher. Considering what he has accomplished on the field, that says something about him.
"You always get an opportunity to play against great players, but he's a great human being and teammate," Jason Giambi said. "He was a guy who, when I first got here, really tried to make me feel comfortable and fit in, since I was the new guy."
"He comes in here and picks everybody up," Posada said. "He's always got a smile on his face, and people out there don't see that. In the clubhouse, he's completely different than the guy people see on the mound. He's a great friend and a great person."
After being informed of his teammates' words, Rivera sat back and smiled.
"I always like to help people; It's not about me, it's about the whole team," he said. "The hitters, the pitchers -- especially the bullpen; I want them all to do great. We're not going to win with one player; we need all 25. Any time I can help my teammates get better, that's my biggest payday, and it's nice that they appreciate it."
Rivera is signed through the end of the season, with a club option for 2007. He knows that his career is approaching its end, and at the age of 36, that's fine with him. With three young sons at home, Rivera has more important years ahead of him.
How will Rivera be remembered when his career is all said and done, his plaque is hanging in Cooperstown and his number is hanging in Monument Park?
"I want people to say, 'He was a guy who didn't care about himself, he only cared about others; he made others happy,'" Rivera said. "That's how I want to be remembered."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.