Originally written on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 10/30/14
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How does a boy who used a milk carton as a glove become the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball? How does a young man undergo Tommy John surgery while in the minor leagues and get better? How does a man get through 19 seasons with just one pitch? Mariano Rivera answers all these questions. The Yankees stumbled upon Rivera by accident. The pitcher for Rivera’s team was getting smacked around, so Mo volunteered to pitch. A year later, Rivera pitched at a Yankee tryout camp without having any prior coaching or training as a pitcher. The Yankees’ scouts were impressed enough with what they saw to sign the young, scrawny “pitcher” to a contract. Photo Credit: CAULFIELD/AP When Rivera entered the Yankees minor league system he was throwing just 85-87 mph, slow by any major league standards. Through his time in the minors, Rivera showed glimpses of future success. In 1990, he threw 52 innings and allowed just one run, a microscopic .170 era for the season. In 1992 while Rivera was trying to develop another pitch so he could be a starter, he injured his elbow which required Tommy John surgery and forced him to miss the rest of the year. At the same time, the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks were filling their rosters through an expansion draft. The Yankees did not bother to protect Rivera who was an injured middle-of-the-road prospect. He obviously went undrafted and remained in the Yankees system. There were also numerous attempts to trade Mariano Rivera while he was a struggling minor leaguer. All were turned down at the last minute. Rivera soon made his way to the majors. In 1995 he was simply a middle reliever, but in 1996 he became the set-up man and first-year manager Joe Torre had his late game situations set. With a lead after six he would go to Rivera for two innings and John Wettland would come in and close the door in the 9th. In ’96 Rivera had a streak of 15 consecutive hitless innings, or almost back-to-back no-hitters. In just his first full season, Mo set the Yankee record for the most strikeouts by a reliever in a season with 130. That year he finished third in the Cy Young voting as a SET-UP man. The Yankees were 70-3 when they held a lead after six innings in 1996. Torre rode the Rivera-Wettland combination all the way to the Yankees first World Series victory in almost 20 years. In 1997 on a back field in Tampa, Florida, Rivera was having a catch before throwing a bullpen when one of his throws darted away from fellow pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Mo didn’t realize but he threw his first cutter. It was a mystery to both Rivera and Mendoza. Rivera refined it and the cutter became the pitch that defined Mariano Rivera. He also took over as full time closer when the Yankees let John Wettland leave in free agency. Rivera finished the year with 43 saves and a 1.88 era. That postseason, Rivera gave up the first of only two homeruns he would surrender in his postseason career. The same year, the number 42 was retired throughout Major League Baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. Rivera was a part of a select group of players already wearing the number who were given permission to continue wearing it until they joined a new team. In the summer of 1999 another piece of his identity was created when the Yankee Stadium scoreboard operators began playing “Enter Sandman” by Metallica as the closer ran in from the bullpen. As a fan, I get chills every time I see the bullpen door swing open and hear the Metallica anthem fill the Stadium. I can tell you that I know every word of the chorus of “Enter Sandman,” a song I have never listened to in full.  Later that year, “The Great Rivera,” as longtime Sunday Night Baseball announcer Jon Miller always called him, won the World Series MVP in a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves. Rivera continued his dominance in the playoffs throughout his career with just a few hiccups, including game seven of the 2001 World Series when he recorded the only postseason loss in his career to the Arizona Diamondbacks. It came on a patented Rivera broken bat blooper. The only problem was that the infield was playing in with a runner on third base. Had the infield been at normal depth, the ball probably would have been caught and the Yankees would have won their fourth straight World Series and their fifth in six years. But as we know, that was not the case. In 2003, Rivera was overcome with emotions after he pitched three shutout innings against the rival Boston Red Sox in game seven of the ALCS before Aaron Boone hit a home run off Tim Wakefield in the 12th inning. Amidst the celebration at home plate and around the field, Rivera was on the pitchers mound, face down to the ground crying in happiness. Rivera swept through Major League Baseball in his first few years as Yankee closer. Nobody could figure him out. This never changed. Mo is the greatest reliever ever to pitch in the Major Leagues and there will most likely never be another player like him. Rivera has pitched in 96 games in the playoffs. Considering he has averaged 67 appearances each year, he has essentially pitched an extra season and a half in postseason games. In 96 appearances and over 130 innings against the best teams under the most pressure, Rivera has allowed just 11 earned runs. As the newly popular saying goes, more people have walked on the moon than have scored an earned run against Mo. Eleven earned runs comes out to a .700 era, the best for any pitcher with more than 30 postseason innings. Photo Credit: HAMBURG/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Mariano Rivera could have retired whenever he wanted. He could have retired after the Yankees World Series victory in 2009, or any year after. Last year, Rivera entered the final season of what was meant to be his final contract, and Mo intended to keep it that way until he fell in agony on the warning track in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. Rivera was shagging fly balls, which was something he did before every game of his MLB career. It was never an issue until May of 2012 when he tore his ACL in the process. Right then, Rivera said “Mark it down in big letters, I’m coming back. I won’t go out like this.” At the age of 42, Mariano Rivera began the hard road to recovery from ACL surgery. Rivera’s legacy is simple. He is the best closer in MLB history. He is better at his position than any other player has been at their own. Rivera revolutionized the cutter, which he made a prominent pitch in the big leagues. He sawed off bats like it was part of his job description. Rivera did not quite revolutionize the closer position. That was done by Goose Gossage, Lee Smith and Dennis Eckersley and others of that era, but none of them dominated quite like Mo. Gossage, Smith and Eckersley were part of the transitional period to make a closer a one-inning from a two- or three-inning role. Upon hearing about Rivera’s retirement, Rachel Robinson, wife of Jackie, had nothing but high praise for Rivera. She spoke about how fitting it was that Rivera is the last player to wear Jackie’s number 42 and how great a player and person Mariano is. Mrs. Robinson has been quoted saying she is grateful that Rivera is the last 42 and that she is sad to see him retire. It has been said a lot this week that Mariano Rivera is what separated the Yankees from most other teams the last 18 years. That couldn’t be truer. For all the uncertainty with Kenny Rogers and AJ Burnett and Chuck Knoblauch and Carl Pavano, you could always count on Mo to slam the door shut when he came into the game. Like Michael Kay said after Rivera broke the all-time saves record “The best closer of all-time now officially has the most saves of all-time.” Through MLB history, there has not been a closer quite like Mariano Rivera, and there will never be another one like him. -Goldberg
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