Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Fame hasn't changed Yankees' Mariano Rivera

The first time scout Herb Raybourn saw what turned out to be the greatest closer of all time, he turned him down.

Back then, Mariano Rivera was on nobody's radar, just a wiry teenage shortstop from the fishermen's village of Puerto Caimito, Panama. He'd spend most of his week at sea, toiling on his father's commercial fishing boat.

Rivera, now 43 and a Yankees legend, never thought about a career in baseball back then. It was his second-favorite sport, next to soccer, a pastime he would play with friends in sandlots, using tree branches as bats and cut-up milk cartons as gloves. All he knew was he didn't want to follow his father's footsteps; fishing was too dangerous of a job to support a family.

"I wanted to be a mechanic," Rivera said.

He might still be under a car hood instead of wrapping up the final season of a surefire Hall of Fame career — he continues his farewell tour with his last regular-season trip to Tropicana Field this weekend — had Raybourn not given him a second look in February 1990.

"I was fortunate," Raybourn said.

Raybourn, 78, then the Yankees' director of Latin America operations, passed on Rivera initially because he didn't believe he projected as a big-league hitter. But when Raybourn returned to his native Panama the next winter, catcher Claudino Hernandez gave him a call, tipping him off that Rivera was now a pitcher, and that piqued his interest.

They set up a tryout for the next day in a nearby field. Rivera, with his big right toe popping out of his torn cleat, threw just 10 pitches, clocking in the mid 80s, but Raybourn was impressed enough by his athletic frame and loose arm to sign him on the spot for $2,500, a king's ransom for the poor family.

"The rest is history," Rivera said. "(Raybourn) saw something that nobody else saw. And that's the reason, besides the Lord, that I'm here."

Rivera came to the United States more than two decades ago not knowing how to pitch or how to speak English. He will leave the game as the greatest reliever and one of the most respected men the sport has ever known.

He's the all-time saves leader (645), a five-time World Series champion and no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer, having dominated the ninth inning primarily with one pitch, his trademark cutter he called "a gift from God."

"I'd say he's the best pitcher of all time," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "You tell me another pitcher that survives at this level with one pitch. You knew what was coming, but it didn't matter."

More than anything, Rivera is baseball royalty because of his humility, the classy way he carried himself, and how he uplifted others, fitting for the last active player to wear Jackie Robinson's No. 42.

"He's a Hall of Fame player," said Rays director of minor-league operations Mitch Lukevics, who held the same position with the Yankees, "and a Hall of Fame person."

That's why Rivera has been so celebrated in every city on his unprecedented farewell tour, where he has visited with special behind-the-scene fans and received personalized gifts from opposing teams. During his final All-Star Game, Rivera was humbled as his peers on both teams let him take the mound at Citi Field in New York alone, giving him a standing ovation.

They say fame hasn't changed the fisherman's son.

"He's a gift to baseball," said Mark Newman, a longtime Yankees executive. "God gave him a cutter, and he gave all of us Mariano. And we came out ahead."

• • •

Newman said that, from the beginning, the expectations for Rivera were modest at best.

In Rivera's first minor-league season, he won the 1990 Gulf Coast League ERA title (0.17). But after elbow surgery in 1992, he was left unprotected in the expansion draft. "Mariano wasn't Mariano in '92," Newman said. "Nobody thought to take him."

Rivera got stronger after the surgery and moved up the organizational ladder, with his velocity jumping to about 95 mph. He had a rocky big-league debut, May 23, 1995, as a starter, giving up five runs and eight hits in 3⅓ innings against the Angels.

But in his second callup that season, Rivera had a breakthrough moment, throwing eight shutout innings against the White Sox. "That's when I said, 'I can do this here,' " he said.

Other teams noticed, too. In 1995, the Tigers pushed for Rivera as part of a potential package for starting pitcher David Wells. The following spring, when the Yankees were unsure about starting Derek Jeter as a rookie, the Mariners were shopping fellow shortstop Felix Fermin and asked about Rivera.

"Lucky thing," Newman said, "we never did anything."

Rivera transformed into a spectacular setup man to closer John Wette­land in 1996, finishing third in the American League Cy Young voting, dazzling in the playoffs against Seattle.

The next year, Rivera would be handed the closer's role for good. "Who would have ever thought he'd be that great?" said former Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, now the Rays' senior adviser. "He's been something."

• • •

While many pitchers throw a cut fastball, the Rays' Ben Zobrist said that the cutter "will forever be known as Mariano Rivera's pitch."

Rivera said his secret weapon suddenly and serendipitously appeared one afternoon early in the 1997 season, after he had blown three of his first six saves. He was playing catch with longtime throwing partner Ramiro Mendoza and the ball started moving. He hadn't changed his grip or motion. It just happened.

"I was upset because I couldn't control it," Rivera said. "Everyone was upset because we didn't know what was going on. But the Lord knew. We worked to stop the ball from moving. Thank God it didn't happen."

Rivera's distinctive version is the game's most devastating pitch, Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes said. First, there's deception. Zobrist said from Rivera's smooth delivery, the rotation looks like a four-seam fastball. "You're used to seeing a ball that looks like that, you're used to seeing it go straight," Zobrist said. "And this one doesn't."

It's the late lateral movement on Rivera's cutter that makes it so lethal, diving away from right-handed hitters and into left-handers. Gomes said Rivera is the only pitcher he has ever faced where TV doesn't do the movement justice; he's also the only opposing pitcher he has ever asked for an autograph.

"Of the 60 feet, 6 inches, 40 of it is right down the middle," Gomes said. "The last 20 of it is … 2 feet above your thumbs. It's not fair."

You could likely fill a forest with all the bats Rivera has broken in his career; the Twins collected enough of them to build a rocking chair for his retirement gift called "Broken Dreams."

Zimmer recalled a time Rivera shattered three in one at-bat by a left-handed hitter. "I was laughing," Zimmer said. "I often said Louisville Slugger ought to give him a bat contract for breaking all the bats."

Rivera could also break a hitter's spirit before he stepped into the box, an intimidation factor where "guys were already defeated," Yankees teammate Curtis Granderson said.

The years of consistency and dominance gave Rivera a certain aura of invincibility. And everyone knew what happened when Metallica's Enter Sandman played at Yankee Stadium as the bullpen gate swung open and Rivera jogged to the mound.

"Game over," Ortiz said.

"Money in the bank," Zimmer said.

• • •

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre said what's most remarkable about Rivera is how poised and nearly perfect he has been on the biggest stage.

Rivera boasts a lifetime 0.70 ERA in 96 playoff games, with 42 saves. More people have walked on the moon (12) than scored an earned run against Rivera in the postseason (11). He has experienced painful moments, including Sandy Alomar's homer in the 1997 ALDS for the Indians and, of course, Luis Gonzalez's World Series-clinching single in Game 7 in 2001 for the Diamondbacks.

However the playoffs are, as Rivera says, where you're supposed to shine, and no one did brighter.

"He's got a big heart and terrific stomach for that stuff," Torre said. "Nobody will ever duplicate what he's done."

But what Rivera has done elevated the stature and value of his position, with the Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon calling him the "Godfather of Closers."

"He's found some kind of Fountain of Youth somewhere," Papelbon said. "To me, he's always been special, because I may not be sitting here today if it wasn't for him."

• • •

More than any of his saves, stats, or World Series rings, Rivera wants to be remembered for one thing.

"I'd like people to say (that) I was there for others," he said.

In the giving category, Rivera may not have many peers. He has funded schools and built churches in Panama, where, every Christmas, he goes into the impoverished areas and passes out presents to needy kids.

Rivera is renovating a century-old church in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he and his wife, Clara, his elementary school sweetheart, first lived when he got called up to the majors, learning English by watching cartoons. They'll spend his retirement raising their three sons and growing Clara's congregation of about 50.

But before Rivera leaves the game he loves, he wanted to say thank you to fans around baseball, and he did so in an unique way. In each city, he has met with a special group of stadium workers or fans, including military veterans in St. Petersburg, saying he has been touched by their stories, learning about the unifying force of baseball.

What Rivera found is he has impacted a game he never planned to play more than he will ever know.

"Baseball needs more guys like Mariano," Ortiz said. "I don't know if there's ever going to be, because he's unique. I'm going to miss him."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]m.

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