Wednesday, January 23, 2019
A cut above ... Mariano Rivera built a Hall of Fame career thanks to his signature pitch and a foundation of humility and faith
By Bill Madden
January 23, 2019
To fully appreciate the phenomenon that was Mariano Rivera, you must first come to terms with one central, unbelievable fact: All of the records he accumulated in becoming the first relief pitcher elected on the first ballot to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association – 652 career saves, 0.759 WHIP, 952 games finished, 0.70 postseason ERA, 11 World Series saves – were largely accomplished with just one pitch.
Oh sure, when he first came up to the big leagues in 1995 – as a starter – he had the standard repertoire of fastball, slider and what Yankee GM Gene Michael said at the time, “a helluva changeup.” But sometime shortly thereafter, when an electrifying three relief appearances against the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 American League Division Series - in which he struck out eight and allowed only four baserunners in 5 1/3 innings of shutout ball - determined his future as a back end reliever, he pretty much abandoned all those pitches in favor of the signature deceptive cutter that opposing hitters unanimously agreed was virtually unhittable.
“His mechanics are perfect,” Andy Pettitte once said when asked about Rivera’s greatness, “and he only throws one pitch.”
At one point at the end of his career, it was calculated that Rivera threw his cutter 92 percent of the time. What Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckler was to the '50s and '60s, and Bruce Sutter’s splitter was to the '70s and '80s, Rivera’s cutter was the revolutionary reliever’s weapon from 1996-2011. There has never been anything like it, before or after. Former Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney perhaps best summed up the essence of Rivera’s unhittable pitch: “You know it’s coming, but you also know what’s coming in horror movies too. It still gets you.”
“Everybody asks about it,” Rivera said, “but I always know something – that when God gives you something, it’s for you. I have taught a lot of people about the cutter, how to do it. But it’s mine. God gave it to me. Nobody can throw it the same way. Nobody. That’s it.”
Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest there was nothing more to Rivera than just one pitch. Above all, there was his ice cool demeanor, an obliviousness to pressure, an uncommon humility and his spiritual devotion. He knew how good he was, but it was never about him. It was always about team and the glory of God.
He often talked about David, the Biblical one, another righthander of some renown who slew Goliath with his slingshot, and was the person he most modeled himself after because, “he was a king but he knew what his source was – the Lord – and he was also a humble man.”
Another time, in talking about his dirt-poor childhood in Panama, where he learned to play baseball with a glove made of cardboard, he elaborated: “Let me tell you where it comes from. It comes from the Lord. I know where I came from. I know what I have and what I didn’t have. It was because God allowed it to happen. Because He blessed me. Simple as that.”
Humility was always at the center of all of Rivera’s career highlights. On the occasion of his 300th save, Yankee manager Joe Torre presented him at his locker with the umpires’ lineup cards after the game. “Just put it on the chair,” Rivera said matter-of-factly. Later, he would explain: “Don’t get me wrong. It’s something to appreciate and it’s nice to have it. But there are other things to win.” Five years later, he recorded his 500th save, this one with an extra flourish, drawing a bases-loaded, ninth-inning walk from Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez for his first major league RBI. After recording the final four outs of the Yankees’ 4-2 victory over the Mets, his teammates rejoiced all around a grinning Rivera in the clubhouse. “The save was nice,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to have a lot of them. But the RBI was the best.”
Through it all, even after the very few crushing disappointments – the home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar that took the Yankees out in the 1997 American League Division Series, the errant throw to second base that set in motion the Arizona Diamondbacks’ winning rally in the 2001 World Series – he was able to wrap his emotions in humility. “I still think that was the best World Series we played in,” he said later of the epic defeat in Arizona – a subtle reference to the Yankees’ three stirring victories in New York that lifted the spirits of everyone in the city in the wake of 9/11.
Only rarely has he let his emotions flow publicly – think the iconic photo of him hugging Yankee manager Joe Girardi and dissolving in tears after coming off the mound in his final game, Sept. 26, 2013 – and undoubtedly we will see snapshots of them again between now and when he makes his acceptance speech in Cooperstown next July. Be assured, however, it doesn’t matter a whit to him that he became the first player to be voted into the Hall of Fame unanimously by the Baseball Writers.
There is only one Hall of Fame in which Mariano Rivera wants to be defined and that’s God’s Hall of Fame, where he’s already assured first ballot entry.
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