It all started for him on November 29, 1969, in a small town near Panama City, Panama. He was a tall, skinny kid who didn’t know he was born into a poor family until someone told him. He and his friends played soccer and used milk cartons as make-shift baseball gloves. Then they applied masking tape to balls of fishing nets to create a baseball, and found out tree limbs made good bats. At the age of 12, his life changed forever when his dad brought him home his first leather baseball glove.
He graduated from Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School at the age of 16. His father was the ship captain of a fishing boat, and catching shrimp and sardines put bread on the table. His days were spent helping his dad, until one day the boat capsized and the possibility of death by drowning stared him right in the face. He survived and quickly changed his mind. He decided to be a mechanic; it was safer.
In 1988, he began playing shortstop on a local amateur baseball team named “Panama Oeste.” Then somebody noticed. He was spotted by Herb Raybourn, a New York Yankee scout in charge of Latin baseball. Raybourn loved his athleticism but did not think he was Major League shortstop material. The following year, he volunteered to pitch for his team and was noticed again by another Yankee scout by the name of Chico Heron. Heron notified Raybourn for another look. Raybourn was surprised to see him pitching, but loved his easy effortless pitching motion and decided to take a chance. Raybourn signed him to an amateur free-agent contract for $3,000 on February 17, 1990. Although he spoke no English, he was sent to the Yankees rookie camp in the Gulf Coast League. In 1991, he was promoted to the Class-A Greensboro Hornets, a member of the South Atlantic League. While working his way up in the Yankees farm system, he was noticed again by Yankees coach, Buck Showalter. “It didn’t take a genius to spot this guy out of all the rest. He’s going to make it,” said Buck. It would be Showalter himself that would make good on his prediction. In 1995, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera were all brought up to the big leagues by the new Manager of the New York Yankees, Buck Showalter.
Mariano Rivera debuted that year as a Yankees starting pitcher. After some ups and downs, he was converted to a set-up man in 1996 and then moved to the closer role in 1997. There he would stay.
Rivera throws a sharp-breaking mid-90’s cut fastball. This is a pitch that has late lateral movement, like a car changing lanes. This pitch bores in on a right-handed hitter and is known to break their bat down close to the handle on contact. Chipper Jones called this pitch a “buzz saw.” ESPN reporter Buster Olney claims that Rivera’s cut fastball caused 44 opposing bats to break during the 2001 season alone. Rivera is able to master this pitch because he has long fingers and a loose wrist, which helps get more spin on the ball. It is estimated that he throws his cutter 83.3% of the time. Mike Sweeny said, “When you face Mo, you know what’s coming; but you know what’s coming in a horror movie too, and it still gets you.” Rivera’s cut fastball is the best out-pitch in baseball.
Closer Trevor Hoffman retired with 601 saves. Hoffman had been the first closer to record 500 saves and 600 saves. Rivera set the new record with his 602 save on September 19, 2011, against the Twins. He barely broke a sweat. The season of 2012 was not so kind to Mo. Before a game on May 3, 2012, while shagging fly balls in the outfield in Kansas City, Mo fell and tore his right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). This knee injury postponed his retirement. “I’m not going down like this,” said Mo.
Occasionally an athlete will come along that dominates their profession. In the Twenty-First Century, these athletes are referred to as a GOAT, (Greatest Of All Time). This article is about one of those guys. Oh, he has earned other nicknames like, “The Sandman,” “The Great One,” and “Mo”. He was once asked to describe his job. “I get the ball, I throw the ball, and then I take a shower.” This sounds pretty simple for a guy who is, was, and remains an incredible athlete and even a better person. On March 9, he announced his retirement from the game at the end of the 2013 season. Many a fine hitter breathed a sigh of relief. Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of the game of baseball, will walk away on top.
Rivera, a devout Christian, has played 18 years. He is the only pitcher I know who can change the outcome of a game just by warming up in the bullpen. He has the ability to distract teams by the sixth inning, because they know he is out there waiting. He is a 12-time All Star, a five-time World Series champ, and Major League baseballs all-time saves leader at 608 and counting. He also owns the record for games finished at 892. He has struck out 1,119 batters, but has never won a Cy Young Award. Known as the master of the single inning, Mo has a 76-58 win-loss record with an ERA of 2.21; the best in the live-ball era since 1920. He was selected MVP of the 1999 World Series and the 2003 American League Championship Series. His post-season records are untouchable. He owns the lowest ERA at .70 and has recorded 42 saves.
Mo is also the last big league player to wear the #42. In 1997, Major League baseball universally retired the number Jackie Robinson wore. All the players at that time who were currently wearing that number were grandfathered in, until they quit the game. “It is fitting,” said Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife.
Mariano’s motto is: “Enjoy the game.” Win or lose, he always acted the same. He detests celebrations by other pitchers on the mound. He never showed up anyone. On the top of his baseball list of things to accomplish on a daily basis: get three outs and a handshake. It has been said, the sweetest freedom is an honest heart. They were talking about Mo.
His last regular season opponent this year will be in Houston against the lowly Astros. If you want to see history, get your tickets now. The next time you will see him will be in Cooperstown. For guys like Mariano Rivera, life is indeed a parade. What he has been able to do with just one pitch is truly remarkable. Tom Kelly, a onetime Minnesota Twins Manager once said after his team faced Rivera, “He needs to pitch in a higher league, if there is one. Ban him from baseball; he should be illegal.”
Thank goodness somebody noticed.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him atwww.purvisbooks.com, or [email protected].EndFragment