Image credit: Mariano Rivera (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Explaining Mariano Rivera’s legacy one way is impossible.
He holds a record for saves that will likely never be broken with 652—plus 42 more in the postseason—has five World Series rings, is revered by Yankees teammates and is the first player unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame.
Yet, Rivera’s legacy is still breathing.
Retired since the end of the 2013 season, Rivera is the gift that continues to give to the Yankees.
Every time lefthander CC Sabathia takes the mound in the final season of a Hall of Fame-caliber career, a huge chunk of Rivera is in play.
“He gave me the cutter,” Sabathia said of Rivera helping him transition from a power pitcher to one who relies on location and the cutter. “Him and Andy (Pettitte).”
Not far from Sabathia’s locker at the far end of the Yankees’ clubhouse—the same stall Derek Jeter used—is lefty reliever Zack Britton. He came to the Yankees last July in a trade, and while he never played with Rivera, that doesn’t mean Rivera didn’t impact his career.
When Rivera retired, Britton had 48 games in the big leagues: 46 starts, a 4.77 ERA and zero saves. Yet, as a young Orioles pitcher working for Buck Showalter, Britton was advised by the manager to keep an eye on Rivera, who pitched for Showalter and the Yankees in 1995.
“Showalter told me that was a guy to look at,” Britton said. “There were a lot of similarities, and I picked his brain when I got to talk to him about what he thought made him successful with one pitch.”
Britton became a dominant closer in 2014 with a bowling ball sinker in the mid-90s. He spent time with Rivera and Trevor Hoffman at the 2016 World Series, when he was honored with the American League Reliever of the Year award named after—who else?—Mariano Rivera.
Britton marvels at Rivera’s longevity (19 seasons) and achievement. “I don’t think you are going to see anybody get close to those save numbers,” Britton said.
Craig Kimbrel, with 333 saves, is the closest challenger.
What David Cone recalls about Rivera, his Yankees teammate from 1995 to 2000, is also something concerning Showalter.
Asked what he witnessed from a young Rivera, Cone didn’t hesitate.
“I saw a guy who should have come into Game 5. I had thrown 147 pitches, and he came in and struck out (Mike Blowers) on three pitches,” Cone said of the deciding fifth game of the 1995 AL Division Series game in Seattle that the Mariners won in 11 innings. Rivera entered in the eighth after Cone gave up two runs that tied the score and exited in the ninth, replaced by Jack McDowell.
“We didn’t know what we had right before our eyes,” Cone said.
Dave Eiland became Rivera’s pitching coach in 2008 with the Yankees, but he wasn’t a stranger. Eiland was teammates with Rivera in both the minors and majors.
“I knew a lot about Mariano—there was some history there,” said Eiland, who is now the Mets’ pitching coach. “I knew him differently and I mean that in the most complimentary way. There was a trust factor right away because I had known him for so long and he had already established the process that would make him the greatest of all time.”
By 2008, Rivera had 443 saves and 11 straight seasons with 30 or more. Yet, according to Eiland, Rivera’s thirst for knowledge never dipped.
“He would always ask me, ‘What did you see, was it good?’” Eiland said. “He always wanted information. He was humble. He never thought he had it all figured out and was always positive.”
The cutter was Rivera’s bread and butter, and the stats on the back of his baseball card say more than words. So, too, does being the first ever to get all Hall of Fame voters to agree on something.
Eiland believes what separated Rivera was special attributes rarely packaged in the same athlete.
“His attitude, approach and character matched the talent,” Eiland said. “That is rare. He was always positive, regardless of the situation. That positivity was genuine.”
Rivera also rubbed off on Dellin Betances, who was a Yankee for two games in 2011, none at all in 2012 and six in 2013. After Rivera retired, Betances developed into one of the best relievers in baseball for the next five seasons.
“No matter what, the way he bounced back after a tough game—and he didn’t have many of them—it was like nothing really happened,” Betances said. “I didn’t ask many questions. I just felt I had to pay attention to what he did.
“The poise he had out there on the mound. Nothing was really fazing him.”
When it came to advice from a future Hall of Famer to a pitcher developing from a failed minor league starter to an elite reliever, it was simple in voice but not easy.
“His biggest advice to me has always been: attack the strike zone,” Betances said. “Your stuff is too good, but (you have to) be ahead in the count.”
Brett Gardner remembers a teaching moment—and Rivera’s accountability—from his rookie season of 2008.
“I was out there playing where I was supposed to play and he gave up a broken-bat hit and the ball fell in front of me,” Gardner said. “He told me afterward, ‘Hey, I want you to play in the infield. If I give up a hit, somebody barrels me and they hit in it the gap over your head. It is my fault. But if I break somebody’s bat I want you to catch it.
“He was obviously a guy who got a lot of weak contact. There were times when he was in the middle of the plate and the ball didn’t cut and got hit, but more times than not he was going to make his pitch and he didn’t want to get beat by a cheap hit.”
Of course, Rivera got beat just that way by the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. With the infield in and one out, Rivera shattered Luis Gonzalez’s bat and the ball landed in short left field as Jay Bell scored the winning run for the D-backs.
“He was the ultimate competitor, always prepared. He was the same guy every day. You couldn’t tell if there were two outs and nobody on base or bases loaded with nobody out,” said Gardner, who was part of the last Yankees’ World Series title with Rivera in 2009. “He functioned in a high-leverage environment for so long. That allowed him to be successful.”
That was true even after Rivera suffered a right knee injury early in 2012. He had converted five of six save chances when he was shagging during batting practice at age 42 in Kansas City. It was a staple of Rivera’s pregame routine, so nothing was out of the ordinary. But when Rivera crumbled to the warning track in left-center at Kauffman Stadium, it was easy to see he was severely injured. He required surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Still, Rivera said he would return for the 2013 season.
Asked if the Yankees would want him back at 43, Rivera said quickly, “They will want the old goat back.”
The next year, Rivera converted 44 of 51 save chances and posted a 2.11 ERA.
Was it really always one pitch that Rivera relied on? There were spring trainings when Rivera said he was going to work on a changeup, and Eiland recalls Rivera playing around with a two-seamer. Yet, the native of Panama and the son of a fisherman kept it simple.
“His control of (his cutter) was precise. Down and away, up and in,” Eiland said. “You would talk to hitters and they would say, ‘We know it is coming, but we don’t know what part of the strike zone. And then there was so much late movement and it kept coming in against lefthanders.”
Britton and Eiland are joined by many others who believe Rivera was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.
“I don’t think we will see anyone like him again,” Eiland said.
And it is possible that we have seen the first and last player elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame. Rivera’s longtime teammate and “Core Four” member Jeter is on the ballot for the first time next year and a lock to be elected in the Hall of Fame class of 2020.
That is in the future. Now, Rivera’s signature pitch is steering Sabathia toward what the veteran lefty hopes is a second World Series ring.
Rivera’s No. 42 is retired, but his signature pitch is alive and well.