Mariano Rivera: Before He Was A Hall Of Famer

Image credit: Mariano Rivera (Photo by Tom DiPace)

The Yankees signed Mariano Rivera as a 20-year-old amateur out of Panama in February 1990, and his talent was obvious at an early stage. He ranked as New York’s No. 9 prospect heading into the 1993 season despite having had an injury-abbreviated 1992 season.

Tuesday night, Rivera became the first player ever to be unanimously voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina were also voted in. 

Here is what BA founding editor Allan Simpson wrote about Rivera heading into 1993:

Rivera’s three-year career has been slowed by injury. He missed the first third of the 1992 season nursing a stiff elbow, made 10 starts, then went down for good and succumbed to elbow surgery. Still, he was placed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster.

When healthy, Rivera gives the Yankees plenty to contemplate. He broke into pro ball with a sterling 0.17 ERA in the Gulf Coast League, and pitched one memorable inning late in the 1992-93 Venezuelan League winter season, striking out big leaguers Gus Polidor, Luis Salazar and Andres Galarraga on 10 pitches.

Rivera has increased the velocity on his fastball from 87 to 94 mph since signing, and has excellent command of three pitches. He’s scheduled to pitch in Double-A in 1993, elbow permitting.

In fact, Rivera endured another truncated year in 1993 before breaking through to Triple-A in 1994 and then the big leagues in 1995.

Rivera’s future came into sharper focus in 1996, when the Yankees first considered turning over the closer’s role to the 26-year-old righthander. Here is what Yankees correspondent Jeff Bradley wrote about Rivera that January.

Before finally offering arbitration to closer John Wetteland, the Yankees thought about turning his job over to hard-throwing youngster Mariano Rivera.

“We could pick and choose spots early in the season,” manager Joe Torre said, “and try to see if we could get him rolling.”

Rivera made quite an impression in the Division Series against Seattle. While Wetteland struggled with the Mariners’ lineup, the 25-year-old Rivera showed no fear, pitching 5.1 scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking one—not to mention getting the win in Game 2.

His performance made the Yankees talent evaluators give serious thought to whether Rivera, who made 10 big league starts in 1995, was better suited for a career in the bullpen.

The rap on Rivera as a starter is that his two pitches, a fastball and slider, are close in speed. Rivera, who is 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds, is smooth and effortless, but his ball explodes on hitters. While he can blow the ball past hitters early in the game, they usually figure out his sneaky delivery.

As a reliever, Rivera wouldn’t have to worry about hitters seeing him a second time. He also could exploit his brilliant control in relief, as Dennis Eckersley does. Like Eckersley, Rivera is an athletic, two-pitch pitcher who fields his position well and holds runners close.

“We think Rivera is going to be a critical piece to our puzzle,” general manager Bob Watson said. “We will start him out as a long reliever, so that he will have the arm strength to fill in as a starter if that’s where we need him.”

That’s a strong possibility. Even with the signing of David Cone and Kenny Rogers, the Yankees are asking a lot of Melido Perez, who is trying to come back from shoulder problems, and Dwight Gooden, who hasn’t pitched effectively in the majors in about four years. Jimmy Key may not be ready until late May as he tries to make a comeback from rotator cuff surgery.

But if Rivera begins the year in relief and continues to impress in that role, the Yankees could consider dealing Wetteland and his salary when contenders begin their annual search for closers.

The Yankees clearly are still thinking about it all. “Rivera could be a closer in the future,” Watson said. “Or a starter.”

Note the early-career reference to Dennis Eckersley, who at this point was winding down his Hall of Fame career. Rivera would eventually supplant Eck as the best modern, one-inning closer of all time.

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