He is known by many names: The Great One, The Sandman, The Hammer of God, and Mo. Arguably the best closing pitcher in the history of the game of baseball, Rivera's life has been far from easy.
Starting off as a young man in Panama to growing up to be the closing pitcher for the New York Yankees, Rivera always had the fighting spirit of an incredible athlete and an incredible person.
Early Years and Career in the Minors
Rivera was born on Nov. 29, 1969 in Panama City, Panama. He grew up in the village of Puerto Caimito, and finished high school at the tender age of 16. Without many material possessions and with a deep love for baseball, Rivera always found ways to play the game. He and his friends did not have regular baseball equipment, such as gloves, bats, or even decent baseballs to play with.
Instead, they would substitute milk cartons to shape makeshift mitts, use tree branches as bats, and tape tattered baseballs to toss and smack around.
After high school, Rivera went to work for his father, Mariano, Sr., who earned money as a fisherman. Rivera never wished to take up the profession as a career, and once described the job as “way too tough.” He once had to desert a sinking, 120-pound commercial vessel that he was aboard.
It was after this experience he decided to give up the fisherman position.
Setting out to fulfill his dream of playing baseball, Rivera competed for the Panama Oeste team in 1990 at age 20. What some may not know is that Rivera was a shortstop for the Panama squad, but volunteered to try his hand as a pitcher. To Rivera’s luck, Yankee scout Herb Raybourn took notice of him at a game.
Even though Rivera was not a pitcher by trade, Raybourn noticed his smooth delivery and 85-87 MPH velocity. This forced the Yankees’ hand, and they signed Rivera to a deal with a $3,000 signing bonus.
It was now time for Rivera to leave Panama for the first time. Barely knowing so much as a word of English, he would depart for the United States. He was off to pitch for the Gulf Coast Yankees, and so began his meteoric rise to the top.
While tearing it up and rewarding Raybourn’s faith with excellent pitching, Rivera spent 1990-1994 in the Gulf Coast League. He also was setback for the first time in his career, as he needed Tommy John surgery to repair nerve damage in his elbow.
He did not let the ulnar collateral ligament impairment slow him down, as he came back in bounteous force and made a full recovery. Rivera’s rehab came during the 1992 expansion draft for the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. Rivera was left unprotected during the expansion, but the Yankee Gods were looking out for him—and the Yankees—when he was not drafted.
Rivera resumed pitching in 1993, and in 1994 stole the show. He rose from the Yankees’ Class A to AA and eventually to AAA, fanning 89 batters and walking only 20 over the course of the season. It was now time for Rivera to take the ultimate step forward in his baseball life.
Making it to the Show and the Beginning of the Yankee Dynasty
With Rivera’s stellar numbers posted in the minor leagues, the Yankees had no choice but to give him the call to the majors in 1995. As a rookie, Rivera was initially slated to be a starting pitcher for the Yanks. In ’95, he made 10 starts while making nine relief appearances.
But his spot on the team was not a sure thing, as the Yankees contemplated trading Rivera to the Detroit Tigers for David Wells. The Bronx Bombers were unsure of having a 25-year-old hurler who underwent major reconstructive arm surgery on their team, but they opted to stick with the young pitcher after a brilliant show on July 4.
Rivera suddenly began tossing 95-97 MPH fastballs, and pitched a two-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox. Rivera whiffed 11 batters in that game, cementing his spot on the roster.
Overall in his first campaign, he saw mixed success, going 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA.
Rivera certainly took his lumps in his first year, giving up a total of 11 homers. But his numbers showed potential. He fanned 51 batters in the 67 innings he pitched. With somewhat mediocre numbers in his first season, Rivera was ready for the ride of the Yankee success.
Coming off the in-between 1995 season, the Yankees saw drastic changes for 1996. With new manager Joe Torre, new first baseman Tino Martinez, former six-time batting champion Wade Boggs, and established pitcher David Cone joining the team, the Yankees were primed for a great run in 1996.
Rivera’s role had reversed in ’96, as he was no longer needed as a starter. Instead of starting, Rivera found himself in a setup role for then-Yankee closer John Wetteland, usually pitching in the seventh and eighth innings.
The pitching staff developed a unique formula in order to win ballgames. If the starter went six innings, Rivera would take care of the seventh and eighth, and Wetteland was the man in the ninth.
The “6-2-1” strategy proved to be working, as the Yanks won 29 out of the 31 games the duo appeared in together. In addition to that, the team had a 70-3 record when leading after the sixth inning in 1996, also proving the Rivera/Wetteland tandem was as effective as ever.
Rivera tossed 107.2 innings in ’96, while going 8-3 with a 2.09 ERA. He also struck out an incredible 130 batters, the most he would ever fan in his career.
At one point in the season, he had tossed 26 consecutive scoreless innings, incorporating 15 consecutive hitless innings. He only gave up one home run all year, a stark contrast to the 11 he gave the year before. Rivera finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 1996. A season like that could only be capped off in one way.
For the outstanding season the Yankees put together in 1996, they defeated the Atlanta Braves in six games to win the World Series for the first time since 1978. Rivera pitched 5.2 innings in the ’96 fall classic, with an ERA of 1.59. Rivera experienced sweet success for the first time in his baseball career, and it was only the beginning.
Coming into the Closer Role and Continuing the Dynasty
When Wetteland left the Yankees at the conclusion of ’96 season, there was really only one man to succeed him.
Rivera took on the role of the Yankee closer in 1997, but the transition was not as smooth as everyone thought it would be. He blew three out of his first six save opportunities, and even admitted he was not comfortable with the role of closer.
He eventually came into his own and settled in, earning his first of nine All-Star game selections. He went 6-4 with 43 saves, coupled with a lowly 1.88 ERA. It was in ’97 that Rivera began using his signature entrance theme, Enter Sandman by Metallica, which he still uses to this day.
Also in ’97, he began to perfect his trademark pitch, the cut fastball that runs away from the right-handed hitters and runs in on the lefties.
“I’m not used to seeing the ball go wherever she wants,” Rivera said to the Daily News about his cutter in 2005. “As a pitcher, I like to be…I don’t want to say perfect, but I want to know what the ball is going to do.”
The Yankee team, however, would not find much success in 1997. In the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. The Yankees were four outs away from advancing to the American League Championship Series, but fell in misery. Unable to gain a ticket back to the World Series to defend their title, the Yankees headed into the offseason.
1998 would prove to be an unbelievable year for the Yankees. Similar to 1996, the Yankees made offseason acquisitions, re-stocked their pitching and offense, and went on to have one of the most unrealistic years in baseball history. The Yankees won a mind-shattering 114 games during the regular season, a feat that gave the Yankees credibility as the best team in baseball.
Rivera put together a fine year for himself, going a perfect 3-0 with a menial 1.91 ERA and saving 36 games for the Yankees. With an outstanding record, the Yankees went on to sweep the San Diego Padres in the World Series, earning themselves their second World Championship in three years.
And it would only get better from there on out.
In 1999, the Yankees would post another stellar year, and Rivera was once again at the forefront of it. He led the American League with 45 saves, held a regular season record of 4-3, and displayed a 1.83 ERA. He also won the acclaimed Rolaids Relief Man Award, given to the top relief pitcher in the league at the end of the season. He would go on to win the award three other times in his career.
The Yankees would go back to defend their World Series crown in 1999, facing the team they had beaten in ’96, the Braves. Rivera dazzled in the fall classic, going 1-0 with 0.00 ERA over 4.2 innings pitched, and nailing down two saves in the process. He was also given the distinct honor of being named the World Series Most Valuable Player.
The fortunes of the Yankees would continue to multiply in 2000. Although posting their worst record during the dynasty, going 87-74, the Yankees found themselves atop the standings of the American League Eastern Division. Rivera went 7-4 in 2000, slamming the door shut for the Yanks 36 more times. He put up a 2.85 ERA, his highest since 1995.
The Yankees would go back to the World Series yet again, this time against their hated rivals from Queens, the New York Mets. Rivera had no record in the 2000 World Series going 0-0, and posted a 3.00 ERA, the highest of any fall classic he played in for his career.
However, he did pick up two more World Series saves as the Yankees squashed the Mets in five games. Rivera was on the mound for the third time in his career when the Yankees clinched the final game of the fall classic.
The Fall of the Yankee Dynasty
Going into the 2001 season, Rivera had so many accolades under his belt. Four World Series rings, three All-Star game selections to that point, a World Series MVP, and Rolaids Relief Award.
But he was not finished.
Rivera came back in ’01 and notched 50 saves, setting a career-high. Although he had a losing record of 4-6 with a 2.34 ERA, the Yankees still managed to find success behind him and his masterful pitching.
Though baseball was not important during the fall of 2001 due to the tragedy the United States faced in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Yankees tried to keep the spirits of all New Yorkers up by making it to the World Series for the fourth straight year. This time they were up against a relatively new club, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The fall classic was like a tennis match, as the Yankees struggled early, losing the first two games. But the Empire struck back in the next three, winning the games at home in front of the Yankee fans. But With Rivera on the mound in Game Seven and the Yankees looking to capture their fifth title in six years, the baseball world spun off its axis.
Rivera was called on in the eighth inning with the Yankees up 2-1. He struck out the side in the eighth, but was not himself in the ninth. He wound up blowing the lead and the game as the Diamondbacks took away the thunder of the Yankees. Despite the loss, Rivera was happy the Yankees lost for a unique reason.
If the Yankees had won the World Series, his teammate, Enrique Wilson, would have flown home to the Dominican Republic on board American Airlines Flight 587, a flight that crashed on Nov. 12, shortly after the World Series wrapped on Nov. 4.
“I’m glad we lost the World Series,” Rivera said. “It means I still have a friend.”
Coming off the disappointing yet divine loss to the D’Backs in 2001, the Yanks looked to make up for the loss in 2002. Rivera, however, was setback by injuries, which limited him to only 46 innings and 28 saves. The Yankees failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1997 campaign, and were eliminated early by the Anaheim Angels.
Groin injuries halted the start of Rivera’s 2003 campaign, but the Yankees still maintained a level head. Missing the first month, Rivera returned to the team on May 1, and quickly looked like the old Mo. He put up 40 saves for the year, nailing down a 1.66 ERA with a 5-2 record.
The Yankees came back to get through the first round of the postseason, and met their arch-rivals, the Boston Red Sox, in the ALCS. With the winner of the series going to the fall classic, the Yanks and Sox duked it out for a chance to play in the World Series.
With the ALCS knotted at three games apiece, Rivera took his game to a new level in Game Seven. In what is widely believed as his best playoff performance, he tossed three innings keeping the Red Sox off the board, en route to Aaron Boone slaughtering the glorious, walk-off homer to send the Yankees to the World Series and crush the Red Sox’ dreams.
Given another honor, Rivera was named the MVP of the 2003 ALCS, further adding to his resume.
The Yankees did not win the 2003 World Series, as they were edged in six games by the Florida Marlins. Rivera picked up one save in four innings with four strikeouts, however, adding to his already exceptional postseason numbers.
The Bronx Bombers would return to form in 2004, and so would Rivera. He topped his career-high save mark, nailing down 53 saves, the most since the 2001 season. He put up a 4-2 record with a 1.94 ERA. His efforts earned him Rolaids Relief honors for the third time in his career.
The Yankees would go on to win the American League Eastern Division title for the seventh consecutive year in 2004, and as fate would have it, they met the Red Sox in a rematch of the 2003 ALCS.
The Bronx Bombers made a statement in the series, winning the first three games over Boston, including a vicious 19-8 beat down in game three.
Needing only one more win to advance to the World Series, Rivera took the hill in game four with the Yankees holding a tight 4-3 lead over Boston.
With the best closer in baseball on the mound, the Yankees were all but positive they were headed back to the World Series.
The Sox had other plans, however, as Kevin Millar led off the inning with a walk. The speedy pinch-runner Dave Roberts replaced Millar, and promptly stole second off Rivera.
Then with Bill Mueller at the dish, Rivera’s cutter didn’t cut.
Mueller lined a single up the middle through the infield hole to score Roberts, tying the game at four. Boston would later go on to win the game on the strength of a David Ortiz walk-off home run.
“I’m not perfect and today was tough,” Rivera stated after the game. “We should have won that game, but I didn’t do my job. It was just one pitch, but there was no margin for error.”
Making history, the Red Sox miraculously came back and defeated the Yankees four games to three in the ALCS, and went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
Looking to put the ugly ending of the 2004 season behind them, the Yanks did as they always do. They signed free-agent veteran Randy Johnson for 2005, hoping to make up for the lack of pitching the previous year.
The Yankees joined the Red Sox for their opening day ceremonies in 2005, and when the Red Sox got their rings, Rivera was received relatively warmly by the Boston crowd, reminding him of his struggles in the ’04 ALCS.
“When the crowd was cheering for me, I knew it wasn’t mean, just sarcastic,” Rivera said. “I just had to take it with class. I just tipped my hat and laughed.”
Rivera started off ugly against the Red Sox in ’05, blowing his first two save opportunities. But he rebounded quite well, converting a career-best 31 consecutive save opps and going on to nail down 43 saves. He only allowed one run in road games all year, posted a career-low ERA with 1.38, and was given DHL Delivery Man of the Year honors.
The Present Day
Rivera had a decent year in 2006, continuing to tack on to his future Hall of Fame accomplishments. Going into the All-Star break, he owned a 1.76 ERA and was chosen to his eighth All-Star team.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who managed the American League in the mid-summer classic, claimed beforehand that Rivera was going to be the man who would close the contest. Rivera saved the All-Star game in ’06, making him only the second pitcher along with Dennis Eckersley to do so three times.
On July 16, 2006, Rivera collected his 400th career save, becoming only the fourth pitcher in baseball history to do so. He converted a two-inning save against the White Sox at home. He finished the year with a 5-5 record, a 1.80 ERA, and 34 saves. He was yet again given the DHL Delivery Man of the Year Award.
2007 proved to be Rivera’s weakest statistical year to date, and got off to a rough start. He blew his first two save opps, losing two games, and giving up nine runs in 7.2 innings. He also had career-worsts in earned runs with 25, hits with 68, and ERA with 3.15. Despite the negativity, he still slammed the door 30 times for the Yankees in 34 tries.
Although 2007 was not Rivera’s best year, he bounced back, as he always does, in 2008. In the final season in Yankee Stadium, he went 6-5 with a 1.40 ERA, nailing down 39 saves, sending the Yankee fans off with a good memory of their closer. On Sep. 15, he recorded his 479th career save, passing Lee Smith on the all-time regular season saves list.
After the ’08 campaign, Rivera needed minor arthroscopic surgery to tend to inflammation in his throwing shoulder. He is currently making progress, and has pitched this spring, gearing up for the 2009 season in the brand new Yankee Stadium.
“He’s the best I’ve ever been around. Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse. He’s very important to us because he’s a special person.”
These words were spoken by Joe Torre, Rivera’s long time manager with the Yankees.
A four-time World Series champion. A World Series MVP. An ALCS MVP. Multiple pitching accolades. He owns the lowest career postseason ERA. Nine All-Star selections. On the all-time list for saves. And he is only one man.
And he is a great man. The man who will go down as the greatest closer in the history of the game. The man who will always be remembered for his valiant performances in pinstripes. The man who was mauled on the pitcher’s mound and buried at the bottom of the dog pile during postseason and World Series celebrations.
Rivera will also be the last man to ever wear No. 42 on his back. When baseball universally retired No. 42 in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson, Rivera was wearing the number. Major League Baseball stated that the players already wearing the number were “grandfathered in,” and were allowed to keep wearing them. Rivera is the last man wearing the number, and no one will ever wear it again.
On Sep. 28, 2008, Rivera tossed the final pitch on original Yankee Stadium soil. He retired Orioles’ second baseman Brian Roberts on a groundout.
Eckersley once called Rivera, “the best there is, no doubt.”
Trevor Hoffman, the only closer in the history of baseball with more saves than Rivera, once said, “He will go down as the best reliever in the game in history.”
Call him what you will: Mo. The Sandman. The Great One. The Hammer of God. No matter what his name, he has had the type of career a baseball player can only dream of. The type of career that owns a special place in Cooperstown.
Looking at it objectively and from an all-around standpoint, how can you say Mariano Rivera is not the greatest to ever live?
And he is not finished yet.