Once upon a time, a reliever named John Wetteland was the ace of the Yankees' bullpen. The Yankees basically stole him from the financially depleted Montreal Expos shortly after the 1994 Players' Strike, as they traded 20-year-old outfielder Fernando Seguignol and cash for the man who had notched an impressive 2.32 ERA and 105 saves in three years with Montreal. Wetteland proceeded to do more of the same in New York. In his first season, he immediately impressed with 31 saves, a 158 ERA+, and a 0.88 WHIP, and he helped the Yankees get back to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Although Wetteland suffered through a horrible Division Series against the Seattle Mariners that certainly played an important role in the team's loss, he came back in '96 to lead the league in saves with 43 as the Yankees won the World Series (and he won the World Series MVP). Wetteland's success helped the Yankees achieve an incredible 86-1 record when leading after eight innings. After the season ended, Wetteland was a free agent for the first time and wanted to be paid, but the Yankees balked at giving him the four-year, $24 million deal that he wanted. The reason they felt comfortable in telling Wetteland his services were no longer required was the performance of young setup man Mariano Rivera in '96. Although he wasn't the closer, Rivera had an even better season than Wetteland- 107.2 innings, 130 strikeouts, a 232 ERA+, and a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting. The Yankees thought that Rivera could do just as good a job as Wetteland for a much lower price.
The start of the '97 season was a disaster for Rivera. He saved his first two opportunities without any problems, but he blew three of his next four chances, which led to some intense scrutiny by the New York media. How could the affluent Yankees have let their World Series MVP closer depart simply over a question of money? Why did they think this guy who had never closed before could do the job just as capably as Wetteland?
Follow the jump for some news clippings from April 1997 that should hopefully offer some writers and fans some perspective on David Robertson's blown save from last night. Robertson has a tough task in filling in for the legendary Rivera, but even Mo had his early-season jitters replacing a World Series hero.
4/9/97: Jack Curry, New York Times
After going 86-1 when leading a game after eight innings in 1996, the Yankees lost when ahead after eight in their fourth try this season. Does anyone still wonder if the loss of John Wetteland will adversely impact the Yankees? But the reason they lost tonight is because Rivera, who is supposed to be the sure thing in the bullpen, was not.
4/13/97: Malcolm Moran, The Day
Torre has said that the Yankees are not yet certain how punishing a role Rivera's 168-pound frame can take. But the crack in Rivera's voice on Friday afternoon, after a wrecked initial home appearance in his new rol, suggested an emotional vulnerability as well.
4/17/97: Jack Curry, New York Times
Mariano Rivera, we have seen John Wetteland. You are not John Wetteland. Not yet. Maybe never. That's not a serious criticism. Wetteland's 179 saves over the last five years are second in the major leagues to Randy Myers's 181. So far this season, Wetteland has four saves in four opportunities for Texas and has not allowed an earned run in six innings. Rivera has three botched saves in six opportunities.
The Yankees, fans and reporters made Rivera's rise to Wetteland's spot an afterthought. If he was a super setup man, he should be a super closer. But getting those three outs has been arduous, and teams are actually batting .359 off Rivera.
Interestingly, when Torre was asked if he might switch Rivera out of the closer spot, he did not instantly bark ''no'' the way NBC would if someone suggested it change the ''Seinfeld'' 9 P.M. time slot on Thursday. Instead, Torre said: ''I don't think so. I played. When you go 0 for 10 or 0 for 12, you want to go out and get it right.'' The talented Rivera will get it right. But the growing pains, which are good pains for now, might still exist.
4/22/97: Jack Curry, New York Times
Steinbrenner admitted by telephone interview from his office in Tampa, FLA., that he was "upset" with the defending World Series champions for being lodged in last place, and he directly or indirectly criticized almost every pitcher the bullpen. He also said he was unsure if Mariano Rivera could succeed John Wetteland as the team's closer and essentially condemned himself and the Yankees by saying anyone who would not want Wetteland has limited baseball expertise.
"John Wetteland brought a certain sense of relaxed toughness to that bullpen," Steinbrenner said. "I hope someone can give us that. He had the bullpen on the muscle. He was a tough competitor. But we already had the highest payroll in baseball. It depends on what you can afford."
If anyone could have afforded Wetteland, it was the Yankees. Instead, they tampered with the Rivera-Wetteland combination that was their ultimate strength, and so far it looks like a serious mistake.
So you see, the Yankees were doomed when they replaced John Wetteland with Mariano Rivera, just as they are doomed now because David Robertson has had a couple shaky appearances since taking over for Mo, right? These clippings simply offer perspective on the issue; Robertson needs plenty of more time in the closer's role before a real argument can be made that he should no longer hold it.
Patience is key. Have faith in Houdini.