Long before Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was, well, MARIANO RIVERA, he was just a former starter trying to establish himself in a bullpen role. The Yanks like how he pitched in a relief role during the '95 playoffs, and they did not want to demote him to the Triple-A rotation out of Spring Training in '96, so manager Joe Torre decided to bring him north with the team as a middle reliever.
Since Rivera had very recent experience pitching multiple innings at a time, Torre often brought him for a few innings--Rivera even had four consecutive outings of three innings each over a span of just nine days. By mid-May, the lithe righthander from Panama really started to catch everyone's eye, as his ERA dipped under 1.00 despite over 30 innings of work. Remarkably, he was baffling American Leaguers armed almost exclusively with a 95 mph fastball that he simply blew by hitters. At one point, he threw 14 consecutive hitless innings, prompting Twins manager Tom Kelly to declare, "He needs to pitch in a higher league, if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."
Read more: Yankees GIFs posted on PB
Amid this hubbub, Rivera gradually took on a more important role in the Yankees' bullpen. He moved up the depth chart to right behind closer John Wetteland in the setup role, where he would often pitch multiple innings to get the ball to Wetteland. Mo even notched his first two major league saves on May 17th and 18th when Wetteland missed a little time due to injury. No one could have guessed that he had over 600 more of those left in him.
Mo's next game after the 18th appears mostly uneventful at first glance. It's amusing seeing the box score, as future Yankee Jason Giambi played third base for Oakland, and second base for the Yankees was occupied by the forgotten Matt Howard. A Williams started in center field for the Yanks, but it was Gerald, not Bernie. Rookie shortstop Derek Jeter hit eighth for one of only 26 games in his career.
Back to the story though, Rivera entered in the eighth inning in relief of starter Dwight Gooden (fresh off his no-hitter) with a four-run advantage over the Oakland Athletics, an easy lead to protect. Rivera brought the game down to its possible last out, Athletics first baseman Torey Lovullo. On the first pitch, Lovullo swung on a fastball coming in on his hands, making contact but breaking his bat in the process, another classic Rivera trademark. This bloop was falling past around the third base line when Rivera literally sprang into action:
It was a tremendous catch to end the game and just one of many great moments that season for the 26-year-old righthander. Here we are 17 years later though, and I don't think Mo has ever made such a phenomenal play in the field as he did that night at Yankee Stadium.
Oh, and Mo's catcher in that image is his manager now, Joe Girardi. Of course.