There are 652 reasons for Yankees fans to be thankful for Mariano Rivera, but in the interest of time, we’ll keep it much shorter and straight to the point. Mariano “Mo” Rivera was born on November 29, 1969 in a small village in Panama called Puerto Caimito. In 1989, at the age of 20, Mo was signed by Yankees scout Chico Heron, who was referred to Mariano by teammates of his on the Panamanian travel team he played for.
In today’s baseball, with an abundance of talent produced all across the Caribbean and Latin America, you’d be lucky to be even get looked at as a 20-year-old, yet alone a scrawny 169-pound pitcher throwing 87 mph. Consider, say, the 17-year-old phenom Osiel Rodriguez who at 15 was clocked throwing 96mph. The average fastball from an MLB starter in 2018 was 92.3 mph, compared with 93.4 mph for relievers. Thankfully for Rivera, he eventually would see his velocity elevate to 98 mph after having surgery in 1992, and the rest is history.
After winning the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves the Yankees front office had seen enough from Rivera to move him into the closer’s role in 1997, letting John Wetteland go to the Texas Rangers in free agency. Early season struggles forced him to look to change something up, and one day while tossing with Yankees starter Ramiro Mendoza, Rivera’s conventional four-seam fastball started to cut and have movement like he never seen before. Mo focused on the newly acquired “cut fastball” and converted 43 saves in his first season as the everyday closer.
What’s astonishing is the fact Rivera didn’t set the goals that would later cement in his place in Yankees history and baseball history. His goals weren’t as big and glamorous as your typical up and coming young player. From Ken Davidoff’s recent story on Rivera in the New York Post:
I wasn’t looking for a closer’s job. I just wanted to be a big-league pitcher and stay in the big leagues for at least eight to ten years. That’s it. I didn’t care if it was as a starter, reliever, setup man, closer — I didn’t care. I just wanted to be a pitcher in the big leagues. A big-league player. That’s it.“You give me 10 years, I save a little bit of my money, I’m going back home. And that’s it. That’s it. I save some money, I [open] my dream garage and I learn my trade and I move on. Those were my thoughts
For Mo, the old yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs” couldn’t be more true. Over the course of 19 seasons, Rivera would see unparalleled success, winning five World Series. World Series MVP (in 1999), earning 13 All-Star appearances, ALCS MVP (2003) and five Rolaids relief pitcher of the year awards. Aside from breaking the major league record with 652 saves all-time, he missed the playoffs only two times (2008 & 2013) and is the all-time postseason leader in ERA, with a 0.70 mark in 141 innings pitched, games played (96), a win probability mark of 11.7, and saves (42).
The staggering thing about it all is that Yankees fans, opponents, and the media will probably remember Rivera the most not just for his dominance on the field, championships, and numerous records, but his humility and ability to lead with grace and class. Despite being the greatest closer to ever put on a major league uniform and becoming the first player in MLB history to be voted into the hall fame unanimously, he never showed up a batter or put down an opponent.
That professionalism and class is why Mo is such a beloved figured in and out of baseball. The game has changed tremendously in just the short amount of time Rivera has been gone. Specialty pitchers, lefty-righty matchups, and analytics play a heavy part in the usage of the game’s relievers today, making it much harder for anyone to come close to touching his record of 652 saves.
Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel at 31-years-old needs to average 40 saves over the next 8 seasons to pass Rivera. Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, who is currently trying to make his way back to majors after last making an appearance in 2017 with the Detroit Tigers, currently has 437 saves. At 37-years-old, he’d need 216 saves, averaging 35 over the next six seasons to pass Rivera as well.
As we used to wait as Joe Torre or Joe Girardi would make the call to Mo out of the bullpen, listen to “Enter the Sandman”, and let number 42 do his job, we get to watch it all unfold one last time, as the greatest closer in history gracefully etches his name in baseball lore forever.