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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #7 Mariano Rivera

Enter Sandman.

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New York Yankees Mariano Rivera, 2003 AL Championship Series Set Number: X69461 TK7

Name: Mariano Rivera
Position: Relief pitcher
Born: November 29, 1969 (Panama City, Panama)
Yankee Years: 1995-2013
Primary number: 42
Yankee statistics: 1,115 games, 1,283.2 IP, 82-60, 652 saves, 2.21 ERA (205 ERA+), 1,173 K, 17.4 K-BB%, 56.3 rWAR, 39.1 fWAR


The bottom of the eighth inning ends with the Yankees clinging to a slim lead. As the bullpen doors open, a simple guitar melody reverberates throughout the Stadium, sending a chill down the spines of the batters due up in the top of the ninth. The minds of all those at 161st Street in the Bronx, and indeed all those watching at home, come together in one moment, two words echoing through their brains:

Game Over.

Say your prayers, little one

Raised in the small fishing village of Puerto Caimito, the man who would become known as the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball grew up in poverty. His family — his father Mariano Rivera Palacios, mother Delia Girón, and three siblings — lived together in a small tin house with no running water or electricity. When playing sports, Rivera and his friends were forced to use handmade equipment: tree branches were turned into bats, milk cartons into gloves, baseball and soccer balls made out of tape. Piles of shoes and clothes served as bases and goal posts. The baseball diamond and soccer pitch existed only during low tide, a fleeting expanse of sea-dampened sand that provided a natural clock for the length of their games.

To those accustomed to the occasionally maintained weed-filled grass fields in U.S. urban areas, let alone to those accustomed to the well-manicured fields found in wealthy suburban areas, this makeshift field would seem shoddy and undeserving, but for Rivera and his friends, it was heaven. “That beach at low tide, that was our Yankee Stadium, that was our Maracanã,” he would later say.

As a teenager, Mo abandoned soccer and worked on his father’s fishing boat, but he continued to play baseball. He joined the Panama Oeste Vaqueros, an elite amateur team, where he started as a shortstop but bounced around the field; it was during this time that Rivera gained a love of shagging flies in the outfield, leading to his pregame ritual years later. In 1989, he took the mound for the first time, and pitched well enough that he attracted the attention of Yankees scouts. Herb Raybourn, the Director of Latin American Operations, would later say, “I saw enough at nine pitches.”

The Yankees pounced, signing him as an international amateur free agent in February 1990 for either $2,500 or $3,000 (sources differ as to the amount) in order to prevent any other team from seeing Rivera as a pitcher. He immediately left Panama and reported to the Yankees’ minor league complex in Florida.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Rivera’s transition to the United States was not easy. Having spent his whole life in Panama, he did not speak a word of English, and his 1992 was cut short after just 12 starts in High-A due to elbow surgery to clean up the ligament. Despite the difficulties, however, he showed even then the electric stuff that would make him dominant, winning the Gulf Coast League ERA title in 1990 (a 0.17 ERA in 52 innings) while walking very few on the season and spinning a seven-inning no-hitter in the final game of the year.

There was enough interest in Rivera that a sliding-doors moment occurred during the 1992-93 offseason. Even with his recent surgery, the Yankees felt they had to protect him ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. Adding Mo to the 40-man was one of Brian Sabean’s last suggestions with the Yankees before departing to become the Giants’ GM in January 1993. Despite the savvy move to protect Rivera, they still could have lost him to the Marlins or Rockies in that year’s expansion draft. He went unpicked in the first two rounds, but as longtime executive Dave Dombrowski recounted years later, Mo was this close to donning teal:

Dombrowski was the general manager of the Florida Marlins at the time, and his club was planning to take Rivera with the ensuing pick. As fate would have it, the Ausmus selection “closed out the Yankees from losing any other players.” Had Colorado taken a player from any other organization, Rivera would have been a Marlin.

Phew. Amusingly, the Marlins did get another Hall of Fame closer in this draft, but Trevor Hoffman saved only two games for them before being dealt for Gary Sheffield.

So Rivera remained a Yankee and steadily climbed the Yankees farm system, albeit soon in the shadow of his younger cousin, blue-chip outfield prospect Rubén Rivera. On the even of the ‘95 campaign, Rubén was rated MLB’s second-best prospect by Baseball America. Forget Top-100 consideration for Mariano; while BA liked him modestly enough, he was still ninth in the Yankees’ system and right behind someone named Tate Seefried.

Still, since Mo began 1995 one level higher than Rubén, he got to hit The Show first. On May 23, 1995, he made his MLB debut in a start against the California Angels which — to be kind — did not go well. On the whole, his rookie season was less-than-stellar, posting a 5.51 ERA with a demotion mixed in and and allowing opposing hitters to slash .266/.342/.442 against him in 67 innings.

That said, Rivera did have one electric start on July 4th against the White Sox:

Following an unexpected velocity bump to the mid-90s that helped him avoid getting traded for David Wells, Mo spun eight innings of two-hit ball with 11 strikeouts. Although none of his other nine starts were nearly that good, it opened eyes in the Yankees’ organization (and the ChiSox broadcast booth, as indicated in the video).

Manager Buck Showalter needed relief help for the Yankees’ first playoff appearance in 14 years, so he added Rivera to his postseason roster. He endured a baptism by fire in his playoff debut, tasked with quieting Ken Griffey Jr. and his mighty Mariners teammates in extra innings of ALDS Game 2. Rivera was somehow unfazed, throwing 3.1 shutout frames with five strikeouts and earning the win when Jim Leyritz walked it off. He tossed up zeroes in Games 3 and 5 as well, finishing the series with a 0.00 ERA in 5.1 innings.

Although the Yankees endured heartbreak that year in part because Showalter could only trust the rookie so much, the October surge was a sign of good things to come for Mariano Rivera.

‘Til the Sandman, he comes

In the spring of ‘96, the Yankees again had a close call with losing out on the greatest reliever of all time twice. Owner George Steinbrenner was hesitant to go into the season with a rookie shortstop and pushed for the team to flip Mo to the Mariners for veteran Felix Fermín; baseball operations talked him out of the deal — not because they loved Rivera, but because they wanted Derek Jeter at shortstop. “We thought we didn’t need a shortstop,” future general manager Brian Cashman would later say. “We did not know we were sitting on a Hall of Famer.”

Within a month, all of baseball realized that Rivera was special. As he watched his team flail helplessly at Rivera’s fastball, Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly declared that “He should be illegal.” Working as the setup man in front of John Wetteland for new manager Joe Torre, Rivera put forward one of the best relief seasons of all time, posting a 2.09 ERA in 107.2 innings; his 4.3 fWAR that season has been surpassed only once since, by Eric Gagne’s 55-save 2003 campaign (4.7 fWAR). He finished third in Cy Young Award voting and 12th for the AL MVP vote as a middle reliever — something that would be unheard of today.

Rivera recorded his first save on May 17th, shutting down the Angels in the ninth and securing the win for fellow youngster Andy Pettitte (10th on our list); it would be the first of 72 games in which the pair combined for the win and save — a Major League record.

Due in large part to the Rivera/Wetteland combo, the Yankees went on to end the World Series drought that had been plaguing the team, winning their first championship since 1978. Across 8 games and 14.1 innings, Rivera proved that his ‘95 playoff outbreak was no fluke; he pitched to a 0.63 ERA with a .503 OPS against as opposing hitters flailed left and right.

That winter, however, the successful Rivera/Wetteland pairing broke up, as the team opted to let Wetteland walk in free agency and slide Rivera into the ninth inning. Immediately, it looked like a mistake: Rivera blew three of his first six save opportunities, including the home opener on a bomb by Mark McGwire. He soon settled into the role, however, going on to earn the first of his 13 All-Star nods.

It was en route to that All-Star Game that the legend of Mariano Rivera truly was born. Rather than tell the story myself, allow me to share the beginning to Tom Verducci’s long-form piece about Rivera’s great cutter, written back when Sports Illustrated was still the industry standard:

God touched Mariano Rivera one June afternoon in 1997, and Rivera shrugged. Just three months into his new role as the closer for a budding Yankees dynasty, Rivera was suddenly unable to throw his signature four-seam fastball straight, not even during his daily toss with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Every catch a struggle, Mendoza told Rivera to knock it off, to quit making the ball dip and dart. Rivera assured his friend that he wasn’t doing it intentionally. He was gripping the ball the same way he always had, releasing it the same way he always had. The wicked movement just ... happened.
And continued to happen while Rivera warmed up one late-June night in the bullpen at Tiger Stadium. The baseball, as if defaced, would not fly straight. New York bullpen catcher Mike Borzello had never seen Rivera throw like this before, and it made him nervous. “In the old Detroit stadium the bullpen was on the field,” says Borzello, now the Dodgers’ bullpen catcher. “So if you missed the ball, they would have to stop the game. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than that. He started throwing these cutters. Immediately I checked the ball. Is the ball scuffed? What is going on here?
“When a guy is throwing 95 and the ball is cutting the last few feet before it gets to you, believe me, you never forget something like that. I was like, What are you doing?”
Rivera didn’t have an explanation, and though he says he “didn’t have any idea where the ball was going,” his results did not suffer. He got the save in that game, then in the next three. Still, for a month, he worked with Borzello and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to eliminate the cutting action. “We were trying to make the pitch stay straighter, [as it had] in ‘95 and ‘96,” Rivera says, referring to his first two seasons in the big leagues, “but it didn’t work. Then I said, ‘I’m tired of working at this. Let’s let it happen.’ And since that day we didn’t try to straighten it out anymore.”
He smiles. “And the rest is history.”

Armed with his new cutter, Rivera reached new heights as a dominant reliever while also becoming the master of the broken bat. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. Did he occasionally blow the game in big moments? Absolutely — just see Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS, which helped prevent the Yankees from repeating as champions.

Overall though, Rivera became a calming presence looming at the back of the bullpen, one who shortened games for the Yankees and restored order when the relievers in front of him faltered. He was particularly overwhelming in October as he recorded 23 postseason saves between 1997 and 2001, earning the World Series MVP in ‘99 with a brilliant-as-ever scoreless stretch across three games of the sweep over Atlanta (saving the opener and the finale while winning Game 3 in extras).

For four consecutive seasons, 1998 to 2001, the Yankees’ season ended with Mo on the mound in the ninth inning. The first three ended with joy and jubilation, and the third represented Rivera’s seven World Series save — an MLB record.

The fourth, however, reflected what may be considered Rivera’s worst performance of the postseason. Starting his second inning of work and asked to hold a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the 2001 Fall Classic, Mo allowed a single, threw a bunt into center field, surrendered a double to a 64 OPS+ hitter, and plunked a batter. That all led up to a bloop single that, had the infield not been playing in, would likely have been an out.

It was not a fun time. Yet it was also a credit to just how intimidating Rivera’s reputation was around the game already that this outcome was considered so shocking for someone who had only just finished his sixth full MLB season. Indeed, by the time he hung up his spikes, he had a comically low 0.70 ERA in 141 career playoff innings, tallying 42 saves (naturally).

One last Mo playoff stat:

We’re off to never-never land

Prior to the 2001 campaign, the Yankees locked up Rivera on a four-year, $40 million contract, making him the highest-paid reliever in baseball; even in 2024, that contract that would still make Rivera one of the top 15 highest-paid relief pitchers. Despite injury concerns in 2002 and 2003, Rivera continued to rise through baseball’s leaderboards, as well as secure records for his teammates. On May 9, 2002, he passed Dave Righetti for the franchise lead in saves with 225 — not even halfway to his final total. A little over a year later, on June 13, 2003, he pitched a perfect ninth inning to record the save and get Roger Clemens his 300th victory.

Rivera’s numbers across the 2002-03 seasons were nothing short of elite — 2.08 ERA, 1.003 WHIP, 68 saves — but they pale in comparison to what really makes Mo great: his ability under pressure. And nowhere is that story clearer than the 2003 ALCS.

New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera (L) and ca Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

After the Yankees dropped Game 1 to the Red Sox, Rivera pitched a scoreless inning in Game 2 to tie the series, then recorded a pair of six-out saves in Games 3 and 5 as the series went the distance.

Game 7 proved to be a turbulent game that saw Clemens knocked out in the third, Mike Mussina pull a Houdini and keep the game from getting, and the lineup rally against a tired Pedro Martinez in the eighth to knot things up at five after eight. At this point, Torre handed the ball to his closer, who shut the Sox down in order in the ninth. And the 10th. And the 11th. Thanks to Aaron Boone, we don’t know if Mo would go out there for the twelfth: Torre and Stottlemyre insist that, after 48 pitches (the most he had thrown that year), their closer’s night was done, but Rivera has insisted repeatedly that, “There was no way they were taking me out.”

As Boone circled the bases, Rivera ran to the mound and collapsed in both exhaustion and celebration. He would leave the field on the shoulders of his teammates, carried off as the ALCS MVP for his eight dominant innings in the series. While a World Series title would have been an even sweeter ending, an up-and-coming Florida Marlins team downed the exhausted Yankees in the World Series.

With a two-year extension with an option signed prior to the 2004 season, Rivera continued put together one of the best seasons of his career, as he posted a 1.64 ERA set a franchise single-season record that still stands with 53 saves. That also led the AL, en route to a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young vote. Unfortunately for Rivera, he’s remembered not for his elite performance during the regular season, but for an October that piled baseball disaster upon a family tragedy.

Just days before the 2004 ALCS, a rematch with the Boston Red Sox, Rivera flew home to Panama to attend the funerals of Victor Darío Avila and Victor Leonel, the cousins of his wife Clara. While the Yankees were, understandably, prepared to go without their closer in the Championship Series, he returned just in time for Game 1, where he recorded the save to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the series. In Game 4, however, Rivera took the mound with a 4-3 lead and looking to complete the sweep, only to blow the save. The situation repeated itself the next day, as Rivera was unable to clean up Tom Gordon’s mess in the bottom of the eighth. A few days later...well, this is a Yankee blog, we don’t like to talk about it.

And yet, in classic Mariano Rivera fashion, Mo turned the disaster into one of the highlights of his career. Unfortunately for the Yankees, they faced the Red Sox in Boston’s home opener the following year. During the pregame festivities, when the public address announcer called Rivera’s name, the Yankees closer received the loudest, most sarcastic cheer that the city of Boston ever mustered, thanking him for blowing the save in Game 4. And in response, Rivera tipped his cap to the crowd, laughed, and waved. The sarcastic cheers turned into genuine ones, and Rivera became the closest thing to a beloved Yankee that could ever exist in Boston. When Mo retired eight years later, in fact, they centered their entire ceremony honoring him around it.

Rivera had arguably his most dominant season since 1996 in 2005, posting a miniscule 1.38 ERA and 0.868 WHIP in 78.1 innings; he ultimately finished second in the Cy Young vote to Bartolo Colon — the highest finish of his career and his second consecutive season in the top three.

The next few years were filled with quiet excellence, as Yankees fans became complacent and forgot what it was like to not have an elite closer at the back of their bullpen. Even Rivera’s statistically worst season, 2007—which saw him finish the year with a 3.15 ERA, a 1.121 WHIP, and just 30 saves—isn’t as bad as it looks, thanks to the small sample sizes that relievers pitch in. “What’s Wrong With Mo Week” became a running joke among Yankees fans for reasons like this. He had three especially bad games in April and with New York scuffling as a whole anyway, he didn’t record a save until April 28th. Rivera posted a 2.26 ERA and allowed opponents to slash just .237/.280/.332 the rest of the way.*

*Even those numbers are a smidge inflated, as he got drubbed in a playoff tune-up during his last game, on September 28th after the Yankees had already clinched. Take that away and those numbers drop to 1.87 and .230/.272/.319.

By this point, nothing narratively changes for final half-decade of Rivera’s career — a true testament to his incredible consistency — so rather than attempt to narrate the slight differences year in and year out, let’s just run through his greatest hits.

Amid a staggering 316 ERA+/0.665 WHIP season in 2008, Rivera pitched a scoreless 10th inning during the last All-Star Game at the old Yankee Stadium.

Rather fittingly, Mo closed out the Stadium just a few months later.

On June 29, 2009, Rivera recorded his 500th career save, and more importantly, recorded his first — and only — career RBI, having worked a bases-loaded walk off Mets reliever Francisco Rodriguez.

During the 2009 postseason, he recorded five more saves — including two in the World Series.

On September 13, 2011, he became the second pitcher in history to record 600 saves.

A few days later, he recorded save No. 601, tying Trevor Hoffman for most in baseball history. And then on September 19th, in front of the Yankee Stadium faithful, Rivera stood alone at the top.

Rivera still holds the MLB record with 652 career saves. Only Hoffman has more than 500, and the active leader, Kenley Jansen (420), would need to average about 34 saves per season from now until his age-42 season to pass Mo. Kenley’s great, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Exit Light, Enter Night

Had it not been for a freak accident, 2012 might have been the end of Rivera’s career. Prior to a May 3rd game at Kauffman Stadium, Rivera was shagging fly balls as was his custom, a ritual dating back to his days playing ball in Panama. As the greatest closer of all time looked to catch a fly ball off the bat of Jayson Nix, his knee twisted, his ACL tore, and he collapsed to the floor as his teammates looked on in horror.

Although Rivera had hinted that 2012 would be the end of the road, No. 42 was determined that he would go out on his own terms. “I am coming back,” Mariano Rivera emphatically told his teammates in the clubhouse. “Put it down. Write it down in big letters. I’m not going down like this. God willing and given the strength, I’m coming back.” Despite medical complications, Rivera made good on his promise.

Upon arriving at spring training in 2013, Mo announced his intention to retire at the year’s end. Opposing teams bestowed him with gifts on road trips, but the man himself was more interested in privately meeting and conversing with behind-the-scenes workers and certain fans at each ballpark — the most generous kind of farewell tour. Unfortunately, the 2013 Yankees were an injury-riddled mess, and thus unable to grant Rivera’s request, to finish his career on the mound closing out the World Series for the sixth time. Rivera, though, continued to perform at the top of his game, winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year award by posting a 2.11 ERA and recording 44 saves in his age-43 season. Unlike many legends, whose final All-Star appearance was a bit of a formality, his selection to the 2013 All-Star Game was 100 percent deserved.

Because the American League did not have enough of a lead for AL manager Jim Leyland to feel comfortable holding Mo back for the ninth, Rivera took the mound in Citi Field for the eighth inning. With “Enter Sandman” reverberating through Queens, both teams took a moment to give Rivera the stage alone.

Rivera retired all three batters he faced, and with Joe Nathan coming on to earn the save, Mo notched a hold for the first time since 2002. In an otherwise-quiet Midsummer Classic, he was also given the All-Star Game MVP.

With the team going nowhere, all that was left for Yankees fans in 2013 was to say goodbye to Rivera. On September 18th, he recorded a four-out save against the Blue Jays — the 44th of the season, and the 652nd, and final, of his career. Two days later, the Yankees held “Mariano Rivera Day,” officially retiring No. 42 with Rachel Robinson and other members of Jackie Robinson’s family on hand to celebrate as the last active player to wear Jackie’s number called it a career (Jackie has a special plaque in Monument Park as well noting that No. 42 is retired league-wide). As part of the 50-minute celebration, Metallica played “Enter Sandman” live at the Stadium.

Six days after that, Mariano Rivera took the mound one last time for his final game at Yankee Stadium.

Mo got the final two outs in the eighth and came back for two more in the ninth. But Joe Girardi had a surprise up his sleeve rather than simply having Rivera finish the inning.

In one of the most heart-wrenching moments in Yankee Stadium history, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte came out to take Rivera out of the game. As John Sterling said, there was “not a dry eye in the house.”

Even today, more than a decade later, it’s hard not to get emotional watching Mo leave the mound for the last time.

Since retirement, Rivera has remained active around baseball. During his career, he won five “Rolaids Relief Man of the Year” honors. This was discontinued in 2013, and the following April, MLB revamped the process by naming the AL Reliever of the Year Award after Rivera and the NL version after Hoffman. The two pitchers sit on the committee that gives out the award.

Mo has appeared periodically as a guest instructor for the Yankees during spring training, and appeared at Old-Timers’ Day for the first time in 2019.

In 2016, the Yankees honored Rivera with a plaque in Monument Park.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

And finally, on January 22, 2019, Mariano Rivera became the first player unanimously elected by the BBWAA to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mariano Rivera was a unicorn. Playing a position known for its volatility and its short careers, Rivera was counted among the best of the best for almost two full decades. When he finally stepped away from the game, he was still pitching as well as he had been all the way back in ‘96, and in truth, if Mo wanted to return to the mound at the age of 54, I wouldn’t bet against him.

And he did it with a cutter, and only a cutter. Everybody in the stadium knew it was coming, but it didn’t matter. You couldn’t hit it, and if you did manage to hit it, you probably going hit a week groundball right at an infielder, and you probably needed a new bat the next time you came to the plate.

Very few people have done anything as well as Mariano Rivera threw a cutter. And that is why Mo isn’t just a Yankees great, but one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game.

Staff rank: 6
Community rank: 7
Stats rank: 16
2013 rank: 9


ABOUT MARIANO RIVERA.” The Mariano Rivera Foundation. Accessed January 29, 2024.

Anderson, Tanya. “Mariano Rivera Tears ACL, Likely Out For The Season.” Pinstripe Alley. May 4, 2012.

Antonen, Mel. “Yanks’ Rivera continues to learn.” USA Today. October 9, 2006.

Baseball Reference — 2003 ALCS New York Yankees over Boston Red Sox (4-3)

Baseball Reference — Mariano Rivera

BR Bullpen — Mariano Rivera

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Curry, Jack. “Scout Saw Effortless Ability in Rivera.” New York Times. July 5, 2009.

FanGraphs — Mariano Rivera

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From humble start, Rivera closes as baseball great.” September 27, 2013.

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King, George A. III. “IT’S A DEAL – MARIANO TO SIGN NEW CONTRACT.” New York Post. March 23, 2004.

Kussoy, Howie. “Mariano Rivera receives plaque in Yankee Stadium gala.” New York Post. August 14, 2016.

Mariano Rivera announces that he’ll retire at the end of the season.” Sports Illustrated. March 9, 2013.

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MLB Salary Rankings — Relief Pitchers 2024.” Spotrac. Accessed January 30, 2024.

Rivera, Mariano. Interview by Michael Kay. The Michael Kay Show. In ““No way” Mariano Rivera was leaving 2003 ALCS Game 7.” YouTube video. YESNetwork. March 5, 2018.

Rivera’s 500th save punctuates Yankees’ Subway Series sweep of Mets.” June 29, 2009.

Rivera’s broken bats are a broken record.” Yahoo! Sports. October 7, 2010.

Verducci, Tom. “Mariano Saves.” Sports Illustrated. October 5, 2009.

Waldstein, David. “The Boyhood Tides That Formed Baseball’s Sandman.” New York Times. September 25, 2013.

Winterhalt, Kevin. “25 Best Yankees Playoff Games of the Past 25 Years: The Aaron Boone Game.Pinstripe Alley. December 27, 2022.

Yankees’ payroll now stands at $110 million.” February 17, 2001.

Previously on the Top 100

8. Whitey Ford
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