Lulling hitters into a false security with his fluid, effortless-looking delivery, Mariano Rivera’s explosive fastball thrust him into a critical role on the 1996 World Champion Yankees with less than half a year of major-league experience. A year later, he established himself one of the league’s top closers after reigning World Series MVP John Wetteland signed with the Texas Rangers.
The son of a fisherman, Rivera was born in 1969 in Panama City, Panama. He signed with the Yankees in February of 1990 and immediately opened some eyes by posting a 0.17 ERA in 52 innings for the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate in Tampa.
In the minor leagues, Rivera rarely spent time in the bullpen. His major league debut in May 1995 came as a starter, facing All-Star lefthander Chuck Finley in Anaheim Stadium. Finley struck out 15 as the Angels pasted Rivera for five runs and eight hits in 3 1/3 innings. But Rivera picked up his first major league win five days later against the A’s in a 4-1 win at the Oakland Coliseum.
In his first season with New York, Rivera appeared in nineteen games, starting ten, and although he finished with a 5.51 ERA he showed flashes of his burgeoning talent. His most impressive start of the season came against Chicago on July 4, when he struck out eleven White Sox (the most by a Yankee rookie since Al Leiter in 1988) in a two-hit shutout at Comiskey Park.
Rivera, who spent most of the month of June in Columbus, nursing a sore shoulder, had nearly been traded to the slumping Detroit Tigers for starter David Wells. “I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no,” Yankee GM Gene Michael said of the Tigers’ offer. “I’m glad I didn’t have to.” When Rivera’s velocity hit 96 MPH in a rain-shortened, five-inning no-hitter in Triple-A, Michael’s mind was made up. Rivera was staying.
By the end of the season, Rivera had shown manager Buck Showalter enough for the Yankee skipper to keep him on the team’s post-season roster when New York clinched a wild-card berth. In the Yankees’ harrowing five-game loss to Seattle in the Division Series, Rivera came of age. Pitching three times against a fearsome Mariners lineup, Rivera was the Yankees’ most reliable arm in the series, hurling 5 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out eight, including a key whiff of Mike Blowers with the bases loaded in Game Five.
By the following season, the Yankees had concluded that Rivera wouldn’t survive as a starter without another dependable pitch to complement his devastating fastball. When Rivera began mowing down American League hitters with regularity, shifting the slender right-hander to the bullpen looked like a stroke of genius. Although Rivera occasionally worked in a slider or changeup, he relied almost exclusively on a rising fastball that routinely topped 95 miles per hour. With little need to throw pitches out of the strike zone, Rivera simply dared batters to hit the fastball. Far more often than not, they couldn’t.
As the setup man for closer John Wetteland, Rivera gave the Yankees an airtight bullpen tandem. Most often, if New York could keep a lead through six innings, the game was over. Rivera would pitch the seventh and eighth, and Wetteland closed the door in the ninth. Indeed, Rivera enjoyed such dominance in his new setup role that people began touting him as a Cy Young and MVP candidate.
His numbers for the year were eye-popping. His 130 strikeouts were the most ever for a Yankee reliever. In 107 2/3 innings Rivera allowed just 73 hits (right handed batters hit just .157 against him) and only one home run. While winning eight games and saving five against three defeats, Rivera posted a 2.09 ERA. From April 19 through May 21 he threw 26 consecutive scoreless innings, a stretch which included fifteen straight hitless innings. Only ten of 61 first batters he faced that season managed to reach base.
In the playoffs that season, Rivera was even better. He pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against Texas in the Divisional Series, and hung up four goose eggs against Baltimore in the League Championship Series (picking up the win with two innings in New York’s Game One, Jeffrey Maier-aided triumph). “Reminded me of myself a long time ago,” said teammate Dwight Gooden of Rivera’s performance. In the World Series against the heavily favored Atlanta Braves, Rivera allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings, pitching a scoreless eighth in the Yankees’ 3-2 title-clinching win in Game Six.
Although 1997 wasn’t the unqualified success the previous season had been, it was a crucial year in the course of Rivera’s career. John Wetteland had signed with Texas in December 1996, leaving the Yankees’ ninth-inning fortunes in Rivera’s hands. At first, Rivera struggled with the pressure of his new role, blowing three of his first four save opportunities, including the home opener. But Rivera righted himself soon enough; his 27 saves at the midseason break earned him his first trip to the All-Star Game. By retiring Charles Johnson, Mark Grace, and Moises Alou, Rivera became the first Yankee to save a Midsummer Classic. For the season he ended up with 43 saves in 52 chances; although his ERA dropped to 1.88, opponents’ batting average rose from .189 to .237 and his strikeout totals fell below one an inning.
Probably the worst moment of Rivera’s young career came in Game Four of a Division Series dogfight against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field. The Yankees led the Series two games to one, and were four outs away from advancing to the LCS when Torre called on Rivera to take over from Mike Stanton to preserve a one-run lead against the Tribe. Rivera promptly gave up an opposite-field home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. that fell just beyond the reach of rightfielder Paul O’Neill, tying the game and reviving the Indians. Cleveland won the game in the bottom of the ninth and pulled out another close victory in Game Five to send the discouraged New Yorkers home for the winter.
Forged in the crucible of that bitter defeat, however, was the resolution that inspired an extraordinary 1998 season. Rivera, now fully acclimated to the closer’s role, saved 36 games in 41 opportunities, allowing just 48 hits in 61 1/3 innings as the Yankees set an American League record with 114 wins. The playoffs seemed a mere formality, and the Yankees lost just two games en route to their 24th world championship. Rivera, whose first cousin Ruben sat in the opposing dugout for the NL Champion Padres, was at his dominating best, allowing no runs while saving three games.
1999 brought more of the same for the man now generally regarded as the top closer in baseball. He saved 45 games out of 49 opportunities, including his final 22 chances. By developing a cut fastball, Rivera became a more efficient pitcher, relying less on strikeouts and more on the aid of his defense. Winning his third world championship with the Yankees, Rivera was awarded World Series MVP for collecting two saves and one victory against the Atlanta Braves. After tossing 12 scoreless innings in the Yankees’ playoff run, his career 0.38 post-season ERA (two runs in 47 1/3 innings) ranked as the lowest in baseball history.
A deeply religious man, Rivera financed the construction of a church in his native Panama City and can often be seen reading the Bible in the Yankees’ clubhouse. At a church service honoring him in Panama after the 1999 season, he announced that he would spend four more years in baseball and then retire to become an evangelical minister.
Despite losing in arbitration to the Yankees in February 2000, Rivera’s new $7.25 million contract was the most money ever awarded in an arbitration settlement.