What I learned from ... Mariano Rivera's memoir 'The Closer'
Mariano Rivera's memoir is selling well. But if you're too "busy" to read a whole book (or you're not an obsessive Yankees fan), we've got most of the highlights for you.
Who has time to read a whole book anyway?
By Rob Neyer
When Mariano Rivera’s memoir was first announced in the spring of 2013, you might have been excused for yawning. As Craig wrote, “I love Rivera as a player, but I’m struggling to think of what would pass for drama here.”
True, there’s not a great deal of drama. There is a great deal of detail about each of the Yankees’ World Series postseasons during Rivera’s career. If you just can’t get enough postseason play-by-play, or you just want to relive the glory years ... well, this book might be just the thing.
If not, I’ll give you a little drama here, a few highlights there ...
Mariano Rivera’s entire career seems an accident (or something). Growing up in Panama, he loved baseball but spent much of his time working for his father on a fishing boat. At least twice, he could have been killed; in fact, Mariano’s uncle suffered a fatal accident right next to him. When he did play baseball, he was an outfielder, and just happened to be pitching – for the first time in many years – when a scout just happened to be hanging around looking at another player. He hadn’t put a real baseball glove on his hand until he was 16. He’d been routinely beaten by his father: “As the oldest boy, I am his favorite target. Sometimes I feel as if I am my father’s personal piñata.” When the Yankees signed Rivera for $2,000, he was already 20 years old and weighed all of 150 pounds.
It must be one of the most unlikely Hall of Fame careers ever.
In Rivera’s first professional season, he’s ridiculously good. He doesn't really know how to pitch, having had almost no training at all. It doesn't matter:
But when I get in the game, I am usually ahead of the hitter, 1-2 or 0-2, by the time the announcer finishes saying my name. It goes that way pretty much the whole year... Tim Rumer is the club’s pitching star, one of the best guys in the Gulf Coast League, but with my very average fastball I have quite a run of success. This doesn’t surprise me. It shocks me. All around I see guys who are stronger than me and throw harder than me, and I am outperforming nearly all of them. It is almost an out-of-body experience. I get guy after guy out and think the same thing every time: How on earth am I doing this? The way everything is falling together is almost incomprehensible. First, I am supposed to be in the Dominican Republic, not Tampa, but the Yankees decided to bring me to spring training because I am already twenty... It has to be the work of the Lord. I am getting results way beyond my physical abilities.
That was in 1990.
Then he hurt his elbow. In 1991, Rivera moved up one level and pitched well, but did walk a “normal” number of batters. He moves up again in 1992, and works exclusively as a starter, walking only five batters in 59 innings. But his elbow’s hurting, especially when he throws his slider, and Rivera hits the disabled list in July. He comes back in August, his elbow really gives out, and here comes a visit to Frank Jobe.
"Dr. Jobe performs my surgery on August 27, 1992. It’s not a day that you’ll find commemorated anywhere in the annals of baseball history. It’s just the day I get my elbow cleaned up—and (I hope) a fresh, pain-free start to my pitching career."
Then something happened (nobody knows what, exactly). Rivera came back strong in 1993, and reached Triple-A Columbus in 1994 but struggled some. In 1995, he debuted with the big club but struggled some again. In June, both Rivera and teammate Derek Jeter get sent back to Columbus. Rivera’s shoulder is sore, and he goes on the DL for a couple of weeks. He comes back for a start against the Rochester Red Wings.
I smoke through the Red Wings in the first inning. In the dugout, my catcher, Jorge Posada, sits down next to me.
What did you eat today?
Because I’ve never seen you throw this hard. The ball is flying out of your hand.
I don’t know. I feel good, I reply.
I wind up throwing a rain-shortened, five-inning no-hitter. I walk one guy, and Jorge throws him out stealing, so I face the minimum fifteen batters.
Jorge tells me later that I was at 96 miles per hour all night and might’ve touched 97 or 98. It is a major jump that stuns people in the Yankee organization. Years later, I find out that Gene Michael, the Yankees general manager, got bulletins that night about how hard I was throwing.
Michael wanted to know, Was the gun working right? Do we know if this is accurate?
He checked with a scout who was at the game, and the scout confirmed it; his gun had 96 on it, too. Michael apparently was in the middle of talks with the Tigers to acquire David Wells. Once Michael confirmed the accuracy of the radar readings, I was no longer in the deal, or any other deal.
The night after my abbreviated no-hitter, Jorge and I and some of the other Clippers go to our regular dinner spot, Applebee’s. I have filet mignon and a loaded baked potato and vegetables.
Do you have any idea how you could go from throwing 88 to 90 to 96? I’ve never seen anything like it, Jorge says.
My shoulder is healthy, but there is only one answer. And it has nothing to do with increased filet mignon consumption. It is a gift from the Lord. I have known for a long time that He is using me for His own purposes, that He wants my pitching to help spread the good news about the Gospel of Jesus.
What else could it be? It makes no sense otherwise.
He’s tremendous in 1996 … without the cutter. In 61 games with the Yankees, Rivera posts a 2.09 ERA, giving up just one home run, in 108 innings (yes, back in the 1990s, relief pitchers still did things like that). He finished third in Cy Young balloting despite finishing with exactly five saves. And he did it all with essentially one pitch ... but not the cutter for which he would later become so famous. “It’s almost embarrassing,” Rivera writes, “but I still basically have a repertoire of one pitch, my years in the laboratory—trying to develop a trustworthy slider and serviceable changeup—having yielded no breakthrough. So my arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball... I bet I don’t throw even ten sliders the whole season. It doesn’t seem to matter. I have easy heat with late movement, and usually can put it exactly where I want.”
Then something else happened (nobody knows what, exactly). It’s late June in 1997, and Rivera’s having another great season, this time as the Yankees’ closer. Before a game in Detroit, he’s playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza.
My throw seems to surprise him. He has to move his glove at the last moment to catch it.
Hey, stop playing around, Ramiro says.
What are you talking about? I’m not playing around.
I’m talking about the ball you just threw. It almost hit me.”
I just threw a normal ball, I say.
Well, it didn’t look normal to me.
We keep playing catch. I throw the ball to him again and the same thing happens. It breaks about a foot right when it is on top of him, and again he almost misses it completely.
That’s what I’m talking about, he says. Stop doing that.
I promise in the name of the Lord I am not doing anything, I reply.
I make several more throws to Ramiro and every one of them has the same wicked movement at the end.
You better go find somebody else to catch you, he says, finally. I don’t want to get hurt.
He’s serious. Our game of catch is over.
Try as he might—and he actually tried, for some weeks—to throw his fastball straight, Rivera just can’t do it. So he finally gives in and accepts one of the greatest gifts that any pitcher’s ever been given.*
* But I will mention, just in passing, that Rivera was a tremendous pitcher before he couldn’t throw a straight fastball.
Rivera’s got some complicated feelings about drug use. Within the space of a page or two, he writes, “Taking PEDs is cheating, plain and simple. It robs the game of integrity and legitimacy.”
“I look at it very simply: We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Some worse than others, some far harder to forgive. But who am I to judge?”
Ruben Rivera’s still playing baseball. Remember him? Mariano’s cousin? Now remembered for “the worst baserunning in the history of the game”? Ruben last played in the majors in 2003. According to his older cousin, “Ruben is one of those young guys who just seem to be a little too taken with the fame and the adulation that come with being a gifted big league player. He parties a little too much, stays out too late, never quite shows the patience he needs to let his talent take hold.”
But as Mariano notes, Ruben wound up playing in Mexico for years, and starring there. Now 40, Rivera’s in his 10th season in the Mexican League, and once again he’s killing the ball.
Mariano Rivera’s first theme song was “Welcome to the Jungle.” At least until a “Stadium operations worker named Mike Luzzi” cues up Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” in 1999, and for some reason it sticks.
Rivera is prone to post facto analysis. When the Yankees squeak into the playoffs in 2000 but still manage to win the World Series, it’s because “you better know we are not ever going to get complacent and think that there’s no doubt we’re going to win because we’re the New York Yankees.”
When the Yankees lose the 2003 World Series, it’s because “We are not the same team we used to be. It’s not even close. The Marlins are fast and aggressive and play with spunk, but, I am sorry, those teams of ours that won four World Series in five years would’ve hammered them. They would’ve found a way, and willed their way through as a team. Because those were guys who cared more about winning than anything else. And it’s just not like that anymore.”
Hey, anything’s possible.
By the way, Rivera blew that save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for a reason. He had a tough time figuring out how all of those improbable events could happen. “I search for an answer as to why it unfolded the way it did.”
A week after Game 7, Rivera swung by Yankee Stadium. There, Joe Torre – Mr. T, as Rivera calls him – told Rivera that American Airlines Flight 587 had crashed in Queens, killing all 260 souls aboard.
It does not take me long to connect the dots. A dear friend and teammate of mine, Enrique Wilson, was booked on that flight, along with his wife and their two kids. When we didn’t win, there was no parade, no post-Series celebration to stick around for. So Enrique and his family took an earlier flight. Our losing had saved his life, his family’s lives. Please understand that I’m not suggesting the Lord cared about Enrique Wilson and his family and didn’t care about the people who did die that day. And I am certainly not saying Enrique’s life is more important than the lives that ended in the tragedy. I am simply saying that for whatever reason the Lord had his own play that day, and in effect said to Enrique that it was not his time to join him.
Rivera gave the Yankees a huge hometown discount. In 2007 or ’08, the Phillies offered Rivera a four-year, $64 million contract. “Do you know how long I consider that?” he writes. “For about half the time it takes you to read this page. The reason is very simple: I have never played the game for money.”
Instead he took $20 million less to stay with the Yankees.
Oh, and the 2004 Yankees also weren’t as good as the Yankees who won four World Series in five years. The Yankees, of course, became the first team in major-league history to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games. How could that possibly have happened? There must be a reason!
“It’s as tangible as the interlocking N and Y in our logo,” Rivera writes. “We are waiting for something bad to happen, mired in negative thinking. It’s another round of evidence of how the makeup of our team has changed. The guys from the championship years wouldn’t have succumbed to it. They would’ve found a way. This team does not.”
Dustin Pedroia > Robinson Cano If you’ve heard one thing about Rivera’s book, it’s probably this: “But if I have to win one game, I’d have a hard time taking anybody over Dustin Pedroia as my second baseman.”
That’s the quote you’ve probably seen. But later in the book, Rivera writes quite a lot more about Cano. He criticizes Cano’s occasional failure to hustle in the field, his occasional failure to hustle on the bases, his tendency to swing at the first pitch with the bases loaded.
How often do you see a player with this beautiful a swing, who can play this kind of defense, and hit for this kind of power? It’s amazing. He steps in the box and has those quiet hands and then uncoils and the hands come forward, so strong, so quick. You see him rip a ball into the gap, and you think: With a swing like this, you should hit .350 in your down years. That’s the kind of ability he has. It is all there for Robby Cano. I hope he goes and gets it.
Two things come to mind. One, nobody’s hit .350 in his down years since Ty Cobb. And two, I wonder if Rivera’s frustration with Cano’s occasional missteps might have cost him a smidgen of objectivity.
Management cost the 2013 Yankees a playoff spot. I think that’s the point, anyway. Derek Jeter played in only 17 games last season, which Rivera blames on management rushing Jeter back into the lineup. “If he doesn’t rush it and plays even fifty or seventy-five games,” Rivera writes, “the whole season plays out differently.”
Hey, anything’s possible. But the Yankees finished 6.5 games out in the Wild Card standings. For them to make up that ground, Jeter would have to have been the best shortstop in major-league history during those fifty or seventy-five games.
Rivera got off to a rough start in 2009 ... “My struggles, of course, bring a fresh round of panic that I am finished. It is almost comical. I love playing in New York, but it’s also the home office in overreaction. People are always searching for trends where none exist.”