O’Connor: Mo’s poise under pressure unrivaled

Mariano Rivera’s Legacy
Buster Olney talks about Mariano Rivera’s legacy after setting the major league record with his 602nd saveTags: SportsCenter, Rivera, 602 Saves, MLB record

Mariano Rivera’s Legacy

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  • Mariano Rivera’s Legacy
    Mariano Rivera’s Legacy
    Buster Olney talks about Mariano Rivera’s legacy after setting the major league record with his 602nd saveTags: SportsCenter, Rivera, 602 Saves, MLB record

  • Rivera Sets Saves Mark
    Rivera Sets Saves Mark
    Mariano Rivera set the major league record with his 602nd career save Monday vs the TwinsTags: Highlights, Twins-Yankees, Yanks, 602 Saves

  • Does Rivera Deserve Mt. Rushmore Status?
    Does Rivera Deserve Mt. Rushmore Status?
    Buster Olney and Chris Singleton share their versions of a New York Yankees Mount RushmoreTags: rivera, yankees, rushmore

  • Mulder On Rivera
    Mulder On Rivera
    Baseball Tonight’s Mark Mulder explains why Mariano Rivera is so dominantTags: New York Yankees; Mariano Rivera; Mark Mulder

Mark Newman was waiting in a Washington, D.C., airport in 1990, traveling as an instruction coordinator for the New York Yankees when he suddenly heard his name paged on the terminal speakers.

Newman had no idea who was tracking him down, or why. Was it the banned George Steinbrenner? Gene Michael? A scout with a lead on a kid?

Newman picked up the phone, and the young man on the other end cut right to it.

“When do I get my $500?” Mariano Rivera asked.

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The 20-year-old reliever had just handled his first pressure situation as a Yankees farmhand with the greatest of ease. Rivera needed to go five innings in his final Gulf Coast League game to qualify for the ERA title, so the club decided to make him a starter for the day.

He threw seven no-hit innings against Bradenton, finished the season with a 0.17 ERA, and couldn’t wait to collect the watch and cash bonus the Yankees were offering their farmhands for reaching milestones back then.

“And that $500 was huge to Mariano or any kid trying to help feed his family,” Newman said. “Plaques are nice, but you can’t eat them. I don’t know if Mo felt greater pressure in the ninth inning of a World Series game, or when he was a young guy trying to get his $500 check as fast as he could or rehabbing his elbow after surgery [in 1992] so he didn’t have to go back to Panama and be a fisherman.”

Mariano Rivera, 41-year-old son of a fisherman, turned out to be the biggest catch of all. His 602nd career save, a major league record, made official something that didn’t require any statistical validation: Nobody has ever closed games like the ageless Mo.

A scout named Herb Raybourn signed the converted shortstop for a few lousy grand, and Rivera went on to earn more than $100 million as a Yankee. But even though Rivera started out with a branch for a bat, a milk carton for a glove, and a taped-up anything for a ball, and later acquired all the big-city trappings of fortune and fame, money never made him the ultimate money player.

Serenity did.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Tony Ranze/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera … a Colorado Rockie? Once an afterthought, the greatest closer of all time was left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft.

“That serene quality and ability to stay poised and focused in the middle of a hurricane in terms of pressure,” said Newman, now the Yankees’ senior VP of baseball operations. “Pete Rose and Jack Nicklaus are the greatest concentrators I’ve ever seen, and I’d put Mo right in that group.”

Much like his fellow five-time champ, Derek Jeter, Rivera opened his professional career as something of an emotional wreck. In the summer of 1992, right after he signed for $800,000 as the sixth pick in the draft, the teenage Jeter — homesick and overmatched by the rookie ball competition — would call his parents in the middle of the night before crying himself to sleep.

Two years earlier, Rivera was crying and calling his girlfriend, now his wife (he didn’t want to worry his parents in Panama), distraught over his inability to speak English and communicate with teammates, coaches and staff.

Only Rivera wasn’t a Jeter-like prodigy, not even close. He went through surgery before the Yankees left him unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft.

“A great moment in Yankee history,” Newman joked. “But Mariano wasn’t even in the discussion then. He wasn’t a consideration. We were just worried about losing three big leaguers in Brad Ausmus, Carl Everett and Charlie Hayes in that draft.”

Newman saw the pitcher struggle through his elbow rehab and sensed Rivera worried he might end up back in his fishing village of Puerto Caimito. Mariano started his recovery in ’93 in Class A-Greensboro, where the team’s official scorer, Ogi Overman, said, “I thought Rivera was on a one-way trip to nowhere.”

The Greensboro owner, John Horshok, said Rivera was so low on cash that the pitcher sold him a signed photo of Billy Martin for 50 bucks. Mariano was nobody’s idea of a bonus baby. In the coming years, even as Rivera graduated to Double-A and Triple-A, Yankees general manager Gene Michael didn’t see a prospect to write home about.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera & Derek Jeter
Brian J. Myers-US PRESSWIRERivera, who came up through the Yankees’ farm system with the far more highly touted Derek Jeter, wouldn’t have five World Series rings if he didn’t show such legendary grace under fire.

“He had a straight fastball and no cutter and no movement,” Michael said. “He was mediocre at best.”

And then one day it happened, according to the devoutly religious Rivera, by the grace of God. Michael received a report out of Columbus in 1995 that had Rivera’s fastball topping out at 96 miles per hour, or 5-6 mph faster than the norm.

Michael started working the phones for verification. The Yankees were interested in trading for Detroit’s David Wells, and they knew the Tigers were interested in Rivera, so Michael called Tigers scout Jerry Walker to check the readings on his radar gun.

To cloak his intentions, the Yankees executive asked Walker about four or five players before getting to Rivera. The Detroit scout confirmed that he had Rivera around 96 mph, and soon enough Michael was watching Mariano shut down the White Sox on the Fourth of July, striking out 11 and allowing two hits over eight scoreless innings.

“When we signed Mariano in 1990,” Newman said, “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘This guy is going to be a major leaguer.’ He was a very good athlete and he could throw it over the plate, but nobody wrote out the Mariano development plan that said he would someday throw 98 miles per hour, have the finest control on the face of the planet, would learn a cutter and, oh by the way, that’s all he’s going to throw.”

Yankee fans know the narrative from there. Rivera went back to the pen, and Buck Showalter didn’t know what he had in time to trust the reliever to win the epic playoff series with Seattle.

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Mariano became an indomitable setup man for John Wetteland, the 1996 World Series MVP. Mo replaced Wetteland in ’97. Mo would spend the rest of his career wearing Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 with all of Robinson’s grace.

He failed to get the Yankees home in 1997, 2001, and 2004, but as Rivera said earlier this season, “Hey, I’d take my percentage. It’s not 100 out of 100, but it’s 95 out of 100. Would you take that?”

Who wouldn’t? Rivera has an ERA of 0.71 and 42 saves in the postseason, including that epic run of 23 in a row. “A once-in-a-lifetime player,” Jeter called him.

When the Captain was asked if Rivera was the greatest Yankee he’d ever played with, this after Mo’s 500th save, Jeter offered none of his usual waffling. “Yes,” he said. “No question.”

With one lethal weapon, the cutter, Rivera became the first pitcher to appear in 1,000 games with the same team. He doesn’t throw it with the same velocity anymore, just with the same precision and faith.

“I’ve never been a player that has doubts,” he said.

Even with a fire raging beneath his ice, Rivera might as well wear a bow tie on the mound. He stands among the game’s most dignified figures, refusing to celebrate the final out with some self-congratulatory dance.

Rivera has always preferred to kill his opponents softly, serenely. Over 17 seasons, that approach landed him in a league of his own.

Ian O’Connor is the author of “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.” Sunday Morning with Ian O’Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.

Follow Ian O’Connor on Twitter: @Ian_OConnor

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