Mariano Rivera: One of a kind

By Rostrongerto Salvador Klapisch

Hall of Famer Chipper Jones once called Mariano Rivera’s cut-fastball a buzz saw for its ability to destroy hitters’ confidence and, more specifically, their bats. The occasion was the 1999 World Series, when Rivera held the Braves scoreless in his three appearances.

But really, bowing down to the Yankees’ closer was a timeless act. Anyone stepping to the plate during Rivera’s 19-year career would’ve been haunted by the same scouting report: Good luck; you’ll need it.

The numbers tell the same compelling story. Rivera didn’t just make history with his 652 career saves. He also compiled an inhuman 0.70 ERA in the postseason. The Panamanian righthander was a terrifying mix of talent and grace and guts, which prompted Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre to state the obvious during the Yankees’ late 90s golden era.

“There’s no (pitcher) I trust more when the game is on the line.” – Joe Torre

For that Rivera is headed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but the path to Cooperstown, N.Y., is paved by more than just data. It’s how Rivera defeated his opponents, which is to say, how effortlessly he did it. The man needed one pitch – that cutter – that was so difficult to solve it belonged in a higher league, like Rivera himself.

Singular dominance

Every year at the All-Star Game – he was named to the American League squad 13 times – pitchers from both leagues would seek out the legend for a glimpse of his greatness. Everyone came to Rivera with the same question, asked with the same humility and lack of embarrassment: Just how did Mariano affect that killer, last-second movement?

This was no small curiosity. Hurlers up and down the competitive ladder – from high school to Cy Young Award winners – all chase that holy grail, disguising the lateral movement to look like a fastball until the very last moment. Rivera was happy to share his secret, holding tutorials in the outfield during batting practice. That’s not to say everyone (or anyone) ever duplicated it.

After all, it was Puerto Rican catcher Jorge Posada who called Rivera “a freak.” As lean as a greyhound, without especially powerful legs or shoulders and utterly gimmick-free, the righthander created the same illusion over and over. What looked like a four-seamer out of Rivera’s hand would morph into a vicious cutter in the last five feet to home plate, at which point it was too late for an opponent to adjust. That was the equivalent of a hitter signing his death notice.

“You think you’re swinging at the fastball, until you look down and see your bat is broken,” Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz once said of Rivera’s cutter.

“That’s when you realize, (Rivera) got me again. Even when you know it’s coming, you can’t defend against it.”  – David Ortiz

That’s it?

Of Rivera’s many blessings, the most important was the size of his hands and the length of his fingers. They could span several octaves on a piano. Forget about greeting Rivera because your paws would disappear in a handshake. Still, there had to be more to his voodoo than just superior hardware. I finally approached Rivera one afternoon in the Bronx, asking if he could mentor a fellow pitcher.

We both laughed at the implied joke. I pitched, yes: in college at Columbia University and in a semi-pro league in New Jersey – still do. But me asking Rivera for lessons was like someone who’d learned “Chopsticks” sidling up to Mozart for a one-on-one. But wouldn’t you know, Rivera was gracious enough to agree.

He produced a brand-new baseball from his locker – a pearl. The lesson had begun.

“I throw it like a four-seamer,” he said. “But I slide my thumb underneath to the right.”

“That’s it?” I asked. The off-center position of the thumb created an imbalance in the grip. Now I understood: Rivera created spin without requiring a twisting of his wrist or any particular finger pressure. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Still I had to ask again.

“Really, that’s it?” I asked. “There’s nothing else?”

“That’s it,” he said. “All you have to do now is throw it.”

He paused.

“Throw it,” he said, “and TRUST it.”

We spent a few more minutes at his locker. Rivera kept coming back to the same theme: mechanics and velocity were no match for confidence in one’s self. Throwing a cutter like Rivera’s was a lot like juggling: it looked easy until you tried it yourself.

The cutter’s success was never about the tools, at least not the ones that could be tweaked on a mound. It was all in Rivera’s head and his heart. That gift never ran out, not even at the end.

Rivera bestowed upon us the beauty of never having a decline phase. Think of it: even at age 42 in his final season, he was as athletic as he was in his “Core Four” days. Whatever Rivera sacrificed in velocity was reclaimed in precision and guts and, as always, that brilliance under pressure.

Torre was right: the man who believed in trust was the most trustworthy of them all. Here comes Cooperstown.

Featured Image: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images Sport