Saturday, October 13, 2007
"Rivera might be the most under-covered superstar in the history of New York sports"-- IAN O'CONNOR
"If Joe Torre is spared next week in Tampa, pulled from the public choke hold George Steinbrenner slapped on his career, the reliable people at the Elias Sports Bureau will be busy addressing this precedent-setting question:
- Should Mariano Rivera be credited with an official save?
It would be the 35th postseason save of Rivera's remarkable career, and the first to be recorded after the Yankees were bounced from the tournament.
- It also would represent irrefutable evidence that the closer always had the soul of a starter, the conviction of a man hired to follow and yet wired to lead.
At the end of a wild and crazy week even by Bronx-Is-Burning standards, this is what I'll remember most:
- The quietest Yankee made the loudest noise when he had the most to lose.
Without a contract to cover him for next season, without a captain and shortstop around to watch his back, Rivera walked into his clubhouse the other day and acted like Torre had just handed him the ball to start the ninth.
He threw his nasty cutters, staying true to his core. Rivera said he might not re-sign with the only franchise he's ever known if his manager isn't re-signed, too.
Sure, other Yankees have expressed their support for Torre in the days following the AL Division Series loss to Cleveland. But Andy Phillips and Doug Mientkiewicz aren't first-ballot Hall of Famers, and the teammate who is, Roger Clemens, can say whatever he wants from the manicured sanctuary of a faraway golf course: He's almost certainly done as a Yankee.
- Rivera's been around long enough to know what he was walking into on his post-Game 4 return to the Stadium, and who wouldn't be walking into it with him. In the immediate wake of playoff elimination, the big stars – the Alex Rodriguezes, the Derek Jeters – almost never subject themselves to the Hefty-bag, box-'em-up clubhouse ritual that includes one final grilling before the notebooks and mikes.
So nobody was surprised when the likes of Phillips and Mientkiewicz were left to field questions in the Bronx they shouldn't be fielding, while Jeter, the captain, was holed up somewhere in Manhattan, doing whatever princes of the city do.
- Rivera isn't working on the kind of deal Jeter has -- $189 million – and isn't about to receive the kind of deal A-Rod will -- $189 gazillion – and yet he decided to put his mouth where his money isn't. The free agent closer saw an opportunity to help keep Torre in the game, an opportunity he likely knew Jeter wouldn't take, so he stepped into the media gauntlet and simply spoke from the heart.
"I don't feel good about it," Rivera said of the very real possibility Steinbrenner could take Torre's job. "I don't see why they're even thinking [about it]. I wish he's back, definitely. If you ask me what I would want, I want him back.
"The thing is that I don't see why they have to put [Torre] in this position."
Asked if Torre's status would determine whether he wanted to remain with the Yankees, the closer said, "It might do a lot of it."
Rivera's comments made big news, which was fitting: He's always been the subject of more stories on the days he doesn't pitch.
- Only because he appears so late in games, after deadline-pressed chroniclers have jumped into earlier-arriving lifeboats, Rivera might be the most under-covered superstar in the history of New York sports.
His near-silent grace is part of that equation, too. Rivera would be the last of the Yankees to bluster his way onto the front or back pages of the city tabs; it's not the way he was raised.
- But the Yankees angered him by refusing to offer a contract extension, by choosing to wait until his deal (or his arm) expired. Long before Steinbrenner closed in on Torre, Rivera was reminded that he was an aging employee of a bottom-line business. He had to deliver another 30 saves this season to prove his worth.
His pride wounded, Rivera wanted everyone to know that he would listen to all offers and that the Yankees wouldn't be getting any hometown discount. Deep down, nobody truly believed him. The consensus has Rivera retiring a Yank.
- The closer still took a risk when he backed Torre as decisively as he did. Steinbrenner and his aides could hold it against Rivera at the bargaining table.
Rivera won't buckle, anyway; he didn't save 443 regular-season games (477 including postseason, sm) and help his team to four World Series championships for nothing. He's a man of conscience over cowardice, substance over style.
Rivera has weathered everything from the Sandy Alomar Jr. homer to the Luis Gonzalez bloop to the historic collapse of 2004.
"The special ones like Mo," Torre said, "respond to every test."
- The closer aced this latest exam. Jeter, meanwhile, was completely embarrassed by David Ortiz, the rival slugger who gave Torre a bigger endorsement than the Yankee captain ever did.
Will the manager somehow survive to see opening day, 2008?
- Either way, credit the great Mariano Rivera with his classiest save."
- Column by Ian O'Connor, North Jersey (Bergen) Record, "Rivera's Message to Yanks Proved Loyalty to Torre," 10/13/07