Saturday, December 20, 2008


Inside the Mind of Baseball's Greatest Closer, Olney, NY Magazine, 6/21/04

'Confidence Man, Inside the Mind of Baseball's Greatest Closer,' adapted from the Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty by Buster Olney, New York Magazine, 6/21/04

"The doors to the Yankee Stadium bullpen swung open in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, June 8, and Mariano Rivera felt a surge of adrenaline as he stepped through, the sensation fueled by the roar of the crowd. Rivera trotted steadily toward the infield, head down, his glove in his right hand, his face, as usual, fixed in the unaffected expression of a Customs agent.

The score was 2-1, the Yankees leading the Colorado Rockies, but that was immaterial. Rivera believes his purpose is the same, no matter the situation: Retire the hitter who is standing in the batter’s box as quickly as possible....

This was the first time Rivera and Helton had faced each other, and with his first pitch, Rivera, predictably, threw Helton a cutter. The Rockies’ slugger stepped into his swing—and the pitch banked inward. Helton missed badly, strike one, and Rivera could see that Helton was shocked. Helton took the next pitch for a ball, before hacking at another cutter, grounding out weakly in front of home plate.

Rivera recorded the final two outs with just ten pitches, notching his 24th save of the season,... Rivera smiled a little, exchanged high-fives with his teammates, and vanished into the dugout. Just another win. No big deal.

A summer afternoon of baseball ought to be nothing if not relaxing, and no other player can instill calm in his team’s fans as reliably as Mariano Rivera,

The closer’s role is to enter the game with slim leads in the final innings and finish off the other team, ideally with a minimum of drama. In the modern game, the closer’s role is more important than ever because starting pitchers tend not to pitch past the seventh inning, forcing relievers to work more often....

Heading into this summer, Rivera is having his finest season. His current earned-run average is 1.01, the lowest of his career. He has faced 37 hitters with runners in scoring position and allowed only four hits (that’s a .108 batting average for opponents).

when he should be weary—he has not allowed any runs (he injured his back last week, but it appears to be just a tweak). Of his 27 save chances, he has converted 26.

But those are regular-season numbers. Rivera has made his reputation in the postseason. In the past nine Octobers, Rivera has amassed 21 playoff and 9 World Series saves—twice as many postseason saves as the No. 2 pitcher in this category, Dennis Eckersley, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next month. Rivera has pitched 96 postseason innings, over 61 games, and surrendered only eight earned runs, for a 0.75 ERA.

Many of Rivera’s peers, and at least one of his former teammates, believe that he, more than any other player, is responsible for the Yankees’ four World Series titles in the Joe Torre era....
His presence in the postseason is so strong that the other team knows that if they’re losing in the eighth inning, they are going to lose.”...

If Rivera is the player who has been the difference between the Yankees’ being merely very good and their being truly great over the past decade, it is the cut fastball that has distinguished Rivera....

A cut fastball is a hybrid, with the pitcher releasing a fastball with slightly more spin, causing a ripple of movement sideways as the ball reaches home plate. Batters will sometimes confuse the cutter with a slider.

There is no confusing Rivera’s cutter, however, because it moves dramatically, like a sharp slider, swerving away from right-handed batters and into left-handed batters—and Rivera throws his cutter at 94 to 96 mph. Some pitchers throw harder, some throw breaking balls with more movement.

And Rivera, who had grown up throwing stones on the beaches of Panama, can guide the cutter with remarkable control.

From Buster Olney's NY Magazine article 6/21/04, adapted from his book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty." photo: Globe, from NY Magazine

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