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.
- By the time Rivera reached the mound, he had shed all of the elements of humanity inconvenient to his job. Rivera tuned out the fans, as if switching off a light, and mentally muted Yankee Stadium’s thumping sound system; Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” had been used as the accompanying music for his entrance for four years before he knew the lyrics....
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....
- Todd Helton led off for the Rockies. One of the most daunting hitters in either league, Helton is a left-handed first baseman with a lifetime batting average of .338 and 228 career home runs. With one more long ball, he could tie the game and disrupt the Yankees’ first good run of momentum (eleven wins in fourteen games) this year....
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.
- For Helton, however, the evening had greater significance:
- The next day, he said that Rivera was the best pitcher he had ever seen.
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 game’s dominant closer and arguably
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).
- Rivera has pitched on consecutive days eleven times this year, and in those games—
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.
- In 2003, he was named the American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player. In 1999, he was the World Series MVP.
- San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman, perhaps the game’s second-best active closer (366 career saves) takes the hosannas a step further: Rivera, he says,
- Rivera struck out 130 batters in 107 2⁄3 innings as a middle reliever in 1996, his first full season with the Yankees. He was promoted to the role of closer in 1997, and it was that year, Rivera says, that he began fiddling with his grip on the fastball, and developing the pitch that made his career.
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.
- But no pitcher in the modern game combines as much velocity and movement into one pitch.
- “The pitch is a freak of nature,” says former teammate turned Mets reliever Mike Stanton....
- He once went fourteen months without walking the first batter he faced upon entering games.
- Rivera broke 44 bats during the 2001 season, and
- some hitters have changed bats before facing him, using their second-favorite sticks so his cutter won’t wreck their best wood"....