2009 SN PRO ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
MARIANO RIVERA CLOSER, NEW YORK YANKEES
sets me apart from some of the others—
you have to
respect the game A lot of things put Mariano Rivera in a league of his own, but as the Yankees made their way to a long-awaited 27th World Series title, one stood out: Not one of the team’s many stars was as automatic as its closer
ong before there was the cut fastball with which he became the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, there were the rocks and shells of Panama City, Panama. “Especially those scallop shells,” recalls Mariano Rivera. “I learned to pitch by throwing them. They moved like crazy.” The spasmodic, unpredictable movement of his pitches has long been a fascinating juxtaposition with Rivera himself—a stone-faced fixture for nearly a decade and a half at the back of the Yankees bullpen. Now 40 and a five-time World Series champion, Rivera was never better than he was in his 15th big league season, when his accomplishments included: Becoming the second pitcher, after Trevor Hoffman, to save 500 games. Converting 36 consecutive save opportunities, a personal best. Saving a record fourth All-Star Game. Improving, with five saves and one run allowed in 16 innings in the 2009 playoffs, his postseason records for both saves (39) and ERA (0.74). On an early-December morning in the kitchen of his new home in Rye, N.Y., Rivera spoke with Sporting News’ Steve Greenberg.
Photo by Bob Leverone / SN SN: How long did those nine years between championships feel like?
RIVERA: It felt long—especially the year 2008 when we didn’t even make the playoffs. That was horrible. But at the same time, I think the organization realized we had to do something special, something different, and that’s why they brought in the two best starting pitchers (CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett) that were on the market at the time and then the best first baseman (Mark Teixeira) that was on the market; to me, he’s the best first baseman in the game, period. That gave us more weapons to play with, and the result of that was the championship. SN: Did you ever doubt you’d get to
walk to the mound to try to close out another title?
RIVERA: Oh, no, no, I never thought like that. I’m a person who always believes that
every year I’m going to have the opportunity to be in the World Series. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but I’m always optimistic. SN: In what ways was the 2009
Mariano different from the 2000 Mariano? RIVERA: More mature, definitely. A little older, but with that I appreciate everything. I really, really enjoyed this one. I didn’t say I didn’t enjoy the other ones, but this one to me was special. Nine years, the first year in a new stadium, a new challenge, a lot of new faces on the team—and we went for it. And we had to overcome a lot of things on the way: a lot of injuries, and the team didn’t start the way we were supposed to start. The first half was gone, and we weren’t doing as well as we wanted to do. But then the second half started and we picked it up, and thank God we never looked back. SPORTINGNEWS.COM 12/21/2009
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SN CONVERSATION SN: Was your 20th season in the Yankees
organization your most rewarding one?
RIVERA: One of the most rewarding ones, definitely, especially because (last October) I had shoulder surgery. That was a challenge. I came into spring training expecting good things but knowing that I just had a few months (to get ready). And it was hard. It was difficult. But with a professional player or any regular person, I don’t think you should back up from a challenge; you have to confront it, you have to face it and see what you can do. So I did that. Even though I had a good spring, it was painful. And then the season started and (instead of) doing my rehab somewhere else, I was doing it in the season. The first month was kind of tough; I wasn’t throwing as well as I’m supposed to throw. But I didn’t feel down at all. I continued to work, continued to be mentally strong … and (eventually) I was able to throw the ball the way I wanted to. This is about as much emotion as you’ll get out of Rivera after a save—even one in Game 3 of the World Series.
have been able to peak at the most important time of year, throughout your career—and that you did it at your age?
RIVERA: In the playoffs, you’re talking about something that not many players have the opportunity to be in—and I’m talking about great players, not just average players. And I’ve been blessed to be able to be in the playoffs for many years and do the job in all those years. I think that says it alone—it’s the playoffs. You don’t want to miss that; you want to be in the middle of it. And when you realize that’s your makeup, your ability, your mind, your mentality, you just want to keep going and going and going and never stop. But I have to bring the Lord into this conversation, into all my conversations, because He is my strength. It’s a long season, and there are a lot of prayers.
SN: What do you pray for? RIVERA: Every time I walk to the mound, I say my prayer. I just tell the Lord to just take control. It’s not me out there; it’s Him. “I’m just the vessel; use me the way You want to use me.” And sometimes it doesn’t go my way, but I still thank God for it.
JUST ONE QUESTION For Yankees catcher Jorge Posada:
Was Mariano Rivera as good in 2009 as he was during the Yankees’ run of four World Series titles from 1996-2000?
“First of all, he’s a freak of nature. I don’t think we’re ever going to see anybody who’s as consistent and as good as he is. … He isn’t as good physically as he was 10 years ago—his velocity is down 2 or 3 miles per hour—but he’s better mentally; he’s a stronger person. He’s in a good place in his life. I think he could still close games five, six years from now, but I doubt that’s what Mario wants. He doesn’t want to hurt his legacy at all.” — Steve Greenberg
SN: You have talked about pitching
another several years, during which time you would have a terrific chance to set baseball’s all-time record for saves. Is that the statistical achievement you’d be most proud of?
RIVERA: You know what? I’m OK with whatever happens. I’m not a guy who goes looking for numbers or chasing records. I’m not that kind of person, not that kind of player. I’m a player who wants to win for the team because it’s not about myself; it’s about the New York Yankees—25 players going out there and playing hard, day in and day out. And it would be unfair for me to just think about me for even one minute. SN: When will you pass the torch, and to whom?
RIVERA: I don’t know when I’ll be able to pass the torch. That’s hard for me. But you have to be able to recognize when you aren’t successful anymore. Thank God I’ve been successful to date, but I don’t know how long the Lord will want me to do this. It’s a lot, and it involves your family, too. I’m away a lot. And it’s hard when you don’t see your kids, you don’t see your wife, for such a long time.
SN: What if you have most of it—if you’re still good enough to do what most closers can do?
RIVERA: I want to be able to succeed the same way I’ve been doing it for years. I want to be able to keep up that same level. If I cannot keep up that level, that means that I cannot do the job for the New York Yankees.
SN: You’ll be a free agent after the 2010 season. Would you ever pitch for another team?
RIVERA: With all the respect that all the organizations deserve, it would be hard for me to consider playing for another team. If the opportunities are there, then you don’t know. But I believe the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to play for one team. SN: Who is your successor from across
baseball—the next great closer?
RIVERA: There are many good closers. You have Joe Nathan, (Jonathan) Papelbon, (Francisco) Rodriguez.
SN: Did turning 40 make you think more deeply about that?
RIVERA: Oh, I’ve been thinking about that a lot—a lot. But I don’t want to leave the game and think, Man, I shouldn’t have done it. I should have played another year or two. I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure that when I leave the game, this is it. I’m not going to go back. I may go back to teach, but not to play it. SN: Would you hang it up sooner than
expected if you started to fade?
RIVERA: There’s no discussion. The minute I know that I don’t have it, I hang it up right there.
Jeter (left) is the face of the Yankees, but a quieter Rivera is a leader in his own right.
RIVERA WITH POSADA: ERIC GAY / AP; RIVERA WITH JETER: DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP
SN: What does it say about you that you
SEE A DIFFERENT GAME 12/21/2009
12/13/09 8:35:09 PM
You have the kid (Andrew Bailey) who just won the rookie of the year from the A’s. You have Joakim Soria from the Kansas City Royals. (Brian) Fuentes from Anaheim. You have a lot of good guys that can do a great job there, and I always wish them the best. It’s not easy to do what we do.
‘YOU CAN SHOW EMOTION—I SHOW EMOTION ONCE IN A WHILE—BUT TO DISRESPECT THE OTHER TEAM OR DISRESPECT BASEBALL, IT’S UNACCEPTABLE.’
SN: Whoever it is, would you like to see
him get that last out and calmly shake the catcher’s hand—to show that respect for the game that you’ve demonstrated on the biggest stage?
RIVERA: I think that’s what sets me apart from some of the others. You have to respect the game. You’ll go someday, and the game will continue without you. You can show emotion—I show emotion once in a while— but to disrespect the other team or disrespect baseball, it’s unacceptable. That’s why, when I do my job, I just thank God for it and go and shake my catcher’s hand. That day is over; tomorrow’s another day. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. SN: What else do you stand for as a
RIVERA: The way I treat my teammates and my colleagues from other teams—I respect them. I always want to make sure that when I retire, the legacy that I leave is I tried my best to play the game the right way and to teach others, be there for others. I don’t believe you’re just there for yourself. You have to be a role model, to open up and help others, be able to share ideas and things like that. I want (to be remembered as) a man who always tried to do his job and made sure that others did their job, too. SN: Aren’t you the closest thing there is to being a perfect baseball player?
RIVERA: I’m not a perfect man. I’m not. I make a lot of mistakes. But guess what? I want to work toward perfection, I want to be a better man, a better husband, a better friend, a better teammate. All those things I can be better at, and I want to be. I don’t believe you can stop at one point and say, “I feel comfortable here.” I don’t want to feel comfortable. I want to see what’s out there, what I can reach. That’s me. I don’t think I’ve even started to experience the wonders that He has for myself.”
terms of what I have done for the team. I don’t even think about it. I just try to help my teammates as much as I can. I don’t care if they don’t give me credit. As long as we win, as long as what I did helped them to be better, that makes me happy. SN: You are called a “one-pitch pitcher” by
many—your cutter being the most famous pitch of your generation. Do you ever worry about waking up someday and not being able to throw it anymore?
RIVERA: (Laughs) I’m not a man who thinks like that. Being worried about the cutter (not being) there anymore? I didn’t learn it by somebody teaching me. It came by the Lord. So it’s not within myself to lose it or keep it. It will be the Lord to decide when to take it away. I go to sleep thankful and wake up with the same attitude. SN: What does it mean to you to be a
healthy, successful, 40-year-old man in America?
RIVERA: Health is the most important thing. I think when you’re healthy, you can accomplish anything; but when you want to accomplish things and you’re not healthy, that’s the problem. … Nineteen years I’ve been here. The U.S. has given me blessings and tremendous opportunities. The city of New York has embraced me like one of its own, and I appreciate that; I can never forget that. My family’s here—my wife, my kids. It feels like home. I’m one of the people from New York City.
JUST ONE QUESTION For Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley:
Mariano Rivera isn’t a fiery leader, but what do you think his quiet confidence does for his Yankees teammates? “I think it’s everything. He’s the best ever. There is such a security to knowing that he’s there, which in turn says this guy is the most valuable player of that era, of that team. You can talk about Derek Jeter all you want, but the importance of what Mariano has done makes him as valuable as any player who has ever played for any team.” — Steve Greenberg
The 2009 (left) and 2000 seasons ended the same way for the Yankees, but this championship, Rivera says, was special.
SN: Do you miss playing with the
RIVERA WITH RODRIGUEZ: JULIE JACOBSON / AP; RIVERA: DON EMMERT / GETTY IMAGES
teammates from your younger years? Is the job as fun for you as it was then?
RIVERA: Believe me, it’s as fun as it was in ’95 when I started, especially this year. But I miss all those guys—Luis Sojo, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, Paul O’Neill, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez. And that pitching staff: guys like David Cone, Jimmy Key, David Wells, Roger Clemens, El Duque. The top of that to me was my mentor, John Wetteland. I’d love to pitch with him again. I will put him at closer and I will set up for him. We talk and we always remember what we did together. I miss that. He motivates me to keep going. SN: Derek Jeter is The Captain. What does your presence and disposition do for the Yankees? RIVERA: I think you’re asking the wrong man the wrong question. I will never talk about myself in
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