When a young Mariano Rivera was growing up in a fishing town in Panama, little did he know the fishing nets that him and his friends knotted together to make a ball and branches they used as bats would lead to 602 career saves and a first ballot ticket to Cooperstown. In fact, not even the New York Yankees knew he could have envisioned him having the career he had when he was just a fill-in for Jimmy Key in his debut against the Angels as a… starter?
That’s right. Rivera wasn’t always the dominating closer that we have come to know over the last 14 years…
As a kid he played soccer as much if not more than he did baseball. Baseball equipment was as readily available. But he always had a love for the game. A love that has him still going strong at age 41. On September 19, 2011 he became the all-time and not soon to be elapsed record holder with 602 career saves, passing Trevor Hoffman’s mark of 601.
Now, it would be a short story if Mariano Rivera was just this stud pitcher that from birth was destined to be a New York Yankees closer. But that wouldn’t be much of a story would it? No, in fact Yankee scouts didn’t even know he could pitch when they first viewed the young shortstop in Panama. It was actually a blessing that led Rivera to where he is today. As Rivera was playing for a local club in Panama, the pitcher was struggling. Rivera volunteered to give it a try. Fast forward a bit, the next time scouts from the Yankees saw him they were pleasantly surprised to find the raw talent had converted to a pitcher. He went from an athletic but probably not Major League talent shortstop to a player with “potential”.
Young and unheard of players love when scouts throw the word “potential” at them. It’s all they can ask for. In scouting terms, potential means that the talent is raw. But no one is sure if that will translate and develop into a star or just another athletic player clogging up the minors and maybe out of baseball in a few short years. As a player that is just looking for a shot though… That is the ticket. Herb Raybourn was that scout. After finding Mariano Rivera he might deserve a spot in the hallowed museum park in Yankee Stadium.
Rivera would go on to spend 5 years in the New York farm system. Flipping between starter and reliever depending on the situation.
May 23, 1995 Mariano would go on to make his debut against the then California Angels filling in for injured star Jimmy Key. The story book debut would have been that he threw 5 scoreless innings and the rest is history, but no… He struggled. The Yankees lost that game 10-0. And Rivera would go on to split time between the minors and majors the rest of the season.
The next season the Yankees thought they had found the perfect role for the versatile Rivera. Rivera would go on to be the setup man behind All-Star closer John Wetteland. A role that was perfect for the still developing Rivera. No pressure. One inning and done. The Yankees at the time envisioned him to fill this role for years to come. Occasionally a close, sometimes a middle relief appearance. Nothing more… nothing less. However, Rivera had different plans.
When you think of the more competitive Yankee players, you might think Derek Jeter or C.C. Sabathia. Maybe players like Roger Clemens in previous years. Not the mild-mannered Mariano Rivera. But it was Rivera’s intense competitive edge that led the Yankees to let All-Star closer John Wetteland walk away after the 1996 season as a free agent. Not too many teams let All-Stars just walk, especially with the Yankees deep pockets. After Rivera had such an impact as a setup and occasional closer in the 1996 season the Yankees took that risk, it was a bold but very successful move by the Yankees.
12 All-Star appearances later… The Yankee’s closer has now put himself on top of a list of the game’s elite at the position. To acquire 602 saves you need two things. First and the most obvious is the ability and elite skill. The second is longevity. While he has had stints on the disabled list, Rivera continues to pitch strong. And make no doubt about it, even at age 41, come this October he will be lights out as he always is when the spotlight is on during the best time of year.
The Yankees might have not always known that Mariano Rivera would be that guy, but he has made himself one of the greatest baseball players the game has ever seen. Soft, humble and classy.