Every batter knew what was coming when they faced Mariano Rivera, so it was hardly necessary for the New York Yankees’ catchers to conceal their signs.
They knew it was coming, perhaps the best cut fastball ever delivered by a big leaguer. And they still couldn’t hit it.
Raised in the Panamanian fishing village of Puerto Caimito – about 15 miles from Panama City – Rivera began his baseball journey playing with cardboard gloves and tree-branch bats. A live arm and an athletic body brought him to the attention of the New York Yankees, with whom he signed as an international free agent for $3,000 on Feb. 17, 1990.
Success, however, did not come overnight. At his first full-season stop in Greensboro, N.C., in 1991, Rivera struggled alone while learning English. The next season with Class A Fort Lauderdale, Rivera hurt his elbow and underwent surgery by famed doctor Frank Jobe to clean up a fraying ligament.
His fastball velocity that season hung around 90 miles per hour, and the Yankees did not yet see him as a top-flight prospect.
Then, after some success in the minors with a fastball that began touching the high 90s, Rivera debuted in the majors in 1995 as a starter. But soon, Yankees general manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter made a push to make Rivera a reliever.
The next season, Rivera became a dominant set-up man for closer John Wetteland, striking out 130 in 107.2 innings to help lead New York to the World Series title. Though he posted only eight wins and five saves, he finished third in that year’s American League Cy Young Award vote.
“You never know for sure, but we guessed right,” Michael said. “He didn’t have the cutter yet, but he was sneaky fast and had such great control.”
Rivera campaigned to become the team’s closer in 1997, and the Yankees made the decision to let Wetteland – the 1996 World Series MVP – leave as a free agent. That season, Rivera posted the first of 15 straight years with at least 28 saves. In 11 of those seasons, his ERA was under 2.00.
But it was in the postseason where Rivera built his legend. After allowing a home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar in the series-pivoting Game 4 in the 1997 ALDS, Rivera became virtually perfect under baseball’s spotlight. He saved 42 games in 96 postseason appearances, allowing only one other home run in 141 innings. He recorded just five blown saves and one loss – in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series – while posting an ERA of 0.70.
“I would love,” Rivera said when he announced his retirement,” to be remembered as a player who was always there for others.”
The Yankees won five World Series titles during his 19-season career, advancing to the postseason 17 times. Rivera was named the World Series MVP in 1999 and the ALCS MVP in 2003.
As he aged and his fastball velocity diminished, Rivera relied almost exclusively on the cutter, using his flexible fingers – he could bend his digits and touch the back of his wrist – to produce both movement and location. The cutter broke away from right-handers and in to lefties, appearing to be a strike but always darting just out of the hitting zone.
Only a knee injury – sustained while shagging fly balls during batting practice on May 3, 2012 in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium – slowed him down. But Rivera returned from a torn ACL as effective as ever in 2013, posting 44 saves with a 6-2 record and a 2.11 ERA.
Prior to the 2013 season, Rivera announced that he would retire when the year was over. In that summer’s All-Star Game, Rivera – making his 13th appearance on the AL All-Star squad – pitched a perfect eighth inning and earned game MVP honors.
Then on Sept. 26, Rivera made his last appearance for the Yankees – retiring all four batters he faced before he was pulled from the game, with teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte going to the mound for manager Joe Girardi to take the ball from Rivera, who wept on the mound as 48,675 fans at Yankee Stadium cheered.
In 19 seasons, Rivera posted a record 652 saves with a win-loss mark of 82-60. His career ERA of 2.21 ranks No. 1 among all pitchers who started their careers in the Live Ball Era (post 1919), and his 952 games finished also rank first all time.
Rivera was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.