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The Confidence Man

Inside the mind of baseball’s greatest closer, Mariano Rivera.

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.

Rivera never had to train himself to block out anxiety or self-doubt, the evil twins of emotion that have destroyed countless other players, because he can’t remember ever feeling threatened by them. “Never,” he says. “I’ve always loved the competition. I’m not afraid of it.”

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. And after you get him, retire the next one, and the one after that.

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.

Helton stepped into the batter’s box, but Rivera didn’t see him. “Sometimes I see only the catcher’s glove,” Rivera says. “Sometimes there is nothing else. But sometimes I see the hitter too.”

When does he see the hitter? When the hitter is particularly dangerous, like Boston’s Manny Ramirez? Or when the tying run is on base and he has to be a little more careful? “No, no, no, it’s nothing like that,” Rivera says.

“I see the hitter when he’s moved in the box”—Rivera lifts his hand, pointing at an imaginary batter in an imaginary batter’s box—“like when he’s moved closer to the plate or changed his stance.”

No other player can instill calm in his team’s fans as reliably as Mariano Rivera.

In other words, he sees the batter when he is standing someplace other than the spot where Rivera has already fixed him. Hitters sometimes move in the batter’s box in an attempt to get a better swing at Rivera’s cut fastball. Rivera’s cutter is baseball’s WMD, a hard-veering pitch that breaks away from right-handed batters and into left-handed batters. Hitters believe that by moving away from the plate, say, they can hit the pitch with the fat part of the bat, before it gets too close to their hands.

“I see when the batter has moved his feet,” Rivera says, “and then I make my own adjustment.” And then he sees only the catcher’s glove, the hitter once again invisible.

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, and the 307th of his career. The save brought the Yankees’ season record to 36-20, the best mark in baseball, and preserved their two-and-a-half-game lead over the Boston Red Sox—their century-long rival and one of just a few teams in either league with a legitimate shot at keeping the Yankees from their 27th World Series title and fifth in the past nine years. 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 best relief pitcher of all time.

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.

Rivera has performed this role with an assassin’s cool efficiency. His career saves total of 309 is fifth among active pitchers and fourteenth to Lee Smith’s record 478, and if the 34-year-old Rivera stays healthy, he’ll likely pass that mark before he retires. Among closers with 150 or more saves, Rivera’s career saves percentage of .873 ranks second all-time.

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.

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. “There’s no question about that,” says Roger Clemens. “I call Mo ‘the Equalizer.’ I mean, I can’t tell you how comforting it felt to have him come in when I left the game.”

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, “will go down as the best reliever in the game in history. 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.”