Rich “Goose” Gossage, the Yankees most storied closer prior to Rivera, speaks of Rivera’s dominance this way: When Rivera takes the mound, the other team “is sitting in the dugout thinking, ‘We’ve got no chance. It’s over.’ This guy walks into the game, and they are done.”
On many days, the Yankees’ group of practicing Christians will gather in a side room, away from the clubhouse, to read from the Bible and talk about the Lord. Rivera is always among them. He is deeply religious, his relationship with God personal and direct. It was during the 1999 season, while Rivera was pitching against the Atlanta Braves on July 16, that he heard a voice talking to him. “I am the one who has you here,” the voice told Rivera, the pitcher later recalled to the Times. What this meant, Rivera believes, was that “the only reason I’m here is because He’s my strength. He put me here. Without Him, I’m nothing.”
Rivera is certain that God is responsible for an inexplicable increase in the velocity of his fastball, which came at a time when the Yankees were preparing to trade him. At the outset of the 1995 season, Rivera was a minor-league prospect with ordinary stuff: a good changeup, a decent breaking ball, a fastball that usually topped out at 88 to 90 mph, and a delivery that was smooth and a little deceptive to the hitters. But there was no reason to expect more. Rivera was three years removed from elbow surgery, enough time for a full recovery, and he was already 25 years old. The Yankees were interested in trading for a troublesome and talented Detroit Tigers left-hander named David Wells, and the Tigers were interested in Rivera.
On a June morning, Yankees general manager Gene Michael checked the reports from the minor-league games the night before and was stunned by what he saw: Pitching for Class AAA Columbus, Rivera was said to have thrown his fastball consistently at 95 mph, occasionally nicking 96. Michael didn’t believe the readings and phoned the Columbus coaching staff to make sure their radar gun wasn’t broken. No, they assured him, the radar gun was fine.
Still skeptical, Michael phoned Jerry Walker, the Tigers scout who had been following Rivera—disguising the true purpose of his call by making small talk. By the way, Michael eventually asked Walker, how fast did you have Rivera throwing? Ninety-five miles per hour, consistently, Walker reported, touching 96. Michael cut off trade talks for Rivera. There must be something more in him, Michael thought, that we are just starting to see.
Rivera struck out 130 batters in 1072⁄3 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 pitcher throws a traditional fastball by applying the full force of his hand, wrist, and arm directly behind the ball. The seams rotate backward, toward the pitcher, as the ball flies toward home plate; an exceptional fastball reaches about 95 mph. Pitchers throw sliders or curve balls by putting extra spin on the ball as they release it, the hand and wrist applying force to one side. The ball veers laterally or vertically, but with a significant decrease in velocity, because the full power of the arm is not directly behind it. The best sliders move 88 or 89 mph.
Rivera doesn’t scream, throw his hat, or kick over water coolers. He won’t give hitters the satisfaction.
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.
Most pitchers release the fastball with their fingers draped over the top of the ball, essentially aimed straight at the catcher. But Rivera throws his cutter with the index and middle fingers of his right hand tilted slightly inward—as if he is pointing at eleven on the face of the clock, rather than twelve o’clock. That means that while the ball is flying toward the hitter, it actually is rotating sideways, spinning backward—something that Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina noticed as he played catch with Rivera one day. Mussina realized the axis of the cutter is tilted off-center, and he believes this is what causes the unusual movement: It is like a car skidding across ice, the front veering to the side, the whole thing fishtailing. And Rivera, who had grown up throwing stones on the beaches of Panama, can guide the cutter with remarkable control. He once went fourteen months without walking the first batter he faced upon entering games.
The movement on the cutter comes so late on its trip to home plate that most hitters are not even aware of it until their bat shatters in their hands. “When he throws it, you think it’s straight,” says St. Louis infielder Tony Womack, “and the next thing you know, it’s on your thumbs.” 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.
Batters have tried making adjustments against the cutter, shifting their placement in the box, and in recent years, Rivera has made his own adjustment. He has implemented a two-seam fastball—a sinker—that dives down and in to right-handed batters, away from left-handed batters. Now Rivera is armed with pitches that move in radically opposite directions. Earlier this season, Boston center fielder Johnny Damon, a left-handed batter, prepared to swing against Rivera, edging away from the plate in anticipation of the cutter’s darting inside. Rivera fired his two-seamer over the outside corner, and Damon’s helpless expression was unmistakable: You must be joking.
In tense moments, however, Rivera almost always relies on his trusted cutter. Sometimes catcher Jorge Posada does not bother giving a sign; he just waves his hands. Bring it on. The hitters know he’s going to throw it—everybody knows—and it doesn’t make a difference. You see batters going to face Rivera, says Clemens, trying to work themselves into the at-bat, and he throws one cutter, the ball swerving, and—like Todd Helton—they are all but beaten mentally. “After one pitch, it’s over,” says Clemens. “He is that nasty.”
pitchers on other teams often approach Rivera and quiz him, and he details his work regimen. He explains how he watches the first innings of games on a television in the clubhouse, to draw a visual bead on the hitters and on the umpire’s strike zone. He tells them how he reviews the scouting reports on the hitters—although “that really doesn’t matter,” he says. “I will stay with my strength.”
He tells other pitchers how he stretches, whirling a three-pound iron ball. He recounts the sequence of his warm-up pitches in the bullpen, how he finishes with one last powerful fastball. Inevitably, however, Rivera sees in his colleagues’ wondering eyes that they are looking for more than his pregame routine. They want to know the secret of what truly separates him from their ranks. They want to know how he keeps cool.