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The Confidence Man

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Where other relievers are crushed after giving up a game-winning home run (the emotionally wrecked reliever is a baseball cliché), Rivera remains a cypher no matter what happens on the mound. Gossage sees Rivera’s stoicism as a weapon: Even if the hitters beat Rivera, he says, they never get to him. Rivera does not scream or throw his hat or kick over water coolers; he won’t give them the satisfaction. “And I never will,” Rivera says. “Never. You can’t let them get to you. You have to be the same, no matter what.”

Rivera struggles to explain how he maintains his composure: “I don’t really know what to tell them,” he says. He is like a sighted man trying to explain vision to the blind.

An outsider, though, can see clues. Rivera has lost big games, but he is buoyed by a well-hidden self-confidence that borders on arrogance. He allowed a pivotal home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr. in Game 4 of the 1997 American League Division Series. Cleveland won that night and went on to clinch the series, and the next year, reporters peppered Rivera with questions about whether the home run bothered him. Rivera had replied, throughout 1998, that he hadn’t given the home run much thought. This was a white lie. Rivera had mulled over Alomar’s home run, and he had come to view it as confirmation of his own dominance, rather than as a failure.

Alomar was lucky, Rivera decided; if any other pitcher had been on the mound, then the manner in which Alomar hit the ball—arms extended as he drove the ball to the opposite field—would’ve resulted in a long fly ball, because no other closer threw a high fastball as hard as Rivera. The power in the home run had come from Rivera, the pitcher believed, and not from Alomar. Even in a moment that would have been a devastating failure for any other closer, Rivera believed he was in complete control.

At the same time, Rivera believes in a higher power. Before Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, Rivera surprised teammates by addressing them in a team meeting, and the words he chose confused some of them. After exhorting them to get him the ball, Rivera talked about faith and fate; no matter what happened, it was all in the hands of God. It didn’t sound like him, a veteran teammate said, because Rivera was all about confidence and control. But Rivera intended his words to be a comfort for his teammates, because they were comforting to him.

Hours later, the Diamondbacks scored twice in the bottom of the ninth against Rivera to beat the Yankees and win the World Series, the most notable failure of Rivera’s career. He made a throwing error, allowed two runs, and when it ended—when Luis Gonzalez blooped a broken-bat single over the Yankees’ drawn-in infield—Rivera turned and ambled off the mound, his stride and expression never changing. He looked and moved the same as if he had just completed an inning in a mostly meaningless game in May.

The Yankees’ victory parade in the city was canceled, and Enrique Wilson, the Yankees’ utility infielder, changed his flight back to the Dominican Republic. The plane Wilson was initially scheduled for—American Airlines Flight 587—crashed in Queens, killing all 260 passengers.

Wilson saw Rivera the next spring, and they talked about the twist of fate. If Rivera had closed out the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, Wilson would have, in all likelihood, been on the plane that went down. For Rivera, this was further confirmation that he and his teammates were all subject to God’s will. “I’m glad we lost the World Series,” Rivera said, “because it means that I still have a friend.”

Built this way, Rivera’s psyche is all but indestructible. Most of his successes and failures belong to him, the rest to God. There is nothing ceded to his opponents.

While the Yankees focused mainly on acquiring sluggers in the offseason (A-Rod, Gary Sheffield), Boston loaded up on pitching, landing ace starter Curt Schilling and veteran closer Keith Foulke (both teams may make more moves before the July 31 trading deadline). Still, the Red Sox don’t have anything like Rivera. No one does.

Foulke is probably the best reliever in the American League after Rivera. He throws a great changeup, a pitch that often fools hitters; they think he’s throwing his 88-mph fastball, and instead he’s throwing his change at 78 mph. But off-speed pitchers like Foulke often struggle in the postseason, when the teams generally have better hitters, when the hitters are more focused and disciplined, when the pressure is greater and margin for error is less. Foulke has to trick hitters—and if they are not fooled, he can get whacked around. If the Yankees and Red Sox face off again in September, or October, with the season on the line, Foulke could be the three-card-monte player the Yankees have seen before.

“That’s the difference between a lot of the other closers and Rivera,” a longtime scout says. “He comes in and he challenges hitters: Here it comes. There’s no screwing around, no picking around the strike zone. It’s mano a mano, and he’s got this aura that no one else has.”

Rivera was on the mound when the Yankees won the World Series in 1998, in San Diego, and when they won at home in 1999, and in Shea Stadium in 2000. That’s a disquieting image to the Red Sox faithful. To Yankees fans, it’s the picture of comfort.

Adapted from The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, The Team, and the Cost of Greatness, to be published in August by HarperCollins.


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