The Confidence Man

Photo: Globe

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.”

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.

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.

The Confidence Man