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The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty New Edition
The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness Chapter One
Mariano Rivera sometimes paused to stand behind the crowd of teammates watching The Jerry Springer Show in the Yankees' clubhouse. As they laughed loudly and exhorted the on-screen combatants, Rivera remained silent, shaking his head. To him, the remedy for the many misbehaving teenagers on the program was clear: rigid discipline. Establish rules, and if the children don't adhere, then physical punishment—a paddling that would hurt and be remembered—must always follow. Growing up in Panama, he had been weaned on discipline. His father worked as a fisherman, collecting sardines to be processed for animal feed, a job that took him away from home a week at a time, and if little Mariano fell into trouble he would dwell in dread until his father returned, knowing that his mother would report his worst offenses. If he broke a window with a ball, he knew he would be spanked. There was no getting around this: mistakes are made, and consequences follow. His father insisted that Mariano be accountable for his behavior and show respect for others, and years later Mariano expected the same from his own children.
Rivera, the Yankees' closer, thought players should act properly, as well; he despised pitchers who were disrespectful to opponents—glaring insolently at hitters and stomping and swaggering around the mound like angry Neanderthals, pumping a fist to celebrate the smallest successes. You should act as though you've won before, Rivera believed; you should act as though you expect to win again. Some pitchers grew mustaches andbeards and groomed them in arcane ways to make themselves look threatening, but this made Rivera more certain they were actually very much afraid. During a Yankees game in Toronto in 1999, Blue Jays closer Billy Koch stalked in from the bullpen, a spaghetti strand of beard descending from his lower lip to his chin, and after throwing his first fastball for a strike, he lingered at the apron of the mound to stare at the batter. Rivera watched from his own bullpen and seethed. What a tough guy, he smirked to himself. What a joke. Show some respect for the game. Show some respect for yourself.
There was inflexible structure to everything Rivera did. Some of the other Yankees adhered only grudgingly to the team's policy against long hair and beards, and a few holdouts always took the field with day-old facial growth. But Rivera shaved before every game and had his thinning hair cut close to his scalp, like stitches on a baseball. He wore his uniform precisely to code, with the cuffs of his uniform pants raised to the proper height above his heels, and he followed the same disciplined regimen before, during, and after games. When Rivera emerged from the Yankees' bullpen to pitch, he held his glove in his right hand and jogged steadily to the mound, running on the balls of his feet, his head always tilted downward—the coolest entrance of any closer, teammate Roger Clemens thought, because it was so understated. Rivera never looked angry or arrogant or intense. He had the demeanor of a customs agent, serious and polite. All eyes were on him whenever he stepped out of the bullpen, though, because Rivera was the most successful relief pitcher in postseason history. The Yankees had won four World Series in five years from 1996 to 2000, resurrecting the dormant franchise, and many opposing players thought Rivera was the linchpin of the team's success.
Other closers had blown leads in the World Series—Atlanta's Mark Wohlers in 1996, Cleveland's Jose Mesa in 1997, Trevor Hoffman of the Padres in 1998, the Mets' Armando Benitez in 2000. Rivera, on the other hand, had been flawless: the Yankees had won the last 16 games he had pitched in the World Series, a streak that began in 1996. Take Rivera away from the Yankees and give them any other closer, Indians slugger Jim Thome said, and they probably would have won one or two championships, instead of four. As the Yankees prepared to play Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks, it was 1,490 days since Rivera had last blown a lead in the postseason.
In 1997, the year in which he replaced John Wetteland as the Yankees' closer, Rivera allowed a home run to Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. with the Yankees needing just a handful of outs to eliminate the Indians in the Division Series. The Indians had gone on to win that game and the series, and questions naturally followed about whether Rivera would rebound psychologically after a pivotal defeat; baseball history was littered with relievers who'd been wrecked by one terrible moment. Rivera assured everyone he was OK, that he hadn't really given much thought to the loss. This was a white lie.
Rivera had mulled over Alomar's home run and had decided—belying the facade of respect that masked his competitiveness—that Alomar was fortunate he had been on the mound that day. Alomar, a right-handed hitter, had hit a fastball for the home run, high and away, driving it over the right field wall. Any other pitcher, Rivera concluded, would have thrown the ball with less velocity, and instead of hitting a home run, Alomar probably would have mustered only a long fly ball. In other words, Rivera believed he was the reason Alomar hit a home run—that he controlled the situation, even in defeat. I made the home run, he decided, his extraordinary confidence not only intact through the failure, but steeled by it.
Rivera almost never talked in team meetings. But as the Yankees gathered in the visitors' clubhouse of Arizona's Bank One Ballpark on November 4, 2001, preparing for the decisive Game 7 of the World Series, he made up his mind to speak at the end of the meeting, after the others finished.
He expected he would throw the last pitch again that night; so did the rest of the Yankees' veterans . . . The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty New Edition
The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness. Copyright © by Buster Olney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.