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1. The Final Act: An Oral History
November 4, 2009, 11:50 pm Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York
Mariano Rivera rolled the seams of a baseball over his fingertips as his spikes dug into the reddish brown clay of the Yankee Stadium mound. Electricity reverberated from all five decks of the team's spectacular new home. The most successful franchise in sports history was one strike away from adding title No. 27 to its trophy case, though you would never have been able to tell by examining the hurler's placid expression.
It was all for show. The greatest closer in history had a secret: he was in agony.
Rivera had strained his rib cage while making a 34-pitch appearance in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, an injury the Yankees somehow managed to keep out of the newspapers at the time. More importantly, as the Bombers battled the Philadelphia Phillies in a taut Fall Classic, the defending champions never had a clue that the all-time saves leader was ailing. "My side, oh my God, that was the worst thing that I ever felt. No one knew about it — only the trainers and my teammates. It was the intercostal, the muscle between the rib. Every time that you throw a pitch, it felt like a knife. That was pain. That wasn't soreness. That's pain. My wife [Clara] was like, 'Don't pitch!' I was like, 'Are you crazy?'"
Clara Rivera: "I was begging him. Don't pitch, please. Don't do that. I don't want you to pitch like that."
As the necessary 27 outs ticked off in Game 6, rookie reliever David Robertson had been assigned a covert task. Robertson raced between the clubhouse and the bullpen every other inning, stuffing his pockets with any heating pads or gel packs that could be found in the trainers' office. Rivera would then slide the artificial warmth inside his own jacket, resting in anticipation of a call to warm up.
Roberston: "He had messed up his left oblique pretty bad, and I don't think you guys ever knew about that," Robertson told us. "He was pretty sore. I remember him being sore and in pain. And when you've hurt an oblique, they don't go away. You can't stop it. There's only so much medicine you can take. I remember having to run in and get him hot cream to rub on and I got a hot pad so he could sit there and put it in his jacket on his side before he'd go in and pitch."
Mariano Rivera: "It was so bad that we had a trainer work with me for like five innings, stretching it and using a tool that looked like a knife, sticking it in there. Between innings I needed a heat pack. The guys were good to me. They took care of the old man."
Manager Joe Girardi's call for Rivera came in the eighth inning. Left-hander Damaso Marte completed what would be remembered as a terrific postseason with a swinging strikeout of slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, and Rivera signaled to bullpen coach Mike Harkey that he was ready.
Harkey: "He would've pitched with a broken leg. He's just that type of guy. I knew Joe was going to call in the eighth inning and I knew it was going to be Mo, no matter what the lead was."
The heavy metal strains of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" thumped through each of the 1,784 speakers mounted within the state-of-the-art facility, lending a theatrical quality to Rivera's jog across the outfield grass. The Phillies' scant chances of extending their season fell as Rivera struck out Jayson Werth and then worked around a Raul Ibanez double by getting Pedro Feliz to foul out to catcher Jorge Posada.
Jerry Hairston Jr., left fielder: "We had a four-run lead, and here comes the greatest closer of all time. Game over. You knew that the Phillies were going to be demoralized. They're not going to score four or five runs off Mariano Rivera in an inning and a half. So then to find out later he pitched with that oblique injury makes it even more special. Just the consummate professional, a gamer, greatest closer to ever live."
The Yankees were retired around a Derek Jeter single in their half of the eighth, though none of the 50,315 paying customers seemed to mind. They jumped, clapped, and prayed in anticipation of a party that had been wired to explode since the fifth inning, when designated hitter Hideki Matsui broke the game open with a two-run double. It was part of a six-RBI performance that would secure World Series MVP honors for Matsui, in what would be his final game in pinstripes. "What I did in Game 6 — I know it was me, but it didn't feel like it was me," Matsui said. "I felt like it was some kind of mystical powers that was behind that performance. To be able to have that kind of performance in the game that decides the world championship, it felt very surreal. I felt like there was something mystical that was working behind me."
The decibel level spiked as pinch-hitter Matt Stairs smacked a wobbling liner to Jeter at shortstop. Rivera issued a walk to catcher Carlos Ruiz, bringing up shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who had chafed the Yankees during an appearance on NBC's soon-to-be-forgotten The Jay Leno Show, guaranteeing that Philadelphia would dispatch the Bombers in five games. Rollins lifted a harmless fly ball to right fielder Nick Swisher, and the title was one out away.
Swisher: "It was so loud in the stadium. You literally couldn't hear yourself think. It was one of the more amazing sounds I ever heard in my life. I also knew that the first year at the old Yankee Stadium the Yankees won the World Series, and the first year of the new Yankee Stadium the Yankees won the World Series. I feel like the ghosts from across the street came on over and really hooked us up."
Philadelphia's last hope was the Flyin' Hawaiian, Shane Victorino, a switch-hitting outfielder from the nation's 50state. In the prime of what would be a 12-year big league career, including eight with the Phils, his name was about to enter the memory banks of nerds who take pride in an ability to recall the final out of each World Series.
Victorino was intent upon putting up a good battle against Rivera despite a severely bruised right index finger that screamed after each of Rivera's famed cutters. Discovered by accident during a 1997 game of catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, the pitch would be responsible for shattering a forest's worth of lumber over 19 celebrated years in the big leagues.
Victorino: "I don't think you can be scared of anyone in baseball. You have to have the resiliency to say, 'This guy is good, but we can beat him'. His numbers show how good he is, but you can't go with that mind-set because then you're beating yourself."
The son of a Panamanian fisherman nestled the ball into his glove and bent deep at the waist. Rivera straightened his wiry frame with several taps of his left foot and then rocked into the smooth, repeatable delivery that would help him save 652 regular-season games over his career — plus 42 more in the postseason; both are records. Rivera got ahead with a called strike, missed inside with one, and then got Victorino to wave at a particularly nasty offering that snapped toward the batter's ankles.
Johnny Damon, outfielder: "I was on the bench ready to celebrate. I loved the fact that we had Mariano out there, a guy who closes out games better than anybody in baseball history. You feel pretty good. But Victorino had just a great at-bat. He was fighting and he still thought they had a chance to win, so we give Philadelphia a lot of credit. They had a really good team. It was just our year and our time."
Andy Pettitte, pitcher: "I came out right to the base of the dugout. You just remember the excitement, the joy, the feeling of accomplishing something that you set out to do eight months before that. Just to be able to get 25 men to come together and to be able to pull that off and to be able to do it for the fifth time, it was even more gratifying, I know, for me and Jeet and Mo and Jorgie. It had been so long since we had won. It seemed like, 'Man, are we ever going to be able to pull this off again?'"
Matsui: "I was in the dugout, closer to the home-plate side, watching the last out. To be honest with you, I was quite calm only because we had a good lead, and Mariano was closing out the game. I felt like, Okay, now this is it. We're going to win the series. We're going to be world champions. So I was quite calm watching that last out."
Six more pitches stretched the anticipation. Two missed the strike zone, and four were fouled away. Girardi stood by the dugout railing with his arms crossed, flanked by bench coach Tony Pena to his left and pitching coach Dave Eiland to his right. Hitting coach Kevin Long was about two steps away, hovering close to the bat rack.
Girardi: "Mo's pitch count is what I was worried about. Victorino fouled off a lot of pitches. I'm thinking, Oh, God. Are we going to get through this? Am I going to make it through this with Mo and his pitch count? I'm saying, 'Come on, you've got to make it.'"
Eiland: "I recall Kevin Long. When we were on the field and I'm on the railing, Kevin always sat on the bat rack right behind us. I remember when Mo got up, I walked up to the railing and I turn around. Kevin was just sitting over there and he winked at me. Mo gets an out. I turn around, and he winked at me again Mo was in the game, we had the lead, we were in Yankee Stadium. We just knew it was going to take a few more minutes and we were going to be world champions."
Long: "Each out, I'm going, 'Okay.' A wink meant, 'All right, we're getting real close,' but you don't want to get too excited because it's never over until it's over."
Rivera reared for his 41 pitch of the evening — and his last of the 2009 season — a 91-mph cutter that Victorino chopped to the right side of the infield.
Rivera: "It was amazing. It was like, 'Wow, I'm back here again'. It was a great feeling, being the last guy there standing, throwing the last pitch. It was amazing."
Brett Gardner, center fielder: "I've got a pretty good view for all of it: Mariano's pitching, Jeet's at short, Robbie Cano's at second, Jorge behind the plate. I mean, just crazy, man. Victorino was hitting, and Mariano doesn't like guys dunking balls in front of the outfielders, so I was playing in shallow, praying that someone didn't hit one over my head because I was playing shallow in a World Series game."
Hairston: "I was like, 'Please let the ball be hit to me. I want to make the last out.' I was being a little selfish, but everybody was thinking that."
Second baseman Robinson Cano danced a few steps to flag the ball and then whipped it to first baseman Mark Teixeira. Seeing that his throw was on target, Cano leapt, holding both hands high above his head.
Cano: "I prepared myself from the beginning like, 'Robbie, be ready for the last out, ground ball. Be ready. Don't mess it up.' And it came my way. It happened that way, so I was ready for that. The last thing you want is to make an error right there. I would bite that ball if I had to."
Anchoring his right foot alongside the bag, Teixeira thought, Don't drop it. Teixeira gloved the ball in his left hand and raised his right fist. Ballgame over, World Series over.
Teixeira: "I didn't feel the ball hit my glove. If you look at the replay, I actually looked down into my glove to make sure the ball was there. And I just went kind of crazy for 10 or 20 seconds. Once Mo got into the game, I knew the game was over. Running through my head: 'I can't believe I just caught the last out of the World Series.'"
They rushed to the center of the infield, embracing for the most joyous of their 114 celebrations that season — 103 in the regular season and 11 more in the postseason.
Jeter: "You forget how good it feels after the final out. But I appreciated the last ones that we won. I knew it was very difficult to do. If it was easy, people would be repeating every year, and no one's done it since we [won three straight titles from 1998 to 2000]."
Posada: "I was looking around at everybody. I'm running behind Teixeira to back up, but once Teixeira catches the ball, I'm looking around. I just wanted to soak it in a little bit more than I did before. I took it all in because I didn't know when it was going to happen again. I'm coming to the end of my career, so I wanted to savor it a little bit more. What a feeling."
Alex Rodriguez, third baseman: "Oh my God, Cano to Teixeira, Yankees are world champs for the 27time. I just put my hands up, and it was the most happy, liberated, excited freedom I've ever felt on a baseball field. All these years, 36 years or whatever it was, waiting for this moment; it was a dream come true."
CC Sabathia, pitcher: "I remember just trying to get out there fast enough. I was just trying to get into the pile. I remember Robbie catching it, him throwing it to Tex, and then just running full speed to the middle of the field. That's all I remember: just being excited."
Cano: "The last thing you want is to hit someone with your hat, so I had to put it backward. I was jumping, excited. I remember jumping around, all the fans cheering, and the best thing: it was at home in New York. That's something that as a player you will never forget."
Swisher: "Bro, I'll never forget it. Mariano Rivera, Shane Victorino, bro, little jam-sammy to Robbie Cano over to Mark Teixeira, baby. 'The Yankees Win!'— John Sterling with a great call. We will always be remembered as champions, and that is something that I'll take to the grave with me, man."
In the bullpen the relievers clamored for position like thoroughbreds waiting to break from the post at the Kentucky Derby. They were a few hundred feet from the pinnacle of the sports universe.
Phil Hughes, pitcher: "I remember just standing out in the bullpen and knowing it was over, knowing we were going to win, which is pretty cool. It was really kind of a special moment to see Mo get ready. It was pretty much Mo's game. I remember Victorino rolling over on that cutter and knowing that was it and running out there. It was truly something I'll never forget. That's for sure."
Brian Bruney, pitcher: "I remember being on the fence with the guys and just talking about being world champions. I mean, we knew it was over. We were sitting there going, 'I can't believe it.' I just remember waiting in anticipation to open the gate and to run as fast as I ever have. I was with Hughes, and we were standing there and talking, just waiting to open the gate. We wanted to open the gate so bad."
Robertson: "It didn't hit me that we had won the World Series. It just felt like it was going to keep going. I felt like we were going to have another game the next day, but we weren't. That was it. We'd done it."
The mass of pinstriped humanity bounced around the turf as caps and gloves were strewn to the playing field. The air was filled by Freddie Mercury's vocals on Queen's "We Are the Champions."
Joba Chamberlain, pitcher: "I had literally taken my jersey off because I knew they were going to take this, that, and the other thing. I took it off and stuck it in my backpack. I remember talking to Tex, and he was like, 'I don't remember catching that ball.'"
Girardi: "When I think of the '96 World Series, I think of Charlie Hayes running with the ball, kind of high stepping, and he looks like a little kid. That's the image I have in my head. And it's the image of them running together in the infield. I looked for my wife, waved at her, and then went out."
Chad Bohling, director of mental conditioning: "I remember running out on the field and I didn't know what to do. All the players, coaches, and staff ran out there. I remember at one point Joe Girardi jumping on my back, and I was just like, 'Who is this?' I turned around, and he had the biggest smile on his face."
Mick Kelleher, first-base coach: "Just jubilation, love for everybody. The celebration on the field was so special. We were all so fortunate. I often think about players I played with or players that were great players on great teams but never got to a situation like we were in. You'll never know what it feels like until you do it and you never forget the feeling. Just to think about it right now brings me back."
Rob Thomson, third-base coach: "When the ball goes into Teixeira's glove, it was kind of a moment that it almost stops; life kind of stops, so surreal. I turn and I give Mick a hug, and Joe's there, and we all kind of dogpile Joe. It was really the greatest moment in my baseball career."
Dana Cavalea, strength and conditioning coach: "I'm in the dugout, standing next to Andy Pettitte. They gave out these flip cameras before the game that day, so he's like, 'Can you capture the moment?' I got so excited. I ended up dropping the camera. After the celebration he comes up to me: 'Hey man, you got that camera?' I had no idea where it was."
Teixeira secured the ball in the pocket of his uniform pants, planning to present the treasure to managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner.
Teixeira: "I kept it all offseason and then gave it to Hal at the Welcome Home Dinner the next year. I kept it in a safe the whole offseason."
The ball now resides in a museum at the stadium.
A platform was swiftly erected on the dirt behind second base for the presentation of the World Series trophy. Players were handed factory fresh championship caps, T-shirts, and quickie copies of the New York Post with '27' printed upon the cover.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mission 27"
Copyright © 2019 Mark Feinsand and Bryan Hoch.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Nick Swisher xi
1 The Final Act: An Oral History 1
2 Farewell, Yankee Stadium 11
3 A Change Is Gonna Come 31
4 First Things First 45
5 Hope Springs Eternal 55
6 The Big Man Joins the Band 69
7 Swishalicious 77
8 Grand Opening 91
9 A-Rod Returns 105
10 Pie in the Sky 115
11 Rivalries Renewed 127
12 A Visit from the Principal 133
13 The Master's Apprentices 143
14 Birthday Bash 153
15 Angels and Demons 161
16 Joba Rules 167
17 Catch Me If You Can 177
18 Sigma Chi 185
19 Chasing History 193
20 October Lights 203
21 No Monkeying Around 213
22 Boastful Bravado 225
23 Empire State of Mind 231
24 Not-So-Brotherly Love 239
25 Godzilla's Final Roar 249
26 Mission Accomplished 261
27 The Aftermath 269
About the Authors 287