Home Sports The worst of Mariano Rivera revealed his absolute greatness – New York Post

The worst of Mariano Rivera revealed his absolute greatness – New York Post

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What if Buck Showalter had known?

That is how I began my book, “Birth of a Dynasty,” published more than a decade ago. I wondered what would have happened had the then-Yankees manager fully appreciated who was sitting in his bullpen during Game 5 of the 1995 AL Division Series against the Mariners.

Showalter trusted David Cone and had lost faith in his pen, notably closer John Wetteland. But that ignored that he had the greatest reliever in history available as a drained Cone gave away a 4-2 lead in the eighth.

Seattle went on to beat another spent starter, Jack McDowell, in the 11th inning. The series loss ushered out Showalter and sent Don Mattingly to retirement. Joe Torre was hired, Tino Martinez acquired and Derek Jeter promoted to full-time shortstop.

Yep, what if Showalter had known what he had in Mariano Rivera?

But, really, who could have known? I was in the Kingdome that night and I had no clue. It is a subject I have been pondering recently — when did I know? My editors asked me when I first recognized a greatness that this week will be recognized with Rivera being elected into the Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t October 1995. Rivera had been a failed rookie starter during the regular season and was put on the postseason roster as a long man. Imagine thinking Domingo German is going to become the greatest reliever ever.

Yet there were clues in that Division Series that Rivera was now in the role of a lifetime, and that October would be his month.

In Game 2, Wetteland yielded a go-ahead homer to Ken Griffey Jr. in the top of the 12th inning and left with a runner on base and two down. Rivera struck out the first batter he ever saw in the postseason, Jay Buhner. He pitched 3 1/3 shutout innings against the fierce Mariners lineup. But he was relegated to a sidebar when Jim Leyritz walked the Mariners off with a two-run homer in a steady, 15th-inning rain.

In that series, Rivera gave up no runs on three singles while walking one and striking out eight. He had a 0.00 ERA. The rest of the Yankees staff was 6.65. He gave up no extra-base hits. The rest of the staff gave up 18 in five games. Seattle hit .167 against Rivera and .330 against all other Yankees pitchers.

Maybe we all should have known we were at least watching a budding star. But we didn’t. It was such a small sample, and relievers are volatile and the Yankees lost anyway.

The following spring, the Yankees actually contemplated trading Rivera to the Mariners for Felix Fermin, so concerned were they about starting Jeter at short. Torre installed Rivera as the long man. That April, Rivera appeared in 10 games, covering 21 2/3 innings, and had a 1.25 ERA and a .139 batting average against. He had three three-inning stints against the Twins in which he pitched nine innings, allowed no runs on three hits, walked three and struck out 12 and left Minnesota’s two-time champion manager Tom Kelly in full surrender: “This Rivera guy, we don’t want to face him anymore. He needs to go a higher league. I don’t know where that league is. He should be banned from baseball. He should be illegal.”

Working on a column that September, I called around to Cy Young and MVP voters asking if they were considering Rivera. Most thought I should be committed. It was 1996. Rivera was neither racking up wins nor saves. But if you were watching daily, you saw that no player was impacting a team more.

Those Yankees should not be confused with the 1998-2000 behemoths. They finished ninth in the AL in runs and fifth in ERA, the composite of a meh team. But the 1996 team won the AL East and the Yankees’ first title since 1978.

Rivera and Joe Torre in 1997
Rivera and Joe Torre in 1997Charles Wenzelberg

Jeter provided instant impact, Bernie Williams reiterated he was a star and Torre was an ideal steadying counterbalance against the whims of George Steinbrenner. But nothing was as vital as Rivera. He served as long man, setup man, lefty specialist, righty specialist. He pitched two innings or more in 35 of his 61 games. When the Yankees had a chance to win, they so often won because Rivera bridged from an often bedraggled rotation to Wetteland. After Torre elevated Rivera to a more prominent role three weeks into the season, the Yanks went 46-9 when he pitched.

The major league home run record was smashed that year, and yet Rivera allowed just one homer in 122 innings, including the postseason.

To be around those Yankees — and, really, for years to come — was to know that they were counting outs to Rivera. He was their star and security blanket. He was what no one else had. The durable, consistent late-inning genius who improved in the postseason. Rivera had a 0.70 ERA in 141 playoff innings. To appreciate that: If he gave up 20 earned runs without getting an out, that ERA would still be under 2.00, and it would take 36 earned runs without an out to get it to 3.00.

In the four championship seasons, 1996 and 1998-2000, the Yanks were 12-0 in one-run playoff games. Rivera pitched in 10 of them and gave up no runs runs in nine, covering 17 1/3 innings. In those championship years, they were 6-1 in postseason extra-innings games. Rivera pitched in all seven of those games, covering 14 innings; he never gave up a run.

So is that when I knew? Kind of and not. I don’t think it was ever one moment for me. And — of all things — I didn’t fully know from success. I actually think I knew by how I felt when Rivera would endure a blown save. A few were coming each year, yet there was shock each time, such was his greatness. Reminders were needed that he was fallible, not a machine. That stunned feeling at rare failure made me more fully appreciate the relentless, annual, metronome of transcendence embodied by Rivera.

He blew two postseason saves from 1996-2001 — Game 4 of the 1997 Division Series and Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Those were the only series the Yankees were eliminated in during that span of the 16 in which they played. In between the blown saves, Rivera converted 23 postseason saves in a row against the best competition at the most stressful times during the height of the steroid era. The degree of difficulty was only outdone by the magnitude of his brilliance.

Rivera blew Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS — entering Game 5 with first and third and no out in the eighth inning with a one-run lead. But he did not blow up in either. He left both games at Fenway Park tied, and the Red Sox won later in extra innings.

From there to the end of his career, Rivera would appear in 27 postseason games, yield two runs in 32 2/3 innings (0.55 ERA), and go 10-for-10 in save chances with a .395 OPS against. In the 2009 championship run, Rivera allowed one run in 16 innings over 12 outings. He did not permit a run in his first eight postseason outings, nor his final 12.

By that end, of course, all the mystery was gone. We all knew what the Yankees had in their bullpen.

The greatest.

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