08 March 2013

Mariano Rivera and the Summer of 96

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

The summer of 1996. I lived in Brooklyn and managed an adult film store in the border of Queens and Long Island. I spent the days and nights listening to talk radio, mostly WFAN. I was so bored one day that I even called up and got on the air.

After work ended, I usually got back to Brooklyn by 8pm or so to catch the Yankees game from the 3rd inning on. If the Yankees had a lead going into the 6th inning, the game was over. Mo Rivera came out to pitch the 7th and 8th innings before John Wetteland took the mound and closed out the game in the ninth. Seriously, opposing teams gave up if they didn't get to the Yanks before the 6th. The Yanks bullpen was feared around the league. You had to get through three innings against the toughest relievers in the game -- Rivera and Wetteland.

In 1995, the Yankees finished a strike-shortened season with a 79-65 record and Mo Rivera struggled in his rookie season as a starting pitcher. He had no problem getting through the lineup the first time, but the hitters wised up the second and third time through and Rivera got rocked. It wasn't until someone in the organization realized that Rivera would be better as a set-up man who could come in an pitch anywhere from one batter to 2+ innings. That solved the knock on Rivera because he couldn't get anyone out a second time, yet as a reliever, he'd never have to face the lineup more than once before he handed the ball off to Wetteland in the 9th (or in the rare instance with two outs in the 8th).

The summer of 1996 had barely begun before I was hooked on Mo Rivera. He was the unsung hero of the Yankees that year. Rivera was like a fireman who rushed to the disaster scene and extinguished fires (started by starters or other relievers). Rivera only saved five games that year as Wetteland's set-up man, but he pitched over 100+ innings or the most he's ever done as a reliever.
Mariano Rivera (1996)
IP: 107.2
Ks: 130
WHIP: 0.994
HRs: 1
Look at those statistics. 130 strikeouts in 107.2 innings is impressive, but the number that blows me away is the lone homerun. Yes, in 1996 Mo Rivera only gave up a single dinger thru 107.2 innings. That's astounding. No wonder his WHIP was under 1.0 that year.

The summer of 1996 was the first time I glimpsed at the greatness of Mo Rivera. Even though the Yankees only won 92 games, the way the bullpen was set up, it was going to take a miracle to beat them in October. The Yankees relied on their impenetrable bullpen, which helped secure them their first World Series title since the 1970s. Little did I know the Yankees would win four more championships and Mo Rivera would lock up almost 600 saves as the Yanks' closer over the next 15 summers.

Rivera was so good in the summer of 1996 that the Yanks let Wetteland go and they gave Mo the closer's job for the 1997 season. He's held it ever since. It wasn't until a freak accident (shagging flyballs in batting practice) sidelined him last season with a torn ACL and Rafael Soriano took on the role as the new Yankees closer for the first time in 15 seasons.

Over the next century, Mo Rivera's stats will be used as a measuring stick for determining the value of future potential Hall of Fame closers. Rivera saved 608 games (currently #1 all-time). Opposing hitters could only muster up a paltry .210 career batting average. Rivera's ERA passed 3.00 only once in his career (3.15 in 2007), while his ERA was held under 2.00 in 11 seasons. More importantly, Rivera's WHIP was 1.00 or under in 10 seasons.

The Yankees won 100+ games five times during Rivera's reign as closer. Rivera had 14 seasons with 30 or more saves (yet only one season with 50+). You can make an argument that the Yanks blew out a lot of teams, which gave Rivera fewer save opportunities.

As good as Mo Rivera was during the summer, he was untouchable in the fall. When the postseason rolled around, no one could hit Rivera. In 96 postseason appearances, Rivera tossed 141 innings, posted an 8-1 record and saved 42 games with an astonishing 0.70 ERA and 0.759 WHIP. In the playoffs, Rivera allowed only two home runs.

When I was a kid, the Yankees used to have a bullpen car. It was white with blue pinstripes. The reliever would get in the car, which would drive along the warning track and down the foul line. They stopped the car in the early 80s and relievers jogged from the bullpens in centerfield to the mound. I don't recall the precise moment when Mo Rivera began trotting out of the bullpen to Metallica's Enter Sandman during home games in the Bronx, however, like Pavlov's frothing dogs, Yanks' fans began salivating upon hearing the opening riffs. Nothing gave you a more secure feeling than watching Mo Rivera take warm up pitches while Metallica blasted over the sound system. Lock up the win. Ballgame is over. Cue up Sinatra's New York, New York, because Rivera is about to blaze through the side.

The pundits thought Mo Rivera was washed up at the end of the 2007 season and had lost movement on his previously unhittable cut-fastball. The Yanks posted 94 wins that year, yet they were bounced from playoffs in the ALDS. Rivera saved 30 games but his ERA ballooned to 3.15, the highest he's ever had as a closer and roughly one full point higher than his career ERA at the time. The Yanks' front office scrambled and tried to find potential replacements. Just when everyone thought Rivera was washed up, he bounced back the next season. Over the next four years (2008-2011), Rivera saved 160 games and averaged 40 saves a season. Not too shabby for a washed-up 40 year-old closer, eh?

Mo Rivera is a highly religious man. His nickname is "The Hammer of God." Whenever I see Mo Rivera pitch, I'm convinced that God is a Yankees fan. How else did the franchise get blessed with Mo Rivera?

One of my favorite Mo Rivera stories happened during a brief military coup in his home country of Panama. The political turmoil occurred during the offseason and tanks rattled through Rivera's neighborhood. A couple of soldiers rounded up civilians and Mo Rivera was included in that sweep. When one of the officers recognized Mo Rivera's face, he quickly apologized and let Rivera and his family go. Rivera was a national treasure and not to be fucked with.

Mo Rivera will be the Yankees' closer for one final season. On paper, this banged-up Yanks squad might be the worst team Rivera has played on since 1995. Who knows how many save opportunities he'll get this summer? One thing is for certain, all eyes will be fixated on every single one of Rivera's pitches. It's very rare you get a chance to utter that infamous line from The Natural... "There goes Mariano Rivera. He's the best there is. Best there was. The best there'll ever be."


Anonymous said...

the 1995 Yankees did not lose 85 games, they were a good team that lost to Seattle in the playoffs.

DrPauly said...

Nice catch. I made an error.

They Yanks lost 65 games and not 85. The 1995 was shortened because of the strike.