Exit Sandman: Yankees Closer Mariano Rivera On the Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

39COVv21Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the template for what it means to be a pitcher, a teammate and a friend, says senior writer Tom Verducci in the cover story for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands Wednesday.  “Closing time for the game’s greatest closer has arrived,” Verducci writes. And as Rivera—baseball’s alltime leader in regular-season and postseason saves—ends his iconic career, Verducci presents an oral history of Rivera with commentary from coaches, teammates, opponents and fans whose lives Rivera has touched. The Yankees’ closer appears on SI’s cover for the fourth time, with the billing “Exit Sandman.”

“Probably not since Koufax have we seen anyone leave the game with so much respect,” says Joe Torre, Rivera’s manager with the Yankees for four of his five World Series championships. (PAGE 36)

Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, a teammate of Rivera’s from 1997 to 2011, reflects on how good Rivera always looked, even when they were in the minors. Posada says, “He was always very tailored—even in the minors. We would blouse our pants, but he would always look perfect in his uniform. His jeans were perfectly tailored and he was always very well dressed. He would wear these leather sandals from Panama—I remember because he has ugly feet. Don’t tell him I said that. Now he gets manicures and pedicures.” (PAGE 38)

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the Yankees’ manager from 1992 to ’95, admits that he wasn’t sure about Rivera’s future when he saw him throw in spring training in 1993, the year after Rivera had elbow surgery. That would change. Showalter says, “His hand and fingers were born to pitch. He has really long fingers and the perfect wrist; he can’t move his hand much side to side, but it’s very flexible up and down.” (PAGE 38)

Rivera and Derek Jeter played in a combined 26 All-Star games and 10 world championship rings. However, after a tough start to both of their careers, the Yankees sent both of them back to the minors on June 11, 1995. Jeter:  “We were devastated. You can say depressed. Once you come here, you never want to go back. . . . It wasn’t exactly current times back then, you know what I’m saying? We had the Boss then. You don’t do your job and he’ll trade you in a minute. Kids have it easy nowadays. Seriously. It’s so different now.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Girardi, Yankees manager, and Rivera’s teammate from 1996 through ’99: “In all the years I caught him, he never threw a ball in the dirt. I don’t ever remember having to drop to my knees to block a pitch in the dirt. I know he never threw a wild pitch that bounced. His control is that good.” (PAGE 39)

Mike Borzello, Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2007: “In 1996 he became the setup guy, and John Wetteland, our closer, started talking to him every day. Wetteland knew Mariano would take over for him the following year. The closer doesn’t usually take the next closer under his wing. Wetteland did, and Mariano did [the same] with every other reliever that came through.” (PAGE 39)

Joe Torre: “I’m not sure how long my tenure with the Yankees would have been if not for Mo pitching the seventh and eighth innings in 1996. He allowed me to manage just six innings of a game.” (PAGE 40)

Rivera has pitched in 96 postseason games and lost just once: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. Luis Gonzalez dumped a broken-bat single over Jeter’s head, barely onto the outfield grass, to drive in the winning run. Gonzalez: “I was very fortunate to get that hit off one of the best of all time. I think a lot of relievers would have been crushed by that loss. With Mariano, that was just a small bump in the road that didn’t slow him down any.” (PAGE 40)

Phillies righthander Roy Halladay says that Rivera taught him how to throw a great cutter at the 2008 All-Star Game. “The biggest thing was his finger placement and how his thumb was under the ball,” says Halladay. “I was throwing a cutter, but it was inconsistent. Once he told me about the thumb, it became a big pitch for me.”

Halladay adds: “What he did for me was unbelievable. That to me is what great players do: They leave marks on the game, an impression that is about who they are and not just about their numbers and accomplishments. My favorite players of all time have done that—left a mark based on their character: Derek Jeter, Chase Utley and Mariano Rivera.” (PAGE 42)

CC Sabathia, Yankees lefthander: “This is what I would tell people about Mariano: Believe everything you hear about him, because it’s all true. You always hear nobody can be that nice, nobody can be like him, nobody can shrug off wins and losses the way he does. . . . It’s unbelievable. I never met or played with a guy like that. If you want to be a better player or a better person, you watch him.” (PAGE 42)

Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, psychologist, Yankees mental-skills coach from 1996 to 2002: “I have worked with elite performers ranging from Navy SEALs, U.S. Secret Service, NASA astronauts, to athletes. Mariano Rivera may be the single most impressive performer and leader I have ever known. He is the exemplar that I point to when I discuss the mental attributes of champions.” (PAGE 42)

In his last season, Verducci writes that in ever road season Rivera wanted to meet “behind-the-scenes” people who had dedicated their lives to baseball or had known illness or tragedy. On May 11, Rivera met with Ryan Bressette and his family in Kansas City. Bressette, a Royals clubhouse attendant from 1981 to ’94 dealt with tragedy when a flight-status display board fell on his family in the Birmingham, Ala., Airport. His 10-year-old son, Luke, was killed, while he, his wife, and son Sam all suffered serious injuries. Rivera met with the family and fulfilled a promise to Sam to give him the ball from the last out of the game. Ryan Bresette says, “This is something I haven’t told too many people. When Mariano came over to me, I stuck out my hand to shake his hand, and he gave me a hug, pulled me close and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re a stronger and braver man than I ever could be.’ ” (PAGE 43)


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