Sunday, July 21, 2019

Books: On What It Was Like To Face Mariano

Facing Mariano Rivera: Players Recall The Greatest Relief Pitcher Who Ever Lived
Edited by David Fischer, foreword by Dave Anderson
Sports Publishing; paperback, 312 pages; $15.99

Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history who won five championships with the Yankees, was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday after being the first unanimous selection this past January.

Rivera is the all-time career leader in saves, with 652. Since taking over the closer’s role for the New York Yankees in 1997, until his retirement in 2013, Rivera saved 30 or more games in every season but one. In addition, he has an astonishing MLB record 42 postseason saves, with 11 of them coming in the World Series.

The new book, Facing Mariano Rivera, edited by David Fischer, with a foreword by legendary New York Times writer, the late Dave Anderson, offers perspectives and testimonials from opponents and teammates alike, including Rivera’s minor-league roommate and the final batter he faced in the major leagues. Most of the interviews were conducted in Rivera's final season, 2013, and six interviews were conducted in 2018 ahead of this revised edition.

"During his illustrious career, Mariano Rivera faced over five thousand batters, from Brady Anderson to Gregg Zaun; from stars like David Ortiz, who faced him thirty-four times, to neophytes like Bill Selby, who faced him twice. The list of batters included in this book run the gamut from Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar, who managed to hit .455 (5 for 11) against him, to All-Stars like Alex Rios, who didn't have a hit in 15 plate appearances, to Jason Smith, a lifetime .212 batter who inexplicably hit .600 (3 for 5) against Rivera. 'I don't think I owned him,' says Smith. 'I was very lucky.'..

"Whatever the results compiled by individual batters, this much is true: If there was one relief pitcher in the last two decades who personifies the word 'closer,' a stadium full of baseball experts would pick Rivera. Few, if any, relief pitchers enjoyed the immensely positive reputation for finality that Rivera earned with the Yankees. As his former manager Joe Girardi said: 'I love when he comes into the game. You feel like it's over.'..

"The vision of Rivera bursting through the bullpen door was enough to give even the most malevolent opponents serious pause. With the Yankee Stadium sound system blaring Metallica's 'Enter Sandman,' and the fans raucously cheering in anticipation, Rivera jogged across the outfield grass and strode gracefully to the mound. The music meant that entering the game is Mariano Rivera, the reedy right-handed relief pitcher from Panama with a steely focus and a sense of mental calm so great he could sleep through a thunderstorm. he fires seven or eight warm-up pitches, stares blankly at his target with shark-like eyes, and then gets down to the serious business of recording the three toughest outs in baseball."

Rivera accomplished it all, mostly, with one devastating pitch: his signature cut fastball. As third baseman Corey Koskie put it, “You knew what pitch [Rivera’s] going to throw, a cutter. . . . You start to swing at the pitch and the next thing you know, the ball explodes your bat. I tried multiple things hoping to figure out a way get the barrel [of the bat] on one of his pitches. . . . Nothing worked.”

Some opponents had uncommon success against “The Sandman,” and they share their secrets for hitting him. Most, however, echo the sentiments of five-time All-Star Mike Sweeney, who said, “When you’re at Yankee Stadium and Mariano Rivera is coming in the game, it feels like a horror movie . . . when you hear the music and you’re scared to death, because you know what’s going to happen.”

Tino Martinez joined the Yankees in 1996, the season the Yankees won the first of their four titles in five seasons, and the year Rivera served as the set-up man for John Wetteland. Tino, who played with the Seattle Mariners prior to his time in New York, was 2-for-11 with no extra-base hits, 1 run batted in, and 4 strikeouts.

"He shut me down (when I was with Seattle)," said Martinez. "I was always happy when they took him out of the game. I didn't know who he was at first, or how good he was going to be. When he came out a game we always talked about what kind of great stuff that guy had. And, obviously, he became a great closer.

"Then to be a teammate of his for all those years was incredible. He's a total professional. The guy was the best closer ever, and he does it with one pitch. Without Mo, we'd have one, maybe two World Series [wins], but we wouldn't have four, that's for sure.

"The best memory I have of him is in '96, the year we won our first World Series. He pitched the seventh and eighth inning of every postseason game, in the playoffs and World Series. It was the first time I've ever been on a team where after six innings if we have the lead the game was over. And it was all because of Mo. Every postseason game, Mo closed out the seventh and eighth and was dominating, and [John] Wetteland came in and closed out the ninth. If we were ahead after the sixth inning, we knew the game was over, and the other team knew it, too.

"It's funny, back then, we loved Wetteland, and he did a great job for us. But we always asked Mo if he could pitch the seventh, eight, and ninth! He was that dominant. He shut guys down. It's comforting to have him on your team, because when he comes in, the other team knows the game is over. It's a bad feeling for them, and a great feeling for you. He was a luxury for us to have.

"He dominates the game but he doesn't show anybody up. He closes games the right way. You don't see any emotion at all. That's what I love about him the most. He'll strike out three guys, or break their bats, then shake hands, because I did my job, and the game is over. He acted that way, like it's his job, and the game is over. He acted that way, like it's his job, shutting teams down, and winning ball games. He's a good example for young kids to watch, and other closers as well. He has the type of attitude that you can't hate him. You don't think: 'I can't stand that guy, let's get him.'"

Johnny Damon, who was Rivera's teammate from 2006 to 2009 and battled Rivera in the playoffs for the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, was 5-for-29 with no extra-base hits, 2 runs batted in, 3 walks, and 2 strikeouts in the regular season; and 2-for-8 in the postseason against Rivera.

Damon won the 2009 World Series with Rivera, and also saw his Red Sox come back against Rivera in the fourth game of the American League Championship Series in 2004 to begin a comeback from 3-0 on the way to winning the World Series.

"Mariano is definitely the best closer of all time, probably the best pitcher of all time, too," said Damon. "You know what pitch you're getting from him, you get ready for that pitch, he throws you that pitch, and then your bat's breaking. It's no fun. That's what makes him special; you knew what pitch was coming, and you still couldn't make good contact.

"I don't think too many guys have had great success off him. I definitely did not. I started to get a little bit better towards the end of my career, but still, a little bit better, like hitting .150, is not good. What I tried to do was take the cutter away by moving towards him. Normally my back foot is against the back line of the batter's box, but against Mo, I would straddle the plate so I'm closer to the pitcher. It makes the fastball seem harder, but hopefully I can get to that cutter before it moves too much. Later in my career, I started to make better contact, but he still made firewood out of my bat."

Truly dominant pitchers come along only rarely, and Facing Mariano Rivera gives the reader the feeling of what it’s like to battle one of the all-time best, in the words of the players who did just that.

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