By Justin McCahren
You’d get goosebumps at home and in the stands when “Enter Sandman” played. For Yankees fans it meant that the final nail was about to be hammered into an opponents coffin. For the opposition, it meant an unenviable task. The task of trying to hit perhaps the greatest single pitch in the history of baseball. The bat busting, heavy handed, cut-fastball of Mariano Rivera.
Today, Yankees Universe is faced with a sobering possibility. We may never see that cut-fastball again. While innocently shagging fly balls in the outfield in Kansas City, the greatest closer of all-time crumbled to the ground. It looked serious immediately and by the end of the night, it was confirmed- a torn ACL in his knee. It has been widely speculated that this would be Rivera’s final season. The 42 year old all-time saves leader was thought by many, to be leaning towards retirement.
Since coming up for a cup of coffee with the Yankees in 1995, one thing was obvious about Mariano- he was focused. He was focused on his daily regiment, he was focused on his religion and he was focused on success. Everyone around the Yankees in 1995 agreed that if there was a can’t-miss prospect in their system, it was Rivera. The problem was, it wasn’t going to be as a starter. Rivera started 10 games in 1995, and showed flashes of brilliance, but it was clear that the bullpen was a more likely destination for the young Panamanian. By the 1995 postseason, Mariano was starting to get comfortable pitching in relief.
By the following season, Rivera was ready to take off in his new role. He quickly asserted himself as one of the best relief pitchers in the game. That year he exploded onto the scene as a set-up man for Yankees closer John Wetteland. Rivera would throw the most innings in any one season of his career in 1996. He struck out 130 batters in 107.2 innings and had an ERA of 2.09. He also added 5 saves when Wetteland wasn’t able to pitch. Little did anyone know that the dynamite right hander would eventually become baseball’s all-time saves leader.
1996 wasn’t just the announcement of Rivera’s arrival. It was also Derek Jeter’s first full season in pinstripes on a team manged by new skipper Joe Torre. Second year starter Andy Pettitte was also establishing himself as one of the best young hurlers in the game. To go along with Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and a club house full of talent, the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978. There was magic around this group of Yankees, and Rivera was part of it’s core.
As we know now, 96 was just the beginning. Rivera became the Yankees closer in 1997 and aside from some nicks and bruises, he’s never relenquished his role until now. Mariano has been part of 5 World Series champions and his total numbers are staggering. He has a career 2.21 ERA in the regular season and a mind boggling 0.70 ERA in the postseason. He has 1,119 strikouts over 1219.2 innings pitched. His WHIP is the second lowest in baseball history at 1.00. He holds the record for career saves with 608. Yankees fans, teammates and undoubtedly Mariano himself are hoping that he gets a shot for 609 and beyond.
Today Mariano vowed that he would be back, and that he didn’t want to go out like this. When a Yankees fan hears that, how can it be questioned? That same focus and determination he has displayed since 1995 is still prevelant today. You can’t doubt him, but logic says that this won’t be easy. For most 42 year old players, you could close the book on their career. Then you realize that there aren’t many 42 year old players, but even fewer who work as hard and are as dedicated as Mariano Rivera. Just look at the events of the last 24 hours. When interviewed after the injury, Mariano was more emotional than most have ever seen. By this afternoon, Rivera had the conviction back in his eyes. He truly doesn’t want this to be the end.
For me personally, I want to hear that entry music again. I want the goosebumps back when Enter Sandman plays. I want to see the stoic and focused stare that has burned straight through every opposing batter since he entered the big leagues. I want to see that cut-fastball again. I want to see it hit the mit after a swing and a miss. I want to see that cutter shatter bats and force uncomfortable swings. ESPN Classic just won’t suffice. A summer without Rivera racking up saves and helping the Yankees get to the postseason is going to be strange. Here’s hoping that next summer, Mariano will get to go out on his own terms.