How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever

How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever
May 11, 2012, 12:45 am
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Mike Borzello understands how Mariano Rivera is wired. Borzello knows that the money and the fame and the pressure never changed the bulletproof closer for the New York Yankees.

Borzello was there before Metallicas Enter Sandman became an anthem at Yankee Stadium. The Cubs staff assistant worked there for 12 seasons, primarily as a bullpen catcher, from 1996 through 2007, and took part in four World Series celebrations.

So Borzello had to be philosophical after hearing last week that Rivera collapsed onto the warning track at Kauffman Stadium and tore an ACL in his right knee.

Its difficult to think thats the way hes going to go out, Borzello said. But being with Mo for all those years, one thing he always did was shag in center field. It was the same every day and he used it as his conditioning. It was just an unfortunate thing that happened.

But we always used to joke that he was our best defensive center fielder.

The Cubs will have bullpen questions when they open a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday at Miller Park. Carlos Marmol has a 20 million contract, but no defined role other than be ready to pitch.

Kerry Wood was frustrated enough the other night to throw his glove and hat into the Wrigley Field seats. James Russell and Rafael Dolis appear to be taking over the endgame.

But its like that for just about every team in the majors. Relievers are notoriously difficult to project from one year to the next. Thats what made Rivera such an outlier as he piled up 608 career saves, plus 42 more in the postseason, where he has a 0.70 ERA.

Without the 42-year-old Rivera who just found out that he also has a blood clot in his right calf the Yankees wont be able to play an eight-inning game anymore. Like everyone else, they will have to deal with the uncertainty.

Answers can come out of nowhere. Borzello was there at Tiger Stadium in 1997 when that magical cutter revealed itself out of thin air. Rivera, a religious man, has compared it to divine intervention.

It just appeared, Borzello recalled. The first two years (of his career) he was just a four-seam fastballslider guy. (One) day he started warming up in Detroit (and) the first couple fastballs were cutting.

Hes throwing at the time back then 95 to 98 mph and the last few feet its cutting. And Im like: Whats going on? And then Im checking the ball and he doesnt know whats going on either.

So he switches balls and then finally hes just kind of worried, like: What is going on? I cant throw the ball straight.

Rivera wound up saving that game, but had no idea how it happened. He had been a long man and a setup guy for the Yankees as he broke into the big leagues. No one could have been thinking Hall of Fame at that point.

The man who would become the all-time saves leader was just trying to gain traction as a closer.

We came back the next day and its the same thing, Borzello said. Now hes really worried because he couldnt command it. Hes like: I dont know where its going. I can throw it at the plate, but I cant put it where I want.

It just kind of went from there. The rest is history, I guess. He learned how to basically locate it to both sides of the plate. He would elevate it. He could go at your hands if youre left-handed.

It just became this weapon that weve never seen before, and probably wont see again.

If that was a physical gift, Rivera was also blessed with the emotional intelligence to handle closing in New York.

When Wood was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Yankees at the 2010 deadline, one of the things that struck him was the sense of calm in the bullpen.

(Rivera) knows how to slow the game down, Borzello said. Hes never going to rush. The games going to wait for him. Hes not going to change his routine to accommodate the game.

A lot of guys are like: Oh my God, I got to get ready, get down and theyre firing, firing. It just turns into chaos and it sometimes carries out into the game. It was never that way with him.

That mental toughness is essential. Rivera blew the save that allowed the Boston Red Sox to begin their epic comeback in 2004 and make Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England.

Rivera also shook off a Game 7 loss to Bob Brenlys Arizona Diamondbacks in an emotional World Series after 911.

It generated almost universal respect. Last summer at Wrigley Field, Marmol approached Rivera and asked him to autograph a jersey he wanted to frame and hang in his home in the Dominican Republic.

From Day 1 that I was ever with Mariano Rivera, from spring training in 96 until the last day I was with (the Yankees), he was the exact same, Borzello said. Youll see guys get nervous as the innings get later and its closer to their time. The phone rings and you see the nervousness or you see this antsy-ness about most guys.

Mariano was always just the most relaxed (guy), confident in what he knew he was capable of doing. He was that way from Day 1. It didnt take a lot of success, and then he became more comfortable. He was comfortable from Day 1. And it was fascinating to watch.

So Borzello has this sequence in his mind. It could have been bases loaded at Fenway Park, but it didnt really matter where the Yankees were playing.

Rivera would get up from his seat, grab his glove and lift a weighted ball. Rivera liked throwing three balls with Borzello standing up, and then would have the bullpen catcher crouch down to finish warming up his arm.

That sense of routine had the greatest closer of all-time running around during batting practice in Kansas City, just before the fall.

You cant tell people to stop being baseball players, Borzello said. If anyones going to come back from that, even at his age, it would be him. Hes in great shape and hell do whatever it takes. If he wants to continue playing, I dont doubt him at all.