Theo: Rivera’s greatness transcended Yankees-Red Sox rivalry

Theo: Rivera’s greatness transcended Yankees-Red Sox rivalry
September 28, 2013, 5:30 pm
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ST. LOUIS — The greatest closer ever has the classic entrance music (Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”). He wears a historic number (Jackie Robinson’s 42) and an iconic uniform (New York Yankees pinstripes).

Could you imagine Mariano Rivera running into the middle of Fenway Park and closing it out for the Boston Red Sox?

Theo Epstein understood there was a 99-percent chance the Yankees would simply add another year to their offer, bring back Rivera and keep him on his Hall-of-Fame path toward Cooperstown. But the Red Sox general manager at the time also wanted to see the chaos it could cause in The Bronx, how The Evil Empire might overreact in December 2010.

With Rivera’s retirement tour ending Sunday in Houston, the Cubs president of baseball operations looked back on their history and paid his respects.

“He’s so classy and so good for the game and so dignified that he was really hard to root against,” Epstein said. “He really almost transcended the rivalry with his well-earned stature in the game.”

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Rivera wound up signing a two-year, $30 million deal, which is about what the Red Sox had presented that winter. Rivera personally called Epstein to thank him for the offer. Rivera told Epstein how much he respected the Red Sox and the way they played the game — and that he couldn’t switch sides.

“It was a super classy call from him,” Epstein said. “It made the whole thing kind of worthwhile.”

Rivera’s greatness could be seen in the way he bounced back from blowing the save that allowed the 2004 Red Sox to begin their epic comeback and reverse the curse. He wasn’t haunted by a Game 7 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in an emotional World Series after 9/11.

A religious man, Rivera has viewed his career as divine intervention. Cubs staff assistant Mike Borzello — who spent 12 seasons in the Yankees organization, primarily as a bullpen catcher — was there at Tiger Stadium in 1997 when that magical cutter came out of nowhere.

“It just appeared,” Borzello recalled last year. “He started warming up in Detroit, (and) the first couple fastballs were cutting.

“He’s throwing — at the time back then — 95 to 98 mph, and the last few feet it’s cutting. And I’m like: ‘What’s going on?’ And then I’m checking the ball, and he doesn’t know what’s going on either.

“So he switches balls and then finally he’s just kind of worried, like: ‘What is going on? I can’t throw the ball straight.’”

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The Yankees used that weapon to build a dynasty. At the age of 43, Rivera walks away as the all-time saves leader (652), with five World Series rings and universal respect for his faith, charity work and sense of calm.

“From spring training in ’96 until the last day I was with (the Yankees), he was the exact same,” Borzello said. “You’ll see guys get nervous as the innings get later and it’s closer to their time. The phone rings and you see the nervousness or you see this antsy-ness.

“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 didn’t take a lot of success, and then he became more comfortable. He was comfortable from Day 1. And it was fascinating to watch.”

It will be weird not seeing Rivera again in October — but not nearly as strange as the idea of “Sandman” in a Red Sox uniform.