Commentary

Rivera's body, work make him special

Mo performs like a champ because he looks, acts like one. You paying attention, Joba?

Updated: February 18, 2011, 8:52 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- "Mo picked a good day to come back," Joe Girardi said with a chuckle. "Today's our first day of no running."

If Girardi had been talking about just about anybody else, you might be tempted to think he was right.

But this was Mariano Rivera we were talking about, and you had to figure he probably did his running anyway.

Girardi, of course, could afford a chuckle on the day his closer walked through the home clubhouse door at George M. Steinbrenner Field, three days after every other pitcher was required to report, due to illness in his family home back in Purchase, N.Y.

Mariano Rivera
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMariano Rivera has earned the complete trust of his Yankees bosses -- which is why his three-day absence wasn't an issue in Tampa.

Not that there was any doubt Rivera would show up or that when he arrived he would show up fit and trim and ready to dive right into the spring training routine.

Rivera laughed when a reporter asked how his weight was. "My weight's fine," he said. "Same as always."

Had the Yankees asked him to step on a scale. "No, I don't need to," he said. "I'm good."

In the midst of the Fat City otherwise known as the Yankees' pitching staff, Rivera's lean and regal presence was a relief, and a reminder that some professional athletes still take pride not only in what they do, but how they do it. And how they look doing it.

It is no accident that Rivera pitches like a champion, because he looks the part and acts it, too.

Had this been just about any other Yankee, the concern over a delayed arrival would have been real, and justified. Certainly, there are a couple the Yankees know they can trust to get here on their own schedules and to do the right thing while they were tending to whatever personal business was keeping them away from training camp.

Derek Jeter, for sure, and CC Sabathia, and probably Mark Teixeira. Alex Rodriguez, too, although can you imagine the reaction if it had been A-Rod who had showed up three days late with some story about taking care of his sick kids?

Thankfully, it was Rivera, who has earned the complete trust of the Yankees' organization off the field precisely because he has earned its complete trust on the field.

That is what a Joba Chamberlain has yet to understand, that the only way to acquire the privileges afforded a Mariano Rivera is to conduct yourself like Mariano Rivera.

Rivera is as down to earth and grounded a superstar as you will find in any sport.

At the same time, he occupies a rarified atmosphere that others cannot visit, because unlike them, he has not only earned it, but knows enough not to take advantage of it.

Rivera certainly enjoys privileges many of his teammates do not. He is known to fly separate from the team on occasion, sometimes on the day of a game, in a first-class seat on a commercial flight.

And when he needs an extra day or two -- or three -- to remain behind with his family, it is not even questioned.

Because when the time comes that the Yankees need him to perform, Rivera performs. Period.

"If I say I need time to do something, it's not because I want to do it, it's because I needed to do it," Rivera said. "You earn that respect when you give everything you have, and that's what I have done. It's not right to talk about myself, but that's what I have done all my career. And now I'm here and ready to work."

This is not a case of a pampered athlete being allowed to make his own rules because he is so good. More like a supremely disciplined athlete whose employers know they can trust him not to raid the liquor cabinet or the buffet table when they are not looking.

At 41 years old, Rivera is the same 185 pounds he has been for probably the past 10 years or so.

"The condition of your body, that's something you have to pay attention to," he said. "But you control that, you know? I think you have a real, real impact on that. You have to take care of yourself. If you want to continue pitching, you have to take care of yourself."

What he was saying was that while his bat-shattering cutter might be a gift of genetics, the whipcord-lean body he uses to throw it certainly is not.

Even after all these years, he still works at it, because he understands a professional athlete's body is as precious and indispensable to his line of work as a scalpel to a surgeon and perfect eyesight to a test pilot.

"I definitely think that [Rivera's conditioning] has a lot to do with his consistency and longevity," Girardi said. "I think that's the foundation, the physical shape that he's been in. I think you can look at the longevity that Mo's had, and use that to see how you lengthen a career and how you stay sharp."

Girardi was talking about what lessons Rafael Soriano, his new setup man, could learn from Mariano, but he just as easily could have aimed those words at Chamberlain.

On Wednesday, Joba shrugged off questions about his weight as follows:

"I'm getting to know my body better. I've learned to pitch in the big leagues. I've kind of adjusted every year. I'm kind of at that point where I've kinda done everything. I'm to the point now where I feel comfortable enough that I know what I need to do."

Hearing him say it Wednesday, it sounded silly. Recalling it in the presence of Rivera on Thursday, it seemed almost embarrassing.

In his four years in the major leagues, Chamberlain has gone from phenom to middle reliever -- his stock devalued like a share of Enron. In his 16 major league seasons, Mariano's reputation has only been burnished and enhanced, his numbers consistently spectacular and spectacularly consistent.

And in spite of his success and the security that goes with it, he still sees the value of coming to camp looking, from the neck down at least, the way he did a decade ago.

Rivera, who at times has acted as a mentor to Chamberlain, was asked if he would have a word with the young reliever.

"I will talk to him if I have to," he said. "If you come in overweight, I would say that's your own fault. Nobody's fault but yourself. Everybody here knows what they have to do. We're not kids here. We're men. And everybody knows they have to take care of themselves."

If Mariano Rivera has a flaw, perhaps that is it: Because he thinks he is just like everyone else, he might also think everyone else is just like Mariano Rivera.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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