Commentary

New socks, same Mo on Opening Day

Mr. Automatic notches save No. 560 with customary grace, uncharacteristic style

Updated: April 1, 2011, 12:01 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Out of a chilled London mist and the sweeping grayness of an Opening Day best suited for the Halas Bears, not the Girardi Yankees, No. 42 appeared with 42 saves to go to match the most prolific closer of them all.

In pursuit of Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera did not look half as cold as the fans wearing ski caps and gloves, all of them standing and cheering under the hauntingly familiar sound of "Enter Sandman." The New York Yankees held a 6-3 lead over the Detroit Tigers, the equivalent of a 25-point lead in basketball with the ball in Rivera's right hand, and all anyone could do was study the pitcher's socks.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireMariano Rivera was his usual calm, collected, dominant self -- albeit with some funky footwear.

Rivera was wearing them high, El Duque style, for the first time in his iconic career, and the last man to wear Jackie Robinson's number went about his business with the same dignity and grace, reminding the crowd that everything but his footwear remains the same.

Sure, Brandon Inge ripped a shot to center that Curtis Granderson ran down in Willie Mays form, sans the flying cap. But it was three up and three down for Detroit, with Rivera earning his 560th save by striking out Alex Avila looking -- on a cutter, of course. The closer didn't pump his fists or break into some juvenile end-zone dance; he merely trudged toward his new catcher, Russell Martin, just as he'd trudged toward Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi in the past.

The buzz inside the winners' clubhouse revolved around the reconfigured pen, and the perfect seventh thrown by Joba Chamberlain followed by the perfect eighth thrown by Rafael Soriano, the free-agent closer who took $35 million to play Pippen to Rivera's Jordan.

"A special bullpen," Chamberlain called it. And as good as Chamberlain and Soriano looked, it's a special bullpen not because of a Big Three, but a Big One.

A forever Yankee who thought about joining the Boston Red Sox while the world fretted over Captain Jeter's contract last fall.

"It was real," Rivera said at his locker Thursday. "It was very real."

His interest in the Red Sox was real until the day Brian Cashman showed up in Rivera's Westchester home, sat down in the closer's office, and threw his own pitch up and in.

The general manager had been through this with Bernie Williams way back when, but Williams was more than halfway from the Bronx to Fenway Park when George Steinbrenner finally coughed up the money and closed the deal. Cashman didn't believe the 41-year-old Rivera would leave anymore than he believed Derek Jeter would leave.

"Come on," Cashman told Rivera. "Don't give me that bulls--- that you're leaving us for Boston for a two-year contract. You're not leaving your family and your house here to do that, even if we just offer you one year and an option."

"You're right," Rivera responded. "I just want to be treated fairly."

So the Yankees treated him fairly, gave him two years and $30 million.

"It definitely would've been weird to play for Boston," Rivera said, "but I knew the Yankees would make a good offer. I had no doubt. When [Cashman] came to my house, he told me the same things I already knew for years.

"I mean, I was born here and I'm just going to keep it like that. Simple."

Sixteen years after Rivera first appeared as a Yankee, everything about him still looks simple. The purposeful trot to the mound. The stone cold expression. The tight, efficient delivery. The right-to-left cutter that plays tricks on the human eye.

"His motion, windup and mechanics have never changed," said Jeff Nelson, one of Rivera's old setup guys. "He's still nice and smooth, still one of the best fielders out there, and still knows where he wants to throw the ball.

"He's not throwing 95 miles per hour anymore, but his ball explodes on hitters. It's coming in there at 90 or 91, but it probably still looks like 95 to the hitters."

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireRivera closed out his 560th save with a simple handshake with his catcher, Russell Martin, just as he had done with backstops Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi before him.

Only Rivera's impact doesn't end with the final out. From 1995 on, he's maintained a room-temperature presence in victory and defeat, the very reason he's survived the kind of postseason calamities -- against Cleveland in '97, against Arizona in '01, against Boston in '04 -- that would've broken a lesser man.

"When a lot of guys give up a game, you can see it on their faces," Nelson said. "If you didn't know the score when you walked into the clubhouse and looked at Mariano, you'd have no idea if the Yankees won or lost."

Nelson spoke of the changes Rivera made as a concession to the forces of nature. Just as an aging Michael Jordan embraced the jump shot, an aging Rivera is more willing to throw away from lefties and inside to righties. "And he never used to do that," Nelson said.

Rivera made one mistake against Detroit, and made it with a three-run lead and the bases clear. Inge's laser to center, the closer conceded, would've cleared the wall in the summertime, but hey, wintry conditions often help when the iceman cometh.

"It's a great feeling," Rivera said of earning a save on Opening Day. "But it's still the same. It doesn't matter what the situation is. It's just another game we have to win."

Rivera deflected a question about Hoffman's record, crediting the team for his success. He also batted away a few queries about his curious change in game-day attire.

"I just wanted to do it like that," he said before making this exasperated plea: "Guys, it's the socks, please."

Rivera has always been about substance over style. Thursday, the Yankees beat Detroit because Mark Teixeira hit a three-run homer off a pitcher (Justin Verlander) who had owned him, and because the center fielder, Granderson, made like DiMaggio in the field and Mantle at the plate.

But on an impossibly damp and raw afternoon, the Yankees' Old Man River -- Old Man Rivera -- was the right choice, the only choice, to slide one more Opening Day inside the trophy case.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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