- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Fourteen distinguished years after blowing his very first playoff series as a closer, Mariano Rivera still swears Sandy Alomar Jr. was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.
Alomar's Game 4 homer swung the Division Series in Cleveland's favor, left George Steinbrenner cursing a loss to his hometown team, and inspired his New York Yankees to wonder if they should've stopped their World Series MVP, John Wetteland, from making his free-agent score in Texas.
No, Rivera didn't wonder. He threw the pitch he wanted to throw, and in his mind Alomar might as well have been wearing a blindfold when he stuck out his bat.
"If you look at it today," the closer said Wednesday at his locker, "you can still tell it was lucky. Don't you think it was?"
Of course it was lucky, I told him. I wasn't about to argue with a 41-year-old icon who had just become the first pitcher in baseball history to appear in 1,000 games with the same team.
"Hey, I'd take my percentage," Rivera said as he stuffed his travel bag for the long trip out west. "It's not 100 out of 100, but it's 95 out of 100. Wouldn't you take that?"
Yes I would, I assured him. Yes I would.
Sixteen years and two days after he first appeared as a Yankee, after he got pounded in Anaheim as a starter who lasted only 3 1/3 innings, Rivera punctuated a 7-3 victory over Toronto by striking out a 25-year-old rookie, J.P. Arencibia, on three pitches, finishing him off with a 91 mph cutter, of course.
"He could probably pitch until he's 50 if he wanted to," Joba Chamberlain said.
Maybe 50 is selling Rivera short. You heard him at his locker, suspending all of his dignity and grace for a brief moment to throw open a window on his competitive soul.
Rivera didn't build the greatest bullpen career of them all by being such a kind and neighborly guy, and by playing the game as if he were wearing a tux and a top hat.
He doesn't believe the Alomars and Luis Gonzalezes of his day were better. He believes they were accidental tourists at the intersection of good fortune and fate.
"I've never been a player that has doubts," Rivera said.
Actually, he had a few in his earliest days in the minors. Rivera couldn't speak English, and his inability to communicate with most of his teammates and coaches left him crying in the solitude of night. He didn't want to worry his parents in Panama, so he'd seek comfort in long-distance calls to his girlfriend, now his wife.
He had elbow surgery in 1992, and the Yankees left him unprotected in the expansion draft. Rivera wasn't taken. He was something of a non-prospect in 1993 when a skin-and-bones teammate in Greensboro, N.C., Derek Jeter, counted his pitches from shortstop to help protect his recovering arm.
"We just tried to pick up each other," Rivera said. Jeter committed 56 errors that year, and they both worked out just fine.
Now Rivera is threatening to outlast the captain, who turns 37 next month. As the Core Four does its slow fade to black, the closer has a chance to be the last Beatle standing.
"Every aspect of what [Rivera's] done is incredible," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "He's a one-pitch pitcher coming from a small fisherman village in Panama, and to have this type of success in the biggest city in the world is incredible."
Cashman was surrounded by reporters in the middle of his clubhouse. He had delivered more bad news about the injured Rafael Soriano, who will be out for a long time, a bulletin that served its purpose on a day to celebrate the unbreakable Mo.
"He's like the Energizer Bunny," Cashman said. "I hope it keeps going, but unfortunately at some point it won't."
History says the Yankees won't be done with him without a fight. They nearly traded a young Rivera twice, once to Detroit and once to Seattle, before wiser heads prevailed.
Rivera had to sweat and bleed for his place in Yankeedom. He wasn't a bonus baby the likes of Jeter or Brien Taylor, but a converted shortstop signed for a lousy $3,500. It wasn't until Rivera's velocity made a sudden jump in 1995 from the high 80s to the mid 90s that he convinced Gene Michael and Buck Showalter -- the men laying the foundation for a dynasty -- that he belonged back in the bigs.
Rivera, Michael said, "had a straight fastball and no cutter and no movement. He was mediocre at best." When the reports came in that Rivera was touching 96 on the gun in Columbus, Michael thought there must've been some mistake. He phoned a scout in the know, and soon enough Rivera was throwing eight scoreless innings for the Yankees in Chicago, striking out 11 and allowing two hits.
Joe Girardi, his current manager, became his catcher in '96. "I'd never even heard of him," Girardi said Wednesday. He knows a thing or three about Mo now.
Rivera's reliance on the cutter, Girardi said, "tells you how great he is at his craft because he's really never fooled people. It wasn't like you're looking for a fastball and you get a changeup, or you're looking for a fastball and you get a curveball.
"Mo just said, 'Here it is. It's going to cut, it's going to sink, and I'm going to throw it where I want and you try to do something with it.' I can't think of any pitcher that's really ever done that."
At the end Wednesday, the fans were on their feet in the hope that Rivera would deliver the 1,068th strikeout of his career. Mo got it done on Arencibia's check swing. Laz Diaz, the first-base ump, was among those to shake the closer's hand. Alex Rodriguez rubbed Rivera's shoulders and shouted in his ear.
"One thousand games," Rivera said at his locker. "Like I've said before, you have to be old to do that."
Old and durable and gifted and proud.
But not lucky. The few opponents who conquered Mariano Rivera were the lucky ones.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg