Just weeks after the exaltation of Mariano Rivera at the All-Star Game and the standing ovations that followed on the road in his farewell tour, the 42-year-old New York Yankees relief pitcher fell into the worst slump of his brilliant, 19-year career.
Rivera, baseball’s best closer in history, squandered three consecutive ninth-inning saves. That was a first. So manager Joe Girardi kept him in the bullpen during the next save situation, Aug. 12, against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Instead, Girardi used David Robertson, Rivera’s understudy and presumptive successor. This brought cognitive dissonance for Robertson from a large crowd in Yankee Stadium.
“We want Mo!” fans chanted, as Robertson warmed up in the bullpen.
“We want Mo!” they continued, as he pitched on the mound.
Robertson said: “I was like, ‘Good God, I’m in a tough spot now and it’s just getting worse.’”
Robertson got the save in a 2-1 victory, which came early in a winning spurt that stood at 11 in 14 games after Thursday’s 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
The run has put the Yankees back into the American League postseason playoff discussion.
Rivera said during his slump “there’s a lot left in the tank.” And he was right.
After six days off, Rivera responded impressively this week, his famous cut fastball back in the right places.
Since last Sunday, Rivera has appeared in four games, winning one, saving two and protecting the lead in one non-save situation.
After the Yankees play three games at Tampa Bay this weekend, they will visit Rogers Centre in Toronto for three games beginning Monday, and Rivera will bring with him at least 645 regular-season saves, at least 44 more than the retired Trevor Hoffman, who is in second place.
In 42 save opportunities this season, Rivera has 37. For his career, as of Friday morning, he is 645 for 723.
He also will carry the memory of his rookie year, 1995, when the Yankees clinched the wild-card playoff berth in Toronto’s domed stadium (“That was big for us”). It ended a streak of 13 years without postseason play for this dynastic franchise and began an era that has included five of its record 27 World Series championships.
And, as has been the case all season on the road, Rivera will spend at least 45 minutes in a closed audience with about 20 stadium employees and long-time fans to thank them for their loyalty to the sport.
The Toronto session is scheduled for Tuesday. It is a goodwill tour conceived by Rivera, who plans to spend his next career, at least in part, as an urban missionary in charge of a remodelled church he is refurbishing in a suburb north of New York.
Rivera wants to help poor and troubled people. He is a fervent Pentecostal Christian who blends competitive athleticism with a spiritual personality. Meeting the fans and employees, he said, brings him insight and tranquillity.
“I’ve been blessed,” Rivera said recently. “It’s humbling to me. I don’t deserve it. It’s a blessing from the Lord. I’m learning. I’m getting more than what I’m giving. I am hearing from people who have troubles. So many families and people have been blessing me with their histories.”
Rivera said he took profound inspiration from a boy in Kansas City who is pitching through cancer therapy and does not want to come out of games. “Every time the manager wanted to take him out, he’d say ‘Just one more,’” Rivera recalled.
Jason Zillo, the Yankees media-relations director who arranges the sessions with his counterparts from other teams, said of the meet-and-greet tour: “We knew it was a great thing and it’s exceeded his expectations and mine.”
Zillo says Rivera requests names and short biographies of people he will meet. “He talks to Wounded Warriors and cleaning ladies and carpenters and groundskeepers. I don’t think most players would make this commitment. He’s energized.”
What goes unmentioned but grows every day is the contrast between Rivera’s behaviour and that of Alex Rodriguez, another Yankees star who might be in his final season for different reasons.
Since recovering from off-season hip surgery and returning Aug. 5, Rodriguez and his representatives have appealed his 211-game suspension for alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs; threatened the Yankees with a union grievance over medical treatment; accused the team and Major League Baseball of conspiring to cheat him of his contracted salary; felt the sting of opponents who say publicly he should not be playing; and felt the thud of a fastball last Sunday from Boston starter Ryan Dempster, who was suspended five games for his deed.