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Mariano Rivera has spent his entire career with the New York Yankees. (DOMINICK REUTER/REUTERS)
Mariano Rivera has spent his entire career with the New York Yankees. (DOMINICK REUTER/REUTERS)

Joe Lapointe

Mariano Rivera: The closer and the most loved man in baseball Add to ...

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.

While Rodriguez is booed in every road city, Rivera is cheered, even when trying to stop the home team.

Rivera refuses to discuss the circumstances surrounding Rodriguez. Rivera represents the angel of lightness on the 2013 Yankees, while Rodriguez stands for something much darker.

The New York Daily News, working the Rodriguez story aggressively with a team of reporters, has been among his harshest critics. Bill Madden, a baseball columnist, recently wrote Rodriguez is “the most hated man in baseball, a man depicted as a serial drug cheat at war with his own team.”

Rivera, in contrast, may be the most loved man in the game.

Before a game against Detroit at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago, Tigers manager Jim Leyland walked across the field to the far end of the Yankees dugout (an unusual gesture) to where Rivera was signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans from his native Panama.

Instead of a handshake, Leyland gave Rivera a big hug and Rivera responded in kind. As Leyland walked away, a fan asked for a picture of them together. “Mr. Leyland!” Rivera called. Leyland turned, jogged back and posed for the photo.

Leyland, as AL manager in the All-Star Game at Citi Field in July, brought Rivera in for the eighth inning and ordered his fielders to stay in the dugout so fans could cheer at length in New York’s National League park.

As he doffed his cap, Rivera once appeared about to cry.

“Oh, my God, are you kidding me?” he said last week. “That moment was” – he paused and swallowed – “personally, a wonderful moment.”

Leyland thought so, too, calling it “one of those great moments in baseball, something you’ll never forget. I guess you couldn’t have scripted it any better.” Eventually, Leyland – who scripted it – told Rivera’s teammates: “This guy’s good, but he does need some fielders. Let’s go!”

Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays had pitched the previous inning. “We all jumped up out of the dugout and gave him his last all-star standing ovation,” Cecil said. Earlier, in the bullpen, Rivera told the young pitchers it was his privilege to talk with them.

“And I said ‘No, it’s a privilege for us, trust me,’” the Jays reliever said.

Leyland has said Rivera was the most valuable player in baseball in at least three seasons. Teammates and rivals love to discuss him with wonder in their eyes and awe in their voices.

Rivera, Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey said, is a “gentleman’s gentleman.” Jose Reyes, the Blue Jays shortstop, called Rivera “a great human being.”

Josh Thole, a Jays catcher, recalled his introduction two years ago to the intimidation of Rivera’s cut fastball, which often breaks bats of left-handed hitters by moving on a horizontal plane from the middle of the plate into the swing of the hitter.

“[While with the New York Mets,] against him, I got pinch-hit for and I’m thinking ‘Why?’” Thole said. “I’m a lefty and he’s a righty and I said, ‘What?’”

Sensing Thole’s perplexed state, Mets manager Terry Collins showed him statistics of Rivera’s success against left-handed hitters. “He was mowing lefties down left and right,” Thole said. “Bing, bang, boom. Strike three. Thanks for coming.”

Jays infielder Mark DeRosa got no such reprieve.

“My greatest memory is facing him in ’09 in interleague and looking up in the family section before the at-bat and my dad was putting his head in his hands and kind of saying to me ‘Son, you’re about to strike out,’” DeRosa said. “And I did.”

Reyes, a switch-hitter, said he has batted right-handed against the right-handed throwing Rivera, a departure from baseball custom, to negate the effectiveness of the cutter against left-handed hitters.

Rivera’s current catchers, Chris Stewart and Austin Romine, said Rivera is easy to work with. He doesn’t take much time between pitches and throws from the set position.

Most of the time, a catcher could call the pitch by taking off his mask and shouting, “Hey, Mo! Throw the cutter!”

“He’s one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher, of all time,” Stewart said. “Having the chance to catch him is a blessing. He throws the cutter in to lefties and away to righties.”

Romine added: “It’s really mind-boggling. You watch it cutting and guys are looking foolish, professional hitters.” He got Rivera to autograph a baseball, which he sent to his mother in California. “My mom is his hugest fan.”

Asked whether Rivera could pitch next year for a round figure of 20 years, Romine said: “I’d like to think he could do it forever.”

(Rivera said the number of seasons is not important to him).

When asked why more pitchers can’t duplicate Rivera’s cutter, Dickey said: “So many people have tried. To be able to make the ball spin the way that he can is a gift.” Dickey said he has tried it in workouts and succeeded about 10 per cent of the time.

“That’s why I throw a knuckleball. His cutter is something innate. He’s got the perfect hand size, the perfect arm length, the perfect measurement from his elbow to his wrist. So many things are God-given.”

For a man so relatively open to strangers and co-workers, Rivera’s locker space in Yankee Stadium provides privacy and protection. He sits next to an abutment in a long wall that guards his right flank.

In front of his locker, a large, aluminum column hides him from those who would approach. In between, the passage is narrowed by six large boxes of fan mail, a trash can and two laundry hampers.

Rivera sometimes strolls away from group questioning after games and bolted recently when asked about the Rodriguez controversy. Sometimes, he’s most receptive after his few failures.

When Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera hit a remarkable home run off him with a line drive to centre field earlier this month, television cameras caught Rivera’s eyes following the ball over the fence and mouthing the word, “Wow.”

And why not, according to Rivera, who might have smiled as the ball landed. “The game is hard enough not to enjoy it,” he said, “and it’s not only when good times happen.”

Ichiro Suzuki, now a teammate, recalled beating Rivera in 2009 with a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Seattle. In 22 years of baseball, Suzuki said it is one of his fondest memories.

“I’ve only hit one home run off him,” he said, through an interpreter. “It’s one that I remember.”

Another hit off Rivera, a bloop single to left field by Luis Gonzalez, scored the winning run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series that gave the Arizona Diamondbacks the championship, after it looked as though the Yankees were about to clinch it.

Rivera told New York Magazine recently it was God’s will.

“I did my best,” he said. “Guess what? Didn’t happen. And you think I’m going to start like a child, ‘Oh, oh, oh,’ I be crying? No, I did my best.”

With an opponents’ batting average of .212 against him, some major-leaguers treasure the smallest successes.

DeRosa said: “I remember being in Texas and getting a hit off him. I remember running to first. You have moments in your big-league career that are very special and to get a knock off Mariano Rivera is a special thing.”

And so is this tour. Everywhere he goes, Rivera gets tributes and gifts from the other teams. In Cleveland, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rivera got a framed gold record of Enter Sandman by Metallica, his personal walk-in music. He also banged a drum with fan John Adams, who has hit it in the Cleveland bleachers since 1973 in support of the Indians.

Because Rivera breaks so many bats, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire commissioned a custom-made rocking chair created by pieces of broken bats. Because Rivera was a fisherman’s son in Panama, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave him fishing gear, with part-owner Earvin (Magic) Johnson making the presentation.

The gifts, and the conversations in private with people in each city, have made his final tour a feedback loop of affection and admiration.

Little of it has involved religion, but Rivera carries with him a well-worn Bible. His hero in Scripture is King David. On his glove is stitched “Phil. 4:13,” for the Bible verse in the book of Philippians.

At the end of a short interview – Rivera has only so much time for one-on-ones these days – he was asked to sum up in one sentence how baseball and spirituality have entwined for him this season.

Ever the efficient worker, Rivera summed it up in one word: “Love.”

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