Beginning of Rivera Era was far from smooth
Mo converted save in first chance after Wetteland's exit, but not without bumps
As Mariano Rivera prepares to retire, the closer's farewell tour has become a central subplot to the season. Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader has been greeted warmly in each of his road stops, and the Yankees are planning a ceremony of their own to honor Rivera's illustrious career in September.
Rivera will be the last active player to regularly wear uniform No. 42, with the number having been retired throughout MLB in 1997 to honor the achievements of barrier-breaking great Jackie Robinson. During his 19-year big league career, Rivera has also chiseled his own mark on the number's legacy. In honor of Rivera and his contributions, MLB.com is commemorating 42 notable moments from Rivera's career -- the 42 Days of Mo.
The successor had been determined in theory far before it was officially announced: Mariano Rivera would eventually take over for John Wetteland as the closer of the New York Yankees.
While the date was never set in stone, an unfortunate ending to the Yankees' relationship with Wetteland in the offseason following 1996 -- when Wetteland saved all four wins in the World Series -- pushed the clock in fast forward. Wetteland was publicly hoping to stay with the Yanks, but he instead landed a four-year contract with the Rangers, thus sealing Rivera's fate.
In 1997, Rivera would be the Yankees' closer.
Rivera, 27 at the time, had finished 1996 with 130 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings as the team's everyday setup man. Following in the footsteps of Wetteland, who had been second in the Majors in saves to Randy Myers over the previous five years, the pressure on Rivera could hardly be described.
Rivera's first chance came in the Yankees' fourth game of the 1997 season. With the Yanks clinging to an 8-5 lead over Art Howe's Athletics and Mark McGwire standing on second base, manager Joe Torre called on Rivera for a four-out save. Rivera induced Geronimo Berroa to fly out and end the eighth inning.
The ninth wasn't so smooth. Jason Giambi and Matt Stairs hit back-to-back singles in an attempt to spark a rally, and Rivera was in his first jam. In response, he struck out the next three batters.
April 5, 1997, was the first save chance Rivera had as the Yankees' official closer. And it might be a good thing he converted, because by April 15, he was already treading water.
Rivera blew three of his next five save chances and Torre was already fielding questions about whether Rivera would lose his job.
"Interestingly," wrote Jack Curry of The New York Times, "when Torre was asked if he might switch Rivera out of the closer spot, he did not instantly bark 'No' the way NBC would if someone suggested it change the Seinfeld 9 p.m. time slot on Thursday. Instead, Torre said: 'I don't think so. I played. When you go 0-for-10 or 0-for-12, you want to go out and get it right.' The talented Rivera will get it right. But the growing pains, which are good pains for now, might still exist."
Rivera went on to save 43 games in 1997, and 646 games in total entering Tuesday.
"When you look back, from where he started and the process of how Mariano Rivera -- not a scared kid, but a wide-eyed kid -- becomes arguably, then far and away, the greatest closer that ever lived, you can kind of see it now," Wetteland said this July.
"The thing that blows my mind is how the body holds up. We all take care of our bodies; energy in and energy out. We all tend to those things, but there are a special few that are blessed with the ability to keep going. That's something that's very special that I can't explain."