We were on the back fields at the old Yankees facility in Fort Lauderdale watching pitchers' fielding practice. I commented to Buck Showalter that it seemed strange to me that The Phenom, Brien Taylor, had such problems in the drills and questioned the athleticism necessary for long-term starting prominence.
"Who sticks out?" Buck asked.
"That guy who's now fielding balls at shortstop. He looks as if he could play short or center right now."
"Good call," laughed Showalter. "Mariano Rivera. Remember the name."
A year later, in 1995, Showalter brought Rivera to the Yankees. Seventeen years later we all remember the name of the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history. I've never forgotten that moment in Spring Training, because in more than 40 years of covering baseball, Rivera is the person I most respect. "I think everyone who knows him feels the same way," Derek Jeter said this spring.
Rivera is a devout man, deeply religious and mystical, respectful and thoughtful. In the winter before the 2011 season, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein contacted Rivera's agent, Fern Cusa, to make a substantial three-year offer that far exceeded what the Yankees at the time were offering. Mariano thought it out, then told Cusa he insisted on talking to Epstein personally.
So he called Epstein. "I really appreciate what you've offered, I am honored," he said. "But before we go any further, I cannot deceive you. I cannot do it. I do not think it would be right. I respect the Red Sox, I love Boston, but it would not be right to pitch in a Red Sox uniform at this point in my career. Money isn't worth doing the wrong thing."
Epstein in turn thanked him. He'd reached out to the right person.
"I treat everyone the way I'd like them to treat me," Rivera often says. I once told him that I was doing a piece on John Grisham's baseball complex south of Charlottesville, Va., and in laying out the rules of the complex -- parents had to watch from center field and players could be suspended for arguing with umpires or swearing -- Grisham said, "You know, there's nothing wrong with civility."
"I like that," Mariano laughed. "There's nothing wrong with civility." He would repeat that to me several times a season.
He has never won an MVP or Cy Young Award, but he is the most valuable player since his 1996 emergence. He has done it essentially with one pitch, his cutter, an incredibly athletic, repeatable delivery, a ferocious will and the ability to forever be at peace with himself. The morning pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in 2002, he chatted about the end to the 2001 world series. Asked if he'd recovered from losing Game 7, he smiled and said, "I broke three bats. It's part of the job. It's the game."
Last April he admitted that the distance from his family had become a stress, the reason he likely was going to retire after this season. Now, that retirement will likely be delayed, as Rivera announced that he will attempt to come back rather than let a freak knee injury end his career for him.
He's been a human metronome. Right-handed hitters have batted .214 against him, lefties .207. Opponents have batted .214 against him at the Yankee Stadiums, .207 on the road. Relief numbers: 2.05 ERA, 1,081 strikeouts, 257 walks. Postseason ERA: 0.70 in 141 innings.
He once said the most exhausted he ever felt after a game was the seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series, when he pitched three innings against the Red Sox until Aaron Boone homered for the pennant. I was scrambling to get on-field interviews for ESPN, and missed Rivera. We did the interviews, I did my hits for ESPN, and we began packing to go to the visitors' clubhouse for a Pedro Martinez piece.
"Wait," the producer Charlie Moynihan said. "Mariano's coming over here."
Rivera had left the clubhouse, walked down the runway and up and out of the dugout. "I figured you were looking for me," he said, and the interview began.
The next spring I thanked him, again, and he replied, "I believe that one will never go wrong treating people the way you want them to treat you."
Mariano Rivera has never gone without being civilized, thoughtful and the best relief pitcher ever born.