The legend of Mariano Rivera began in 1996.
A season after making his Major League debut as a starting pitcher with mixed success, Rivera earned a spot in the Yankees bullpen out of Spring Training. By the end of April, Rivera had proved to be nearly unhittable and took over the team's set-up role.
With All-Star closer John Wetteland dominating the ninth inning, Rivera limited opposing team's chances to score against the Yankees to the first six innings on most nights. Over the course of the regular season, Rivera appeared in 61 games, posting a 2.09 ERA over 107.2 innings. His 130 strikeouts were the most for a Yankees' relief pitcher in a single season at the time.
Rivera's importance to the team's first championship in 18 years was underscored even further during the postseason. He allowed one earned run in 14.1 innings, and of the eight games in which Rivera pitched, the Yankees won seven. In those victories, Rivera never took the mound with more than a two-run lead.
Rivera, who took over the closer role in 1997 and etched his name into baseball lore over the next 17 seasons, sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at Yankee Stadium in late July.
Going into Spring Training of 1996, what did you hope your role would be on the pitching staff?
I didn't care where I ended up as long as I made the team. I wasn't looking to be in one position in particular. I just wanted to be on the 25-man roster. I pitched well in the '95 postseason, but I had to come to Spring Training in 1996 and fight for a spot on that team. There were no guarantees that I was going to be on that team. I did what I had to do, and thank God [Joe] Torre saw what I was able to do.
That April, you made three consecutive appearances over seven days in which you gave the team a total of nine innings of work without giving up a hit. Do you feel as if that stretch solidified your role as the set-up man?
It may have, because, up to that point, the only thing that was guaranteed on that pitching staff was John Wetteland's role as closer. Everyone else had to prove themselves. When the season began, I was being utilized as the long reliever, and I was able to do that job. Torre and [pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre decided that I was able to do the job of the set-up man after that, and I had to keep pitching well. It became a great season for me not just because of what I was able to do, but because of the people I was surrounded by, including our coaches.
How did your friendship with John Wetteland develop in 1996?
I was in the bullpen as a long reliever and then as his set-up man. That brought us very close. We would sit together during games and talk. He had experience, and I didn't. I would sit next to him like a sponge, just trying to absorb everything he was teaching me. It was an amazing experience for me because of the type of friend and teammate he became.
By the All-Star break, you had already thrown 60 innings, which is the normal amount of work for most relievers in an entire season. How did you feel about the way you were being utilized going into the second half?
I was used to throwing a lot of innings. I had been a starter and a long reliever, and that helped me a lot. I was always OK with the amount of innings I was pitching. Torre knew what he was doing, and I really trusted him. I was getting the job done, and Torre put me out there when he felt the situation dictated that I should be on the mound.
You took the mound in 20 of the Yankees' final 52 regular-season games, helping the team stave off the Orioles and win the division. What were those last two months like for you?
It was an exciting time. We were in contention, and everyone could feel the excitement when we got to the Stadium. After the first half, Baltimore got close to us, and we had to continue to play good baseball. Torre needed me out there frequently, and I was able to come through. If I could go back in time, I wouldn't change a thing.
How important do you feel the Mariano Rivera-John Wetteland combination was to the success of the 1996 Yankees?
That was a key factor of our success that season. We were able to shorten the games to six innings. It seemed like teams were pressing as the seventh inning approached because they wanted to take the lead before John and I came into the game. At the same time, our team was special for all of baseball. After that season, a lot of organizations began to build teams like the '96 Yankees, with a great set-up man and even better closer. I believe that teams started to try to copy that formula as soon as we won the World Series. They saw how that scenario brought us a title.
The Atlanta Braves really had you on the ropes in the World Series. Looking back, how challenging was it to come back and beat that team?
Video: 1996 WS Gm6: Rivera throws two scoreless innings
It was a great challenge. We were down, 2 games to none, going down to their ballpark. The only thing we had going for us was that we knew we could come back. We trusted our team. We went down there, and just about everyone came through. That was the toughest team I ever pitched against in the World Series, but we were on a mission.
You had major elbow surgery a few years prior to 1996 while you were in the Minors, and you entered the '96 season still trying to establish yourself as a Major League pitcher. When the last out of the World Series was made, how did you feel about your journey to the top?
From a personal perspective, I couldn't even comprehend the emotions I felt. But as a team, that was the goal we were going after from the first day of Spring Training. It's still difficult for me to express how I felt when Charlie Hayes finally caught that last out. It was overwhelming.
How does the excitement of winning that World Series compare with the championships you won after that?
The first one is always special because you have never experienced it before. When we were experiencing all the great things that came with winning a championship that season, it was all new.
Looking back, how would you describe that team and that season?
1996 was the beginning of everything. It was about a group of guys who never gave up, who wanted to be different and who wanted to do something for the fans. That's why we were able to accomplish what we did. We weren't even the most talented team in the American League that season. You had Cleveland and Baltimore and Seattle, and they were the teams to beat. But we were a group of guys who were determined to do something special, and that showed in the end.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The legend of Mariano Rivera began in 1996.