Yankees closer spends time with Rockies employees as part of last-season tour
Special to MLB.com
DENVER -- Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has thrown the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth in many an opposing ballpark, another save in hand and congratulatory handshakes to be exchanged with his teammates. It hadn't happened at Coors Field for one good reason.
"I haven't pitched here," Rivera said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm dying to pitch here, hopefully tonight or tomorrow."
Rivera was sitting in an interview room adjacent to the Rockies clubhouse. He was speaking to 12 longtime Rockies employees, something Rivera has been doing in every opposing ballpark in his final season in the game. "I pitched here when we came here in '95, but that's it," Rivera continued, referring to two exhibition games the Yankees and Rockies played that year. "It was freezing, too. I remember Andy Pettitte was pitching. I said, 'Andy, just get them out, because I don't want to pitch.' "
The Rockies employees laughed. Their workday was being spiced up by something highly unusual, something memorable. They were listening to Rivera, the all-time leader in saves, in a small gathering and would leave the room with an autographed baseball and an unexpectedly personal glimpse of a future Hall of Famer.
"It's very unique. I've never heard of anything like this," said Michael Kent, the Rockies' vice president of finance. "I've been in baseball over 30 years. And there's a lot of great players that have retired and they honor them a lot of different ways, but I've never heard of this approach."
Yankees director of communications Jason Zillo explained to the group that Rivera as part of his farewell tour has asked to meet with employees of opposing organizations and thank them for their efforts. Zillo organizes the sessions with help from his counterparts on opposing teams.
"The one thing he told me when he decided to do this," Zillo said, standing next to Rivera before he spoke, "is if you're employees for the Rockies, you're probably not Yankees fans, and that's OK. And you don't have to be a Mariano Rivera fan, particularly, but he wanted to do something different and unique and I think this is pretty unprecedented what he's doing."
Rivera told the employees that he wanted to thank some of the "behind the scenes" people who work in baseball, recognize their contributions and make sure they know they are not taken for granted.
Rivera expressed his thanks to head groundskeeper Mark Razum and two members of his crew for their tireless efforts Tuesday night to keep the field as playable as possible when it rained steadily during the game.
"You have to make sure the mound is good, the bases are good," Rivera said. "We definitely don't like playing in situations like that, but there's no excuses. I appreciate you guys trying to make the field comfortable for us, and we can be more safe. It's a lot of work."
Rivera took questions and Jeff Benner, the Rockies senior director for season tickets, asked him how he developed his cutter, his devastating signature pitch.
Rivera gave an answer that was lengthy, detailed and interesting. He explained how he went to Spring Training with the Yankees in 1997, assuming he would again pitch in a setup role despite the departure of closer John Wetteland. Given the closer's job, Rivera said he "was trying to do so good" the first month of the season that he "was going backwards."
"It was like trying to run in quicksand," Rivera said.
Even after being assured by manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre that the closer's role was his, no matter what, Rivera said, "That's what you want to hear, but in reality, if I continue what I was doing, I won't be the closer. Someone else will have to step in."
While playing catch with fellow reliever Ramiro Mendoza, who like Rivera is from Panama, "the ball started moving." So much so, Rivera said, that Mendoza got mad, thinking Rivera was "playing around with the pitch."
Rivera said he was getting frustrated. Current Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was then the New York catcher, was perturbed because he didn't know where the ball was going.
"He's mad at me," Rivera said. "I'm mad at the pitch. It was a mess because we don't know what's going on, but the results were good."
Rivera recalled a 30-minute session in Detroit where the goal was to make the ball go straight.
"The more we worked, the more the ball was moving," Rivera said. "And I say, 'You know what, just leave it alone.' If it's going to move, it's going to move, because I don't try to do nothing different. I'm throwing the ball the same way that I have thrown the ball my whole career. No one teach me that. I truly believe that the Lord gave me that. Is no way you doing something the same way for your whole career, and all of a sudden one day when you have to be more effective, you have to be good, this happens. It was the purpose of the Lord. He knew all along that I needed something different."
Hours later, Rivera would use that famed cutter to earn a save in Coors Field for the first time, finishing the Yankees' 3-2 victory over the Rockies.
Benner was the first Rockies' employee for whom Rivera autographed a baseball. On his way out of the interview room. Benner was asked what he thought of the meeting with Rivera and, in particular, how attentively he answered Benner's question.
"It's pretty special," he said. "I've been in the game 21 years. This is my career. Even though I'm not a Yankee fan, the role that he has played in this game -- for me to be here along with some of my other colleagues is pretty neat. It's special for him to take the time to do this. He dosen't have to do this. And what's neat is it appears he's gaining something on a personal level. He's trying to give back to the game. The game has given him a lot; he's giving back in his way."