The last time Mariano Rivera was in Cooperstown, he was one of the only visitors in the normally quiet upstate New York town. It was the dead of winter, and even by Northeast standards, it was unseasonably cold. Zero degrees to be exact.
In the half year between Rivera’s official tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- which took place soon after he became the first player in history to be elected unanimously -- and induction weekend, the temperature increased by nearly 90 degrees. And about 55,000 more people converged on the small town, a three-and-a-half-hour drive north from Yankee Stadium.
Hours before the July 21 induction ceremony began on a stage at The Clark Sports Center, located about a mile from downtown Cooperstown, the normally sleepy town’s Main Street could not have been more vibrant. The road was closed to automobile traffic, and thousands of people were walking in both directions, shopping, eating and simply celebrating history. Even though it was still morning, several restaurants had grills and coolers in place on the sidewalk, selling everything from hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage and peppers sandwiches to beer and lemonade.
Just about all of the other businesses followed suit, and their inventory mainly consisted of items related to Rivera. At the lone parking lot near Main Street, a temporary sign read, “$42,” which not coincidently was the number Rivera wore during his 19-year career in pinstripes. A few feet from there, Schneider’s Bakery was selling a rack of freshly made cookies in the shape of baseball jerseys that read “Mo 42.” And, the many baseball card and souvenir shops were basking in the Mariano madness, selling anything and everything related to the closer’s career.
On a long table, situated outside one memorabilia store, there were 10 different Rivera T-shirts available, along with jerseys that included a Hall of Fame patch sewn on to the left sleeve. The sign on the town’s small theater read, “Enter Sandman, 100% Unanimous.” Across the street from that eye-catching marquee, there was a rack of shirts, one of them featuring a pinstriped goat -- symbolizing the acronym for Greatest Of All Time -- wearing Rivera’s No. 42, and like everything else, it was selling fast.
The dramatic change in Cooperstown from a rural and frigid village in midwinter to the epicenter of the baseball world on a blistering hot midsummer weekend was notable, but also something that happens every year. Something like the story Mariano Rivera crafted, though -- from a small fishing village in Panama to a moment such as he enjoyed in July in another small town -- comes once in a couple of lifetimes.
As 1:30 p.m. rapidly approached in Cooperstown, the swarm of people on Main Street made the walk to a field where Rivera and the rest of the Class of 2019 would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The wide-open expanse, surrounded by thousands of trees, stretched for about a quarter mile. A few seating areas were set up in front of the stage, and behind those 2,000 or so chairs were tens of thousands of people sitting in the open field, some under tents that they had set up the day before and others trying their best to avoid a sun burn. In addition to Rivera’s family and friends, Panama president Laurentino Cortizo, along with former Yankees Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Tino Martinez, awaited the start of the festivities.
Upon arriving at his seat, Posada spoke about the bond that has long existed among his Core Four teammates, who first joined together in the Minor Leagues more than 25 years ago.
“We were friends from the beginning,” Posada said. “We dealt with the ups and downs of getting through the minors together, and we helped each other in any way that we could. When you win as much as we did together, it just brings you closer together.”
In a tent behind the stage, 53 returning Hall of Famers -- an induction ceremony record -- along with the five new members of baseball’s ultimate team and Brandy Halladay, representing her late husband, Roy, were about to be introduced. Also waiting to be brought out was former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams, an accomplished musician who was asked to perform the national anthem on his electric guitar.
As the ceremony’s start neared, Williams reflected on the experience of watching Rivera pitch from 1995 through the outfielder’s last season in 2006.
“I got an opportunity to see Mariano when he first came up,” Williams said. “We all knew that he had great stuff, but he had some issues with consistency as a starter. That’s what precipitated the change to make him a reliever. But I think that his breakthrough was discovering the cutter out of pure fate a few years later. He claims that it was given to him by God, and I agree that it was divine. To have one great pitch carry him through most of his career, that is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in the game. For a pitcher to have one pitch that everyone knew was coming, and still no one could hit, if that’s not divine intervention, I don’t know what it was. The location he had on that pitch was absolutely precise.”
During the center fielder’s tenure in the Bronx, he was part of four championship runs between 1996 and 2000. When asked about Rivera’s importance to those teams, Williams pointed out that the way the relief pitcher dominated the final innings of regular season and postseason games was only part of the story.
“Collectively, we had a very serious mentality,” Williams said. “But it was epitomized by Mariano’s demeanor on and off the field. He set the example for young players and for everyone else on those teams. He was as humble as anyone I played with, and he was always willing to help his teammates. He took guys under his wing and taught them how to be Yankees. He was an instrumental part of the whole mentality of excellence that we had.”
What Rivera did on the mound over nearly two decades was not overlooked by Williams or by any of the Hall of Famers who weighed in on The Sandman’s career prior to the festivities. In 19 seasons, Rivera collected a Major League–record 652 saves while posting a 2.21 ERA. But it was in October that Rivera’s true greatness came out. Facing the best teams and most potent hitters with the hopes and dreams of his team’s entire season on the line, Rivera was at his best. In 96 postseason appearances, Rivera racked up a record 42 saves and pitched to an unfathomable 0.70 ERA.
“What he did in the postseason affected us in a positive way because we knew that when we had a lead late in the game or especially in the ninth inning, it was a done deal,” Williams said. “Not only did we know it, but the opposition knew it, as well. That became an important part of the success we had; the hitters were halfway defeated before they even stepped to the plate.”
Hall of Fame skipper Joe Torre, who managed Rivera for his first 12 full seasons in the bullpen and led the Yankees to four championships, remained emphatic that without Rivera, history would have been different.
“If you look at when he first became our set-up man in 1996, that’s when I became a genius,” Torre joked. “That season, I only had to manage for six innings. And what he meant to our team as a closer for all of the seasons after that was as much or more than any regular position player in the game. Position players and pitchers are usually evaluated separately, but Mariano was pretty much a part of every victory we had, and without having his consistency at the back end of games, we probably wouldn’t have won some of the games we needed to win in the postseason.”
Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series certainly qualifies as one of the games that the Yankees needed to win. With the score tied, 5-5, Torre brought Rivera into the contest to face the Red Sox in the ninth inning. The closer put up a zero, then did the same in the 10th and 11th innings, setting the stage for Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th. In a career defined by clutch performances, Torre put what Rivera did that night at the top of list.
“For so many reasons, that was an immensely difficult set of circumstances,” Torre said. “Mariano had never pitched three innings out of the bullpen, yet, he wasn’t coming out of that game. Even though we had a pitcher up at the start of every inning, he wasn’t giving the ball up. He willed himself to do things that night, and you can’t teach that.”
A few seasons after the epic series against the Red Sox, Rivera eclipsed fellow closer Trevor Hoffman’s all-time saves record. Hoffman, inducted in 2018, watched Rivera from afar, always marveling at his accomplishments.
“Mariano is the benchmark for closers,” Hoffman said from behind the stage. “He was the Babe Ruth of relief pitchers, and it was shown this year in the voting. When he started throwing the cutter, everyone knew that it was coming, but nobody could hit it. It was like going to a scary movie; you know it’s going to be scary, but you still watch it and you still get rattled.”
Almost two decades before Rivera joined Hoffman as the only pitchers to save 600 games, their paths nearly converged. As difficult as it may be to imagine that the only unanimous Hall of Fame selection and the second-most prolific closer in history were once deemed expendable, that was the reality back in 1992.
During baseball’s expansion draft that year, teams could only protect a limited number of players. Hoffman was not protected by the Cincinnati Reds, and Rivera -- coming off an injury to his throwing arm -- was also available for the newly founded Florida Marlins or Colorado Rockies. Then-Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski took Hoffman, and he was also set to nab Rivera when the Rockies took Yankees catching prospect Brad Ausmus before Florida’s next pick. Because of a limit to the number of players from one team that could be selected, the Yankees were able to hold on to Rivera.
“I think that just goes to show you how the game has a real ebb and flow,” Hoffman said. “It weaves a canvas for people’s careers and how they intersect at times and how we don’t intersect. It would have been amazing to have been in the same bullpen with him back then, but more than anything, that story illustrates how much you can improve and how far you can go if you believe in yourself. It also makes me realize how fast the time has gone.”
With that, the time had come. A few minutes after 1:30 p.m., Hall of Fame chairman of the board of directors Jane Forbes Clark stepped up to the podium and began the ceremony. She began with a statistic.
“Less than one percent of the 19,500 men who have played in the majors are in the Hall of Fame,” Clark said. “They have all had incredible careers. They define the greatness of the game with their character, with their integrity, and with their sportsmanship. They are our legends.”
Clark then introduced the master of ceremonies, Brian Kenny of MLB Network, and he brought out each of the returning Hall of Famers. The introductions concluded with the Class of 2019. Mike Mussina, Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez, Lee Smith and Brandy Halladay joined the previously enshrined Hall of Famers on the stage.
“And, to close us out,” Kenny said, “All-time saves leader … and a postseason legend, Mariano Rivera.”
As Rivera, wearing a dark blue suit with an orange tie, walked out onto the stage and sat down next to Mussina, the crowd gave him the loudest and longest ovation of the day to that point.
Following Williams’ performance, the first five men were officially inducted.
After Smith’s speech, Williams returned to the stage to play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but during the rendition, he mixed in some notes from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the song that played each time Rivera took the mound at Yankee Stadium. Again, the crowd roared, this time in anticipation of Rivera’s speech.
In about the same amount of time that Rivera customarily spent watching his teammates set the stage for him in games, the closer quietly prepared for his opportunity to shine on this sunny afternoon. From the moment the ceremony began, it took 2 hours and 40 minutes for the spotlight to turn to Rivera, but for the contingent of Yankees fans, as well as the
many groups of Panamanians dispersed throughout the grass field, it was worth the wait.
Clark returned to the podium and asked the crowd to turn its attention to the giant monitor to the left of the stage, where a video about Rivera -- narrated by Pettitte -- began to play.
Rivera then joined Clark next to the podium and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred read the inscription on the closer’s plaque.
“Ladies and gentleman, from the Hall of Fame Class of 2019, Mariano Rivera,” Clark announced.
“First of all, I don’t understand why I always have to be the last [one],” Rivera began. “I’ve been saying that for the last 20 years. I guess being the last one is special.”
The closer then thanked God, his family, George Steinbrenner, Joe Torre and his teammates, among others, for helping him earn induction into the Hall of Fame. From there, Rivera began to retrace the steps in the incredible and unlikely journey from Panama to Cooperstown.
“As a 20-year-old boy, I went to try out with the New York Yankees,” Rivera said. “Two of my teammates from my hometown team gave me a tryout. I didn’t know how to pitch. I was throwing the baseball, not pitching. I had no uniform. My spikes had a big hole in them, and I didn’t have a glove. I asked my father for permission to go and practice, and he said, ‘Go ahead.’
“Then Sunday came, and we had to face the Panamanian National Team. To my surprise, I started the game. I threw three innings, got a few punchouts, didn’t allow any hits, and came out smelling like roses. The next day, I signed with the New York Yankees. They gave me $2,000. They gave me a glove and shoes. I was happy because I took the opportunity that the Lord had given me.”
After some ups and downs in the minors, Rivera made his big league debut in 1995 as a starter.
“I didn’t do too good,” he said. “They sent me and another friend down on the same day. That friend was Mr. Derek Jeter. Can you believe that now? We went to a Bennigan’s, and we were literally crying. But that made us stronger. I made the team from the beginning the next year, and we accomplished something special. That was a special team.”
After reminiscing about the famed 1996 championship season and his role as the team’s set-up man, Rivera spoke about the pitch that elevated him to become one of baseball’s immortals.
“At the beginning of 1997, I was struggling a little bit,” he said. “Joe Torre told me that as long as he was the manager, I would be his closer. But I knew that if I didn’t do my job, I wouldn’t be his closer. A few days after that, the Lord gave me the best pitch in baseball, the cut fastball -- sorry, guys.”
At that, Rivera looked back at the group of Hall of Famers behind him, smiling mischievously. “I was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza,” he continued, “and I was throwing the ball the same way I had been throwing it since I was 6 years old. But now, the ball was moving.”
Rivera wrapped up his nearly 30-minute speech talking about his final moment on the diamond as a player, when Jeter and Pettitte -- who were his teammates from the closer’s earliest Minor League days -- came to the mound to pull him from his last game. That 2013 relief appearance was the second-to-last milestone in a big league career that included seven trips to the World Series and five championship titles.
“My two brothers came in and took me out of that game,” Rivera said. “I was grateful to the good Lord for allowing me to play in New York with the greatest fans and to end my career the way I did, with my two brothers next to me, hugging them and crying over them, being thankful for them.”
Five years later, Rivera’s improbable baseball journey is finally complete. Cooperstown shares some characteristics with the fishing village back in Panama, and to be sure, Rivera still sees himself not as a titan of the game, but as a teammate, a lucky servant blessed with a heaven-sent pitch. He is a unanimous Hall of Famer -- the very first of his kind -- yet the outcome felt preordained. Like his cut fastball, you just knew it was coming.