Mariano Rivera’s first save? It’s as big a mystery as hitters' inability to handle his cutter.
The catcher, the shortstop, the last batter, Rivera himself … none of them remember that moment from May 17, 1996, when Rivera was asked to step in for John Wetteland and apply the finishing touches to a Yankees win over the Angels.
"That was my first full year in the big leagues,” Rivera, who needs one more save to be baseball’s all-time leader, said last week. “I didn't pay attention to it."
On Saturday, Rivera notched his 601st save to tie Trevor Hoffman’s career record.
"Your first is different," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was behind the plate for Rivera’s inaugural save. "You will remember where you were for No. 600, but the first is different because I don't think you'll ever say, we'll, he's going to get 599 more."
On that Friday in 1996, Rivera was deputized as the closer because Wetteland has been struck by a baseball during batting practice. It took just eight pitches for Rivera to get the job done. He struck out Randy Velarde looking before yielding a single to Mike Aldrete and then inducing a double-play ball off the bat of Garret Anderson to close down the game.
It would be just one of five saves Rivera would notch that year.
Girardi could only guess as to why Rivera was pitching in that game. Derek Jeter, the shortstop that day, said he has no idea about any details of the game. Rivera said he has no memorabilia from that game.
Anderson, now retired after a career primarily with the Angels, does not remember being the last out.
"Ballplayers, we usually remember a lot of things," he said, "but for some reason I just don't remember that at all."
At the time, it would have been silly to make a fuss about Rivera's save. Remember, he was merely filling in for Wetteland. And first saves are not treasured like first hits or wins.
"There's really no anticipation for a closer coming to the major leagues as compared to a starting pitcher or a position player," Anderson said.
"It's not one of those defined positions that's been in the game since the beginning, it's one of those things where it may happen as time goes on, but it's something that can sneak up on you."
He added: "You don't remember it because relievers are turned into great closers, they don’t come into the league as a great closer. You don't see too many closers come up from the minor leagues who are money when they come up."
Anderson, who faced Rivera when he first came up in 1995, did have remembrances of Rivera pre- and post-cutter. He liked the Rivera he faced in 1995, when the young righty didn't have the cutter and threw a straight fastball. He loathed the bat-breaking closer he would face in the years to come.
Girardi, who was traded to the Yankees in 1995, remembers being dazzled by a young Rivera.
"I was like, 'Who is this guy? This guy is going to be something,'" Girardi said. "I don't think he'd ever imagined he'd be this good. It's hard to imagine someone being this good, but it's as good as it gets."