All this week, ESPN New York is celebrating the career of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera with an oral history of baseball's all-time saves leader through the words of his teammates and opponents, as told to ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo, Matt Ehalt and Andrew Marchand, and ESPN The Magazine's Louise Cornetta.
Rivera's cutter? Opposing players use words like "mind-boggling" to describe his dominance with his signature pitch.
As a visitor you come in here, and when I was playing against him, he was like the Devil. Like a guy that just would get you. He’d have a nice smile and a soft face, but he was just that Devil when I was playing against him. But then when I came here, he became God because he’s on our side.
”-- Ichiro Suzuki
David Ortiz (Red Sox DH): "The one second that you're not looking at it, it's in your hand. And he's the only one, the only one that I have ever faced [like that]. Everybody right now in the league [tries] to throw cutters, pretty much every pitcher [has] a cutter right now, but not like Mariano. Not even close."
Pedroia: “He puts it in the right spot every time. He never makes mistakes. He’s the best ever at throwing that pitch that no one can figure out how to hit [it]. That’s what makes him so tough for so long, you know what you’re going and you still can’t hit it, that’s pretty frustrating.”
A.J. Pierzynski (Texas Rangers catcher): “As a left-handed hitter, it’s so hard to explain to people what his ball does, how it moves, and how late it moves. Sometimes you think it’s an optical illusion because of the way it moves. You just can’t have your brain tell you to hit the pitch the way you’re supposed to hit it in order to get a hit. Your body and brain reacts because you see it out of his hand. When you see it, it just doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. You know what it’s going to do, but you just can’t force your body and your hands to go the right path. I mean, it’s a fight every time.”
Bronson Arroyo (Cincinnati Reds pitcher): "It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know what’s so great about it. To watch it on TV, it doesn’t look any better than half the other guys in the league throwing their cutter. Yet he continues to make it work and it’s not like he’s only done it when he throws 95 miles an hour. He’s still doing it at 91, 92 and he still gets guys out. It’s mind-boggling."
All my broken bats over the years.
”-- A.J. Pierzynski, on what comes to mind when he thinks about Mariano Rivera
Larry Rothschild (Rivera's pitching coach since 2011): "I think what gets lost in the simplicity of saying that [the cutter is his one pitch] is what he does with that cutter. He elevates it, he uses it to four quadrants on the plate. It's not just one pitch. It turns into four or five pitches really. He does throw two-seamers. It's an oversimplification saying he's done it just with cutter."
Pierzynski (on talking to Rivera about his cutter): "I thought he had some super-secret NASA grip or something that nobody had ever thought of, but it was just pretty standard. God gave him the ability to throw that pitch and he’s harnessed it and he’s become the greatest reliever of all time.”
And facing him? There are plenty of bad memories ...
Ichiro Suzuki (Rivera's teammate since 2012): “As a visitor you come in here, and when I was playing against him, he was like the Devil. Like a guy that just would get you. He’d have a nice smile and a soft face, but he was just that Devil when I was playing against him. But then when I came here, he became God because he’s on our side.”
David Huff (new to the Yankees in 2013): "I never realized how athletic he was until he was facing Luis Valbuena against us [Cleveland Indians] in 2010. Valbuena was up, hit a cutter in and broke his bat, and the barrel was spinning back at Mariano up the middle with the ball. He jumped over the barrel, landed, quickly dropped down and threw the ball to first. I was just like 'Wow.' He is a really good player. That's probably the one play I've seen that sticks out in person. Him winning the World Series and dominating with one pitch, it's unbelievable."
The end of this year, he's gonna retire, and we should give a standing O, because this is greatness you're gonna see leave this game.
”-- Torii Hunter
Mark Reynolds (new to the Yankees in 2013): “It was my rookie year. Obviously, I’m 23 years old. So I go up there and I’m like, 'I’m going to sit on a cutter away and see what happens.' So I get up on the plate, he throws me like a front-door cutter, and I jump out of the way, strike. So I get off the plate, and I guess he notices it and throws me a cutter away, another strike. So I’m just like, ‘Aw, crap.’ And then he throws another cutter away and I swing and miss. And I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m in the big leagues. ... This guy’s pretty good.’”
Pierzynski: "The best story is we had [Ken] Griffey [Jr., on the White Sox] one year, he was running his mouth on the bench about facing Mariano. I was due up in the ninth. He’s like, 'Ha ha, you’re going to break a bat.' I was like, 'No I’m not. I’m going to break your bat.' So I went up there with Griffey’s bat. I went into his stance and the whole thing and I hit the ball about two inches in front of the plate. [Jorge] Posada jumped up and tagged me out. I didn’t even run because the ball was only two inches in front of the plate. I came back to the dugout and was like, 'Yup, your bats don’t work either.'
Torii Hunter (Detroit Tigers outfielder): "I hated facing that guy, but the respect you've got to have for him, man, for his craft, the way he [carries] himself. He's one of the nicest guys in the game. ... The end of this year, he's gonna retire, and we should give a standing O, because this is greatness you're gonna see leave this game."
... though there are some players who cherish the one time they got to Rivera.
Mark Teixeira (Rivera's teammate since 2009): “My last at-bat against him I was a member of the Angels and I walked. ... Any time there’s a pitcher that you’re excited about a walk, that means he’s pretty special.”
Suzuki: “I’ll probably never forget it, but the walk-off homer [on Sept. 18, 2009, in Seattle] is the one that I’ll never forget. I wish I could’ve run the bases again."
Kevin Youkilis (new to the Yankees in 2013): “As a player, I’ve always loved facing the best because you’re not supposed to get hits, and if you do, it’s great. There was one at Fenway where I got a base hit to start up a rally, and then I think Jason Bay [hit a homer off him to tie the game], so that was probably the best one."
Vernon Wells (new to the Yankees in 2013): “I have a memory. It wasn’t a good one [for Rivera]. It’s my favorite. Not his. Well, I’m on a short-list of walk-off home runs when it comes to him, so, the memory that I’ll always remember was jogging around the bases when I hit it, remembering and thinking to myself, 'I just hit a walk-off home run against the greatest closer ever.'
"Those are the kind of memories that will stick with you for a lifetime.”