DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Just when I thought there was nothing much left to say about Mariano Rivera, I merely mentioned his name Sunday at a Yankees-Blue Jays game.
And found out people can't stop talking about him.
I asked Blue Jays manager John Gibbons how Rivera's sheer presence hangs over every game any team plays against the Yankees. He laughed, because he knows. He learned all about it firsthand in his five seasons managing the Blue Jays the first time around (from 2004-08).
"If they got the lead, the game's over," he said. "Psychologically, it works on everybody that way. I think we only beat him one time. I think it was '06. Vernon Wells hit a walkoff to beat him. But other than that, it was really no contest."
I then checked the record, and Gibbons was exactly right. Rivera faced his team 29 times in Gibbons' first five seasons: 20 saves, 1 blown save -- on July 20, 2006, on a Vernon Wells walkoff.
Amazing, isn't it, how the people on the other side of the field find those rare times Rivera doesn't close them out to be completely unforgettable?
"Hey, it only happened once," Gibbons chuckled. "You can't help but remember it.
"But it's more than that," he went on. "It's just the way he carries himself. The dignity. There's no fanfare. He doesn't rub anything in. He just goes out and beats you and walks off the field. And then you hear the music."
It won't just be "Enter Sandman" that the Yankees are about to find it's impossible to replace, though. It will be that feeling Gibbons described -- that aura of imminent domination that enveloped both teams on the field for nearly two decades.
"You knew you had a weapon at the end of the game, and you knew you didn't have to worry about the weapon, ever," said Rivera's current manager, Joe Girardi. "And that's felt out there, too, kind of like: 'If we can just get to the eighth inning with the lead, we can get out of here.' And other teams feel that, too, like: 'We'd better get 'em early. We'd better get ahead of the Yankees. Or '
"And that's a presence," Girardi went on. "In the '96 World Series (when Rivera was "only" a set-up man to John Wetteland), if it was tied or you were losing to us in five innings in the playoffs, you were in trouble, because Mo was coming in in the sixth and could give us three innings. And then we had Wetteland. So you were in trouble. And we knew we had that weapon."
And they've had that weapon ever since, except for last season.
"I know when I played, you managed the game backward in your head, because he was out there," Girardi said. "And as a manager, it's the same thing. Mo is the wild card. And it's hard to replace that. The feeling is the thing that's hard to replace. I mean, you look at the job that [Rafael] Soriano did last year. It was tremendous. But it's the feeling you have to replace."
So no matter who else closes for the Yankees in 2014 and beyond, he won't be bringing That Feeling out of the bullpen with him. Will he? And "that," Girardi said, "will be the difference."
Larry Rothschild's first spring as pitching coach for the Yankees was 2010. He'd been managing and/or coaching for almost a quarter-century. But he'd never seen anything like Mariano Rivera.
"My first spring here, he didn't throw all winter," Rothschild said. "So he comes into camp. He throws two [bullpen] sides and says, 'I'm ready.' I said, 'Ready for what?' He said, 'Ready to pitch.'
"I said, 'Let's do a live [batting practice]. So he throws one BP. He throws 19 out of 20 pitches for strikes. He hits the glove every pitch. And he says, 'I'm ready.' So before his first game, out in the bullpen, he throws 10 warm-ups and he says, 'I'm ready.' I said, 'All right.' So he goes in, throws nine pitches, strikes out the side.
"Most pitchers," Rothschild said, shaking his head, "will go: Three sides, three BPs, maybe a simulated game, and then they're ready. But when Mariano says, 'I'm ready,' you don't question it. He gets ready quicker than any pitcher I've ever known."
It’s outfielder Matt Diaz's first spring as a Yankee. He was playing left field Saturday when Mariano Rivera sprinted in from the bullpen, on the same day Derek Jeter had played his first game of the spring.
"I said, 'Oh yeah. NOW we are The Yankees,'" Diaz reported Sunday.
He also told a story about facing Rivera in a simulated game earlier in the week -- and actually getting a hit.
"And after I hit it, he yelled at me," Diaz said, chuckling heartily. "He said, 'How you hit that pitch?' And I just laughed. I said, 'How did I hit it? How do you THROW it?'"
And now, finally, my five favorite Mariano Rivera stats:
• Only one pitcher in the live-ball era has compiled a WHIP lower than 1.00 -- meaning, essentially, that he's allowed fewer baserunners than he's pitched innings. Guess who? Mariano Rivera (0.998).
• Over 32 postseason series covering 16 Octobers, this man has faced 527 hitters. Exactly two of them have hit a home run -- Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997 and Jay Payton in 2000. That Payton homer was 59 postseason appearances ago. Over that time, 309 batters have come to bat against Rivera in a postseason game. Not one has gone deep.
• The Great Mariano has pitched an incredible 141 postseason innings in his career -- and allowed a total of 11 earned runs. Jay Witasick once marched out of the same Yankees bullpen and allowed eight earned runs in a span of 14 hitters in 2001. And Mariano Rivera has allowed 11 in his whole career.
• Rivera has made 58 postseason appearances of more than one inning. Yep, 58. And given up an earned run in exactly six of them. His ERA in those games: 0.53.
• And, finally, when you hear that question, "Who's the next Mariano Rivera," feel free to burst into uproarious laughter. You can think of it this way: He's got 608 saves. No other active closer even has 300.
Most saves by an active pitcher who's still in his 20s: 160, by Joakim Soria (turns 29 in May), who won't even be closing in Texas this year, once he gets healthy.
And the only other active closer with 100 saves who will pitch in his 20s this season: 107, by Cleveland's Chris Perez, who turns 28 on July 1.
So who's the next Mariano Rivera? You're kidding. Right?