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Rivera dominant to the core

Lucky. Sandy Alomar Jr. wrecked Mariano Rivera's first playoff series as a closer, sent one barreling over the Jacobs Field wall, and on further review the Yankee defined by his dignity reduced an All-Star catcher to something of a beer-league bum.

"He was lucky," Rivera would say.

Considering the circumstances -- Rivera had replaced a World Series MVP, John Wetteland, and had yet to win the big one in Wetteland's role -- his was the most arrogant statement in professional sports since Michael Jordan announced his first comeback in this two-word release: "I'm back."

If another closer had made this claim, a closer who celebrated punchouts with heavy metal gyrations rather than Mo's stoic grace, the man would've been written up as a sore loser and a lout.

Rivera? He was granted a statesman's pass.

But that defiant commentary on Alomar's dynasty-delaying homer in Game 4 of the '97 ALDS should've taught us a little something about the fire beneath Mo's ice.

No 40-year-old man can expect to match his 44 saves from 2009, to pile onto his career sum of 526, and to improve his positively absurd 0.74 postseason ERA in pursuit of a sixth championship ring unless he walks the thin line separating controlled arrogance and runaway hubris -- yet never crosses it.

Reporters wondered about Rivera's surgically repaired shoulder after some rocky early-season times? "You guys never learn," Mo said.

Jimmy Rollins predicted the Phillies would win the World Series in five? "That is not going to happen," Mo answered.

Charlie Manuel declared his Phillies could hit Rivera. "They can have whatever solution they want," Mo said.

Goose Gossage suggested Rivera's greatness is tempered by the modern closer's lighter workload? No, Mo won't be forgetting that one any time soon.

"Mariano is Superman," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "Superhuman. He is without question the greatest closer of all time, and I don't care about guys who used to pitch three innings instead of one."

Of course, Superman has an expiring contract. On that subject, Cashman was willing to go Joe Willie Namath on the guarantee.

"Mariano Rivera will never be in another uniform," the GM said. "It just won't happen."

Makes sense. Except when Rivera was asked recently if he was determined to finish his career right where it started, he didn't exactly respond the way his good friend, Derek Jeter, forever does when fielding the same question.

"I definitely want to do it," Rivera said, "but again, this is a business. This is business, and the Yankees have always [treated] it as business. So I mean, I take it the same way. It's a business."

If you're scoring at home, that's four businesses in four sentences. That's Rivera's inner fire talking, just in case the Yankees mistake his class for weakness between here and the negotiating table.

He's come a long way, Rivera has, just like Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, the four horsemen worthy of a Grantland Rice lede. Rivera will go down as the best closer of them all, and Jeter has a chance to retire as the best shortstop ever, too.

But Rivera has been the most lethal weapon of the core four, and it wasn't supposed to be that way, not when the teenage son of a Panamanian fisherman signed for $3,000 as a converted shortstop with a middling arm.

Rivera cried during his lonely rookie ball nights, just like an overmatched Jeter would two years later. Only Mariano's weren't the tears of a high school All-American and first-round pick who thought he should've taken the scholarship at Michigan.

The language and cultural barriers were breaking Rivera down. "I couldn't communicate with my teammates, my pitching coach, my manager," he said. "I called my girlfriend, now my wife, because I never wanted my parents to worry about me."

Off elbow surgery, Rivera wasn't considered a fast-track prospect the likes of his Class A teammate in Greensboro, Jeter. The official scorer who notarized most of Jeter's 56 errors in '93, Ogi Overman, was far less impressed with one of the pitchers victimized by the shortstop's glove.

"I thought Rivera was on a one-way trip to nowhere," Overman said.

He wasn't alone.

"A mediocre starter with no cutter and no movement," said Gene Michael, former GM.

But Rivera experienced a sudden surge of velocity in '95, struck out 11 White Sox over eight scoreless innings on the Fourth of July, and sent fireworks crackling through the front office.

Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

#42 RP
New York Yankees

2009 STATS

  • SV44
  • W3

  • L3

  • BB12

  • K72

  • ERA1.76

"Holy cow," Michael told himself. "We've got something now."

In the spring of '96, when George Steinbrenner worried that a rookie named Jeter wasn't ready to start, Michael was among the voices raging against the notion that Rivera (or Bob Wickman) should be dealt to Seattle for journeyman shortstop Felix Fermin.

Rivera graduated from indomitable set-up man to indomitable closer, allowing for snapshots of human frailty along the way. The Alomar homer. The Game 7 collapse in Arizona. The blown Game 4 that devolved into a Boston sweep for the ages.

He endured the heartbreak, fought off the vile forces of gravity and time, and did it all with one pitch -- the cutter -- that makes helpless boys out of hulking men.

"A once-in-a-lifetime player," Jeter called him.

When Rivera nailed down his 500th save, Jeter was asked if the closer represented the best player he's ever teamed with. Normally the captain would handle such decisive questions with indecisive diplomacy.

But instead of citing an endless list of great Yankees and rattling on about the Bernies and Paulies and Coneys and Tinos and A-Rods, Jeter actually said the following:

"Yes. No question."

And then this:

"You can add up all the players that have ever played the game. Mo's been as consistent as anyone."

Mo's pitched in 1,005 regular-season and postseason games. He's done it the hard way, too, spending his entire career in the AL East, firing his cutter and watching enemy bats make like exploding cigars.

It doesn't matter that Rivera's money pitch comes in a little slower than it used to.

"His cutter just moves that much more," Phil Hughes said, "with every fraction of a second longer it takes to get there."

So Rivera will pitch at age 40, maybe even dominate until he's 45. He might try to outlast the rest of the four horsemen, even the 35-year-old Jeter.

Whenever Mo's done, he'll be called incomparable, iconic, maybe the best of the four core Yanks. But when historians measure Rivera's staggering success, here's one thing he won't be called:

Lucky.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.