Puerto Caimito is a poor Panamanian fishing village with a population of fewer than 2,000 people. New York Yankees Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera never had any intention of leaving this village — or to do anything more than work with his father in the fishing industry.
He almost had no say in the matter of winding up as the best closer in the history of the game. Even at the age of 43, he’s still the best. It was an interesting series of events that led him to this point; which has culminated into him dominating the game with just one pitch.
It was actually soccer that Rivera grew up playing and loving, hoping to make it professionally. But ankle injuries robbed him of that opportunity. After graduating high school at the age of 16, Rivera had decided to work with his father who was a commercial ship captain catching shrimp and sardines. After realizing soccer wouldn’t work, baseball became an option–as his natural athletic ability needed to be put to use somewhere. Rivera had only ever used sticks in place of baseball bats and milk cartons in place of the mitts. And the only baseball he’d ever used was comprised of shredded fishing net matted and held together with electrical tape. He played shortstop in 1988 when he joined a local amateur baseball team, Panamá Oeste. This was when he was 19 — he’d officially given up fishing when he had to abandon a capsizing vessel.
The New York Yankees, along with every other major league baseball team, by this time had advance scouts dispatched globally. A lot of young players had developed their games early in Latin America countries — and the Yankees Latin American scout Herb Raybourn had noticed Rivera’s ability, but never imagined he could make it professionally as a shortstop. After all, he wasn’t spectacular and at 19 was already getting a little too old to properly develop. (Typically, 16- and 17-year-olds are more sought after.)
At the age of 20, Rivera volunteered to pitch for Oeste, which was struggling with its roster. The rest is (almost) history. He signed with the Yankees in February of 1990 for $3000 and spent five years in the team’s minor league system, enjoying high levels of success as a starting pitcher — which eventually led to an elbow injury after trying to throw sliders too often. But the Yankees didn’t know, for Rivera never knew himself, that this wiry 25-year-old needed to be a relief pitcher.
In his first season in the big leagues, in 1995, Rivera pitched 19 games, 10 of which were starts. His record was mediocre: he compiled five wins and three losses with a 5.51 ERA. These stats could have warranted a demotion back to the minor leagues, but he remained with the ball club to start the next season, this time in the bullpen. In 1996, Rivera was the “set-up” man to then Yankee closer John Wetteland. The Yankees won the World Series for the first time since 1981 — and Rivera had everything to do with it. He put together the best season of his career, which is saying a lot for a career filled with eye-popping numbers: in ’96 he pitched 107.2 innings, threw 130 strikeouts and racked up a 2.09 ERA. His wins above replacement (WAR) that season was 4.8, a career best. Fast-forward 17 years, and Rivera has compiled 608 career saves, the most of any closer ever. All the more impressive considering that his first season as a closer came at the age of 27.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say the Yankees haven’t had to think about the 9th inning in almost two decades — at least until May 2012, when Rivera tore his ACL shagging fly balls during batting practice. He pitched only 8.1 innings last season and the Yankees got a taste of what life might be like as soon as next year, when it is likely Rivera will be retired. But there is almost no question that he will return to his high level of dominance this season, despite his injured knee and age.
So for this coming season — and this goes for all fans of the game, not just Yankee partisans — tune in to some Yankee games. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Rivera throwing a pitch that shatters bats like a saw-blade cutting through ash.
It’s a sight worth seeing.