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STRIKEOUTS by the BOATLOAD
Michael Bamberger
March 24, 1997
Coolheaded Mariano Rivera is ready to bring the heat as the new closer for the Yankees
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March 24, 1997

Strikeouts By The Boatload

Coolheaded Mariano Rivera is ready to bring the heat as the new closer for the Yankees

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The game had ended an hour earlier. Mariano Rivera—Mo to his teammates on the New York Yankees—was the last player out of the shower. Closers work the late shift. The Panamanian righthander was standing in front of his spring training locker in Tampa removing his street clothes from hangers with his long, bony fingers. He put on white jeans and an expensive white pullover, underneath which he dropped a mammoth gold crucifix that hung from a chain around his neck. He slipped his feet into shiny brown loafers, no socks.

Shortstop Derek Jeter was nearby, sitting at a long buffet table, signing baseball cards. "Look at you, man," Jeter said.

"What?"

"All in white," the young shortstop said, mocking the ensemble.

"This is new, bro," Rivera said, defending his threads, stroking his shirt's fineness as if it were the emerging hair on his infant son's head.

"You used to be bro," Jeter said. "Now that you're a closer, you're all changed."

Last year the Yankees won the World Series, and Rivera was, one could argue, the best pitcher in the American League. But he was a setup man, the modest bridge that links the starting pitcher to the closer, and his 2.09 ERA in his first full season was overshadowed by Andy Pettitte's 21 wins and John Wetteland's 43 saves. Then came the off-season. Wetteland lit out for Texas, where the Rangers were offering the free agent $23 million for four years. New York owner George Steinbrenner didn't even try to match that. Instead, the Yankees gave Rivera a raise, from $131,000 to $550,000, and a promotion, from setup man to closer. "If we didn't give him the chance," says his manager, Joe Torre, "it would've been a slap in the face."

And now Mo Rivera is the man. Strutting about, moving things out of his way with his chest. He's all changed.

A clubhouse attendant, a kid, comes by Rivera's locker, asks the pitcher if he wants his cleats shined. "Thanks," Rivera says, handing over the mud-caked shoes. If you've ever been in a big league clubhouse, you know that please and thank you are not magic words. They are, by custom, practically forbidden.

Earlier, from the stands, a Spanish-speaking fan from Puerto Caimito, the fishing village where Rivera was raised, presented him with a gift, a T-shirt stenciled with Rivera's name and jersey number 42. "Gracias," Rivera said, inspecting the shirt, then folding it with care. If you've been around ballplayers, you know that many would rather have cocktails with Marge Schott than endure a gift-giving presentation from a fan. They see a fan with a wrapped box, they run. Not Mo.

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