Rivera works quickly, and he throws strikes, so fielders like playing behind him. They're alert, though underworked. "When Mo's pitching, you don't field nothing," says Jeter. "He strikes out a lot of guys." Last year Rivera faced 425 batters and struck out 130 of them, the most ever by a Yankees reliever, breaking a team record held by Goose Gossage, who struck out 122 in 1978.
Gossage returned to the Yankees this spring as a bullpen coach. He, too, was a setup man who became a closer, and he was brought in to help all the relievers, particularly Rivera. Gossage believes Rivera will make the move to closer easily for one reason above all others. "He has no fear of failure," Gossage says. "The first time I saw him was on TV when the Yankees were playing Seattle in the playoffs, year before last. He pitches like five innings over three games, doesn't allow a run. Comes on in the eighth in Game 5. Bases loaded, tie game. Strikes out a guy on three pitches. He's intense, but very focused, very calm. He has the toughness to pitch inside and knock you down."
Rivera is likely to work fewer innings this year than last. (Wetteland pitched 63⅔ innings last year.) But there will be times when he is needed for three consecutive games and some occasions when he is needed four days in a row. That is something Rivera has never done. He cannot afford to get tired, cannot afford to lose any of those precious pounds stretched out over his frame. If he loses several miles an hour off his fastball, as he did for a brief period last year, he loses his effectiveness. He must find a way to keep up his strength and keep down his pitch counts, both in games and in bullpen warmups. An important task for Stottlemyre will be to continually monitor Rivera's arm strength.
Then there is the more subtle question, the one about Rivera's mental strength. Can Rivera withstand the immense pressures of finishing a game? "You're standing on the mound at the end of the game," says Gossage, "and you're either the hero or the goat. It's that simple. Can you come back from the nights you fail and start all over again?" That is something that cannot be taught, says Gossage. That has nothing to do with having a large body or a flamboyant personality or a bearded face. It has everything to do with who you are.
Rivera says, simply and believably, that he is not someone to feel pressure. Pressure was parting from home for the first time at 20, speaking not a word of English, boarding a plane for the first time, leaving behind a weeping mother, weeping himself, going to the States to play professional baseball. In 1990 Rivera pitched 52 innings in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) and had an ERA of 0.17. He hasn't felt any pressure since then. He's getting paid to play baseball. He figures he's way ahead of the game.
When Rivera was 16 and finished with high school, he went to work for his father on the fishing boat. Every night Rivera smelled of sardines. At sea, untangling nets, his mind would drift to the game of his youth, soccer, to dreams of playing professionally. His body, however, could not withstand the rigors of soccer. Baseball, to Rivera, was a pastime, something he played on the street, with his buddies, using his Christmas baseball, all wrapped with tape by midsummer, and a glove made from a cardboard box. The idea of baseball as a profession never crossed his mind. "Baseball was fun," Rivera says. "Just fun." He played amateur baseball for his district. He never knew the scouts were watching.
"On the boat I liked looking at all the different fish, but my father's life was not for me," says Rivera, who owns a modest house near his parents in Panama. "There's no future in fishing." He did not say, "Baseball, that has a future for me." He did not need to.
Now the Yankees' newest closer is scurrying about the clubhouse, looking for a teammate with an extra pair of size-11 cleats for a friend visiting from Panama, a friend who grew up playing with a taped baseball and a cardboard glove. Rivera knows about pressure. Pressure is searching for sardines when the sardines don't want to be found and there are a half-dozen mouths at home waiting for food. Bases loaded, no outs, ninth inning, one-run lead? No problema, bro.