When Rain mixed soda battles fell from the sky, when armed police officers stood guard over the field and when the 1999 American League Championship Series turned nearly raucous enough to wake the dead (isn't that exactly what the Boston Red Sox and their Ruthless fans wanted?), Mariano Rivera was the right man to restore order. The Jerry Springer-level nonsense and Game 4 ended on Sunday night at Fenway Park when Rivera, the New York Yankees' righthanded closer, calmly blew one of his famously elusive fastballs past Boston catcher Jason Varitek. That save wasn't the most difficult of his career—the Yankees won 9-2—only the most symbolic.
"He is," New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says, "as much of a known factor as anything or anyone we have on this team. You know exactly what you're going to get with Mariano."
Rivera was the one sure thing in a bizarre series in which Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and the umpires traded one outrageous error after another; Boston manager Jimy Williams flipped his lid (literally) and Yankees righthander Roger Clemens lost his head (to Sox fans' chagrin, figuratively); New York lefthander Andy Pettitte joined Rube Marquard of the 1912 New York Giants, Hippo Vaughn of the 1918 Chicago Cubs and Bob Ojeda of the 1986 New York Mets as the only southpaw starters to beat Boston at Fenway Park in the postseason; and even those charged with keeping the peace at Fenway yelled obscenities at the damn Yankees.
Curses? There were plenty to be heard in Boston, where the crowd provided a sometimes witty, sometimes profane Greek chorus to a familiar story. On Monday night the Yankees and Rivera finished off the Red Sox in Game 5, 6-1, for their 36th American League pennant in the 80 seasons since Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
Of more recent vintage, Rivera continued to be a virtually unhittable and unbeatable force in what is now an 18-3 run through the playoffs by New York over the past two years. He has closed out 14 of those 18 wins while allowing no runs in 19 innings, a streak that lowered his career postseason ERA to 0.42, the best ever for a pitcher with at least 30 postseason innings. He has done so with a tranquility that is nearly angelic. So cool is Rivera that he is known to nap in the early innings of games. The only time he exhibits emotion, according to Yankees righthander David Cone, is when he talks about the church he is building in his native Panama. "My arm," Rivera says, "is a gift from God. I am blessed. All of my life is blessed."
Rivera is tougher to hit than the lottery. In 1996 New York won world championship number 23 with Rivera firing high, four-seam fastballs as a setup man to closer John Wetteland. New York then allowed Wetteland to leave as a free agent and handed his job to Rivera. Early in the 1997 season Rivera was throwing in the bullpen when he suddenly noticed that his fastball began darting sharply to the left. "It was just from God," he explains. "I didn't do anything. It was natural."
Armed with one of the nastiest cut fastballs in the business, Rivera learned to harness it. He discovered he could control the break of the pitch by sliding his fingers slightly to one side of the baseball. Then last season lefthanders David Wells and Graeme Lloyd, his teammates on the road to world championship number 24 (both were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the off-season for Clemens), taught Rivera he could get even more break on his pitches with balls that happened to get scuffed during games, such as those that had bounced in the dirt.
"I never knew that," Rivera says. "If I had a scuffed ball before, I'd throw it out. One day they played catch with me with two balls. One was scuffed, one wasn't. I saw the way the scuffed ball moved and said, 'Uh-oh. This is fun.' For me it was like learning the letters. You know, first A and then B. I had been on A."
Rivera's cut fastball, which has been clocked as fast as 97 mph, is so vicious that New York bench coach Don Zimmer, 68, says, "I've never seen anybody break more bats of lefthanded hitters. Never. Every time he pitches he gets two, three, four. We count 'em and laugh. It's the darnedest thing I ever saw." The cut fastball is so good that Rivera hardly bothers to throw his slider, his only other pitch. "Hitters know what they're going to get," Yankees catcher Joe Girardi says, "and they still can't hit him." Through Monday night Rivera hadn't allowed a run since July 21, a streak of 38⅓ innings.
The adventuresome Knoblauch, on the other hand, is the anti-Rivera. If chaos were a communicable disease, Knoblauch would be quarantined. The New York second baseman is a carrier of trouble. It's not just that you could find a more reliable arm on a Vegas slot machine. Knoblauch also happened to be smack in the middle of two flagrantly blown calls by umpires.