During the 2001 ALCS, Lou Piniella, then the Mariners' manager, accused Rivera of enjoying a different set of rules, of being allowed to throw three extra pitches in the bullpen after Torre summoned him. Rivera was merely sticking to his routine, controlling the moment. He gets to the bullpen in the sixth inning, begins stretching in the seventh of close games, loosens his shoulder in the eighth by making circles with his right arm while holding a weighted ball, then begins throwing in earnest after three tosses with the bullpen catcher, making sure the mechanics of his delivery are tuned just right. "I make sure everything is perfect, because I don't have time to do that here," he says, pointing to the mound on the field. "It's not time here to do that work. No. That's why you have the bullpen. Because here? It's time to get it done."
When Rivera is ready, and only when he is ready, the bullpen door swings open for what, at Yankee Stadium, remains one of the great entrances in sports: the first chords of Metallica's Enter Sandman are, for an opponent, the sound of impending doom as Rivera, glove in his right hand, head bowed, jogs toward the mound in that slightly pigeon-toed gait. At that moment, even when it comes amid the urgency of October, Rivera is all cold blood.
"My mental approach is simple: Get three outs. As quick as possible," he says. "If I can throw three, four pitches, the better it is. I don't care how I get you out. As long as I get you out. The quicker, the better. And that's the only thing I have in mind."
Rivera has one key checkpoint in his delivery, which he calls "waiting for my arm." He is referring to the moment that arrives naturally after a series of smooth, kinetic movements: the rhythmic rise of his left knee, the removal of the ball from his glove just after his left knee reaches its apex slightly north of his belt buckle, the alignment of his left shoulder toward his target for as long as possible, the leading with the front hip and the spinning forward of the back hip. Only then, after the left foot lands and his hips have rotated does his arm come around. Always, he is the unhurried man.
"He has great balance," says Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland. "His timing is just about perfect, the way his lower body works with his upper body. You never see him drift."
Rivera's ability to repeat his delivery helps explain his extraordinary command. His physiological advantages help explain the velocity and movement. Rivera has such a supple wrist and such long fingers that he can bend them back nearly to his wrist. The long fingers impart tremendous spin rates on the baseball, and his loose wrist snaps downward like a whip upon release. That snap, coupled with full forward extension of the arm, yields what hitters call "late life."
The biomechanical efficiency of Rivera continues even after the ball leaves his hand. His arm and hand remain so loose that they dangle on the follow-through by his left side, like a pocket watch on a chain. Pitchers prone to injury tend to bring their arms to an abrupt halt, like drivers slamming the brakes on a speeding car. Rivera, though, does not brake. He lets his arm dangle gently to a stop.
"Again, blessings," Rivera says when asked about his durability. "But one thing you have to understand, and this is in life too. If you don't take care of yourself, sooner or later it's going to catch up to you. Late nights, we have enough late nights just playing games and traveling. That puts a lot of stress on your body. But if you don't take care of yourself—clubs and drinking and all of that stuff—well, it's going to be hard. And I don't do those things."
Facing Mariano Rivera is like facing the IRS, players will tell you. The confrontation will keep you up at night, and you're likely to come away the poorer for it.
"You know when you come to New York, you're going to get Mariano," Rays outfielder Gabe Gross was saying before a game last month. "It's not just before the game. I start thinking about him on the plane ride up. I know he's there waiting, and he'll be out there, and I will have to see him with the game on the line. So I start getting ready for him. I start thinking, What am I going to do to try to hit Mariano?"