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Rivera sticks to his routine. 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."
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.
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."
Rivera's biomechanical efficiency 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 said before a game in September. "It's not just before the game. I start thinking about him on the plane ride up."
On that night, the last plate appearance of the game for Gross plays out the same way as hundreds of other at bats against Rivera have played out all these years: a cutter on the hands, a broken bat and a feeble pop-up to third base. Rivera alone is responsible for a small forest of destroyed wood, so much so that hitters have been known to use their batting practice bats against him rather than risking their gamers.
"I admit I've thought about it," Gross says. "It's like when you have a long carry over water in golf. Do you drop that old ball in your bag or do you go ahead and hit the brand-new Titleist?"
If batters know the cutter is coming, why can't they hit it? First, Rivera throws enough variations of the cutter to keep hitters honest. He can throw the classic cutter on the hands of a lefty or he can start it off the plate and cut it back to the outside corner, known as the backdoor cutter. Further, by varying the pressure from his fingertips, he can vary how much the ball cuts. And finally, he almost never misses his intended spot.