GOD TOUCHED MARIANO RIVERA ONE JUNE AFTERNOON IN 1997, AND Rivera shrugged. ¶ Just three months into his new role as the closer for a budding Yankees dynasty, Rivera was suddenly unable to throw his signature four-seam fastball straight, not even during his daily toss with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Every catch a struggle, Mendoza told Rivera to knock it off, to quit making the ball dip and dart. Rivera assured his friend that he wasn't doing it intentionally. He was gripping the ball the same way he always had, releasing it the same way he always had. The wicked movement just...happened.
And continued to happen while Rivera warmed up one late-June night in the bullpen at Tiger Stadium. The baseball, as if defaced, would not fly straight. New York bullpen catcher Mike Borzello had never seen Rivera throw like this before, and it made him nervous. "In the old Detroit stadium the bullpen was on the field," says Borzello, now the Dodgers' bullpen catcher. "So if you missed the ball, they would have to stop the game. And there's nothing more embarrassing than that. He started throwing these cutters. Immediately I checked the ball. Is the ball scuffed? What is going on here?"
Rivera didn't have an explanation, and though he says he "didn't have any idea where the ball was going," his results did not suffer. He got the save in that game, then in the next three. Still, for a month, he worked with Borzello and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to eliminate the cutting action. "We were trying to make the pitch stay straighter, [as it had] in '95 and '96," Rivera says, referring to his first two seasons in the big leagues, "but it didn't work. Then I said, 'I'm tired of working at this. Let's let it happen.' And since that day we didn't try to straighten it out anymore."
He smiles. "And the rest is history."
ANOTHER NIGHT, ANOTHER CITY (THIS TIME Baltimore), another game, another batting practice, and Rivera, three months shy of his 40th birthday, 13 years into closing games for the Yankees—which, given the intensity of the job and the demands of the franchise, is the game's equivalent of spending 13 years sweeping minefields—smiled at the very familiarity of it all.
"Nothing changes," he says, not as a complaint but rather in joyful praise of this familiar baseball life. "This? Batting practice? I love it. I get a chance to shag."
Sameness has defined Rivera's career. The same dancer's body, loose-limbed, angular and trim. The same regal face with the high prominent cheekbones, the wide brown eyes and the row of pearl-white teeth, as aligned and polished as Midshipmen at morning inspection. The same perfect delivery, in which simplicity begets beauty.
And, of course, the same pitch. Over and over and over.
Rivera now has an explanation for what happened to him in 1997. The cut fastball was a gift from God. The surest thing in baseball is sure of this. "Ohhhhh, yeah," he says. "A thousand percent. A thousand percent sure. Just a gift from the Lord."
The blessed right arm has become the Hammer of God, largely on the strength of that one pitch, its impact most resoundingly felt in October. In 133 1/3 career postseason innings Rivera has allowed but 11 earned runs; his 0.74 ERA is the lowest among all pitchers with at least 30 innings. He is the only man in history to get the last out of the World Series four times. No one is close to his record 39 postseason saves. His career postseason ERA at home: 0.47.