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Exit Sandman

Rivera entering final weeks of iconic career

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TORONTO -- The New York Yankees were desperately trying to save their season. The solution was simple, as it has been for nearly two decades.

"I don't think there's any arguing who the greatest relief pitcher of all time is, and that's what I went with," manager Joe Girardi said after calling on Mariano Rivera to record the final four outs of Wednesday's game with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Rivera's career will end when the Yankees' season does, and every save now could be his last.

Saturday, he was feted at Yankee Stadium, culminating a season-long celebration of a player who merely filled a specialized role but did it so well -- and for so long -- that he actually lived up to the mythical proportions Yankees tradition demands of its stars.

But even as his final games coincide with an unlikely but intriguing playoff chase -- the Yankees are among four teams within reach of the final wild-card berth -- don't expect any flair from the 43-year-old Panamanian.

That's not who he is or how he does his job. And why he termed his four-out escape act Wednesday merely as "a good win."

It was also his 652nd career save, more than any pitcher in history, not including the 42 post-season saves he accumulated while helping the Yankees win five World Series titles.

He's done it with basically one pitch -- a cut fastball -- at a hardly sexy 91 m.p.h. and without the histrionics that often accompany the men whose job it is to get a game's final outs.

"The legacy I want to leave is that I was there for others," he says.

He was there for 95 Yankees pitchers whose victories he saved. He was there for the 80 pitchers, many less-heralded but accomplished setup men, who handed off the ball to Rivera -- just as he handed it off to John Wetteland to help the Yankees win the 1996 World Series and launch Rivera's remarkable journey.

No flair. But certainly fanfare this year.

METALLICA MAN

It's been a season-long celebration since Rivera announced in March that this would be his final season. He has been honoured in every city where the Yankees have played and was named MVP of the All-Star Game in part because of who he is.

The pinnacle of the celebration comes today at Yankee Stadium, where the only team and the only fans he's played for say their thanks. The team is guarding the details of the day, but there's been speculation heavy-metal band Metallica -- scheduled to play Saturday night at New York's Apollo Theater -- could make an appearance.

It's Metallica's Enter Sandman that became the Rivera anthem, played every time he enters a home game. Could they play it live?

"I don't control that, you know," Rivera says with his usual soft-spoken nonchalance. "I'll just have to be patient and wait."

A member of the Yankee Stadium scoreboard production team suggested it in 1996. Rivera doesn't even like heavy-metal music, preferring Christian tunes, but it could have been worse. The No. 1 song in 1996 was Los Del Rio's Macarena.

Rivera didn't control that he was given uniform No. 42 when he joined the Yankees in 1995. There was no significance then, but he became the last big-leaguer to wear it after Major League Baseball retired it in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson.

"I carried the legacy of Mr. Jackie for all these years, and I tried to do my best to wear No. 42 and do it with class and honor," says Rivera, who like others wearing 42 in 1997 was allowed to keep it.

He didn't ask for any of this. His first eight Yankees games were as a starter -- and not a particularly good one. The highlight was a two-hit, no-run effort for eight innings July 4, 1995 -- the first time he would turn a game over to Wetteland.

"He was hittable," says Wetteland, who presented Rivera with cowboy boots when the Texas Rangers honoured him this summer.

Rivera would precede Wetteland in 28 more victories, including the final game of the 1996 World Series, before Wetteland left as a free agent. Those games came as a reliever as Rivera honed his cutter and, it turned out, completed an apprenticeship for an unprecedented career.

"It's not that I was looking for the position, but I just wanted to learn," Rivera says of being Wetteland's understudy. "I was the setup man, and I always watched. Didn't say much, but I always watched. I was attached to him like a leech."

FAMILY FIRST

Rivera still doesn't say much, but his current bullpen mates are watching.

"Mo's very unique," says Shawn Kelley, a first-year Yankee. "I think he's a guy you can literally just watch. You can go to him and ask him questions, and he'll tell you. At the same time, he speaks just by his actions -- how he's preparing, how he handles his business out there on the mound, good and bad. You don't even have to be picking his brain."

Kelley is 29 and has no major league saves. Though he's a strikeout pitcher, he's probably behind David Robertson in the pecking order for likely successor to Rivera, unless the Yankees look outside the organization this winter.

"I won't be Mo, but I'll do the best I can. Nobody's going to be Mo," Robertson says of a job he insists he's not assuming is his. "There's a whole off-season. There's a lot of things that can go down. If I get the opportunity, I'll be happy to give it a try."

Robertson says it will be strange without Rivera in the bullpen.

"But he's not disappearing," Robertson says. "I have his phone number. I'll call him if I need him. I think I'll see him a lot next year. I think he's going to come in the clubhouse and hang out."

Rivera, with three sons ages 10 to 19, isn't as sure.

"Depends," he says. "I love this. I love the Yankees. Sure, I will be around, but I don't know about next year. My family is first, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to enjoy my wife (Clara) and my kids. Right now, that's my priorities."

Longer term, Rivera says he wants to work with children.

"I want kids to be able to do whatever they want in sports, follow their dream," he says. "Teach them baseball. Give back to the community."

Most of the work, he says, will be done through church programs.

"That's what has value," he says. "If you don't want to hear it, too bad, I'm going to tell them. That's what matters. This (baseball) will pass."

For now, the focus is on the long-shot playoff push -- and Rivera.

"I think the whole year has been great, wonderful," says Rivera, who made his retirement announcement March 9.

At each visiting city this year, Rivera has held private sessions with longtime team employees and fans.

"I chitchat with them, say, 'Thank you,' sign for them, take a picture," he says. "I just want to make sure they know that I appreciate them."

The season has not gone according to the Yankees' plans. Incessant injuries, a battle for a playoff berth and the sideshow of Alex Rodriguez's appealed MLB suspension created plenty of noise around the club.

But those are the baseball things Rivera routinely endures as part of the job. This year, nothing was going to prevent him from enjoying his final days in uniform.

"In my last season, I didn't want anything to interrupt that," he says. "Right there, I decided I'm going to enjoy everything whatever happens.

"I certainly have -- and more."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2013 B8

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