I can’t imagine the New York Yankees without Mariano Rivera for the last 15 seasons. Since he came up as a 25-year-old and wowed the crowd during the 1995 ALCS, he has always been there. In 1996, he helped shorten the games, and in 1997, he closed them. Five hundred saves later, he’s still going strong.
But what if? What if the Yankees had traded Mariano in 1995? Don’t laugh; it almost happened.
Today, as part of the Week of Rivera coverage in the New York papers, John Harper of the Daily News checked in with current Yankee adviser and one-time GM Gene Michael. The Stick was heading up the Yankee Front Office when Rivera first made his Bronx debut, and Michael reminisced about the time he almost traded Mo. Harper writes:
Michael had his own ‘What if?’ moment a few years later, in 1995, when he considered trading Rivera to the Tigers for David Wells. At the time Rivera was still trying to make it as a starter, still throwing in the low 90s, and when Michael asked the Tigers what they would want in a deal for Wells, Rivera was one of the names they put on a list.
“I never said yes,” Michael said with a chuckle Monday. “And right about that time, Mariano’s velocity in the minors jumped to 95-96. I didn’t believe it when I saw our report, but I checked it out with scouts from other teams who were there, and it was true. At that point there was no way I was trading him.”
As Gene says, after Rivera’s velocity jumped, there was no way he would trade him, but that would not be the end of the Mariano Rivera trade rumors. In the hunt for some confirmation from 1995, I stumbled across a Hot Stove article from December of that season. The Yanks had wanted to acquire Wells for the 1996 season, and while he landed in Baltimore following a stint in Cincinnati, the Bombers came close. Murray Chass reported then:
The Yankees, who last Thursday beat Baltimore to David Cone, wanted Wells for their rotation, but a weekend bid by George Steinbrenner fell short. Given this latest turn of events, the Yankees may feel compelled to become serious about signing one of two free-agent left-handers, Kenny Rogers or Chuck Finley.
[GM Bob] Watson acknowledged that he and Gene Michael, his predecessor, who remains active in personnel matters, had spoken with the Reds, most recently the middle of last week. “The asking price was too high,” he said. “They wanted two of our top minor leaguers. That’s why we backed off. We couldn’t do that.”
Jim Bowden, the Reds’ general manager, declined to discuss the Yankees’ involvement, but an official familiar with the Wells talks said Steinbrenner called Bowden Saturday night and offered pitcher Mariano Rivera and catcher Jorge Posada.
Bowden, looking to cut his payroll, obviously decided he preferred [Curtis] Goodwin, a 23-year-old left-handed hitter, who in 87 games with the Orioles last season batted .263 and had 22 stolen bases in 26 attempts.
Curtis Goodwin would go on to become a very forgettable baseball player with a career OPS of .609. The story, meanwhile, begs a question: Do we believe Watson on the record or Chass’ anonymous sources? The Yankees’ baseball people didn’t want to trade Jorge and Mo while George was reportedly willing to offer them up for David Wells, a player he had long coveted. Considering the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Steinbrenner was a hair’s breadth away from sending Posada and Rivera to Cincinnati.
As we reflect on the Hall of Fame career of Rivera, we should appreciate it for happening in the Bronx. Imagine how different life would have been with Rivera in a Reds or Tigers uniform for the last 14 seasons.