What Mariano Rivera did last night was nothing short of amazing. Pitching in his second inning of work for the first time since Game 6 of the 2009 World Series and on the mound that was the site of his greatest failure, Rivera almost let this one slip away. After a Curtis Granderson home run put the Yanks ahead, the Diamondbacks loaded the bases with no outs against the Yanks’ closer. And then Mo went to work.
Facing Arizona’s 4-5-6 hitters, Rivera was ruthless. As I paced around my living room at 1:45 in the morning, the Sandman induced a foul out, a pop out and a strike out. The game ended without a fist pump, a little dance on the mound or even a smile. In fact, Mariano looked relieved and sounded more than a little bit annoyed with himself for nearly blowing his 72nd career win. The greatest demands self-perfection.
As Mo’s ERA dipped to 1.03, we thanked him for last night’s win. After a while, it’s easy to take Mariano for granted. He’s just there, ready to do what he needs to do to get outs, to save games, to nail down a W. He doesn’t need the histrionics of Jose Valverde or Jonathan Papelbon. He just is Mariano.
But more than once, the Yankees almost missed out on the opportunity to enjoy 16 years of excellence. As a young pitcher, Mariano was a hot commodity in the Yankee farm system, and George Steinbrenner always wanted the next best thing. Last summer, I reflected upon the time the Yankees almost traded Mariano and Jorge Posada for David Wells. Had that deal gone through in 1995, Yankee history would be shockingly different.
That wasn’t, however, the only time the team nearly traded their future Hall of Famer. After inheriting the closer mantle in 1997, Mariano had a post-season collapse against the Indians. The Yanks were five outs away from a trip to the ALCS when Rivera served up a two-out home run to Sandy Alomar. While Ramiro Mendoza would lose the game in the 9th, Rivera’s inability to nail down the game cost the Yanks a shot at a Championship Series rematch with the Orioles. It stung.
Some in the Yankee organization were still willing to part with Mariano Rivera over concerns of a bad arm, and that winter, he was again the subject of trade rumors. When the Mariners quietly let it be known that Randy Johnson was on the market, George Steinbrenner tried to pounce. Unbeknownst to then-GM Bob Watson, the Boss proposed a Rivera-for-Johnson swap straight up. The Mariners rejected that trade but came back with another shocking offer.
Seattle, trying to exploit its position, asked instead for a starter to go along with Rivera. That start just happened to be Andy Pettitte, but the Yankees were “turned off” by that request, The Daily News reported in November of 1997. That would have been a deal for the ages, and it wasn’t the only proposal floated with Rivera. The Expos asked for him along with Posada and Eric Milton in a potential deal for Pedro Martinez, and the Twins initially wanted Rivera in a package for Chuck Knoblauch.
We know how this story ends. The Yanks never landed Pedro; they got Randy Johnson seven years too late; and Chuck Knoblauch arrived for a package of nothing much and helped lead the Yanks to three World Series before losing it in 2001. Rivera, meanwhile, perseveres and not trading him remains one of the best moves the Yankees have made over the past twenty years.