Exclusive: Viewing the world through the eyes of RiveraMariano Rivera opens up about his past, present and future with the Yankees
It's an all-too-familiar place and day for Rivera, where after 12 illustrious years with the Yankees, he is without question the king of the stadium, the king of the Yankees, and still the king of the hill, at least in the Bronx.
Where there is Mo, there is media. Where there is Mo, there are people visibly in awe of the future Hall of Fame closer. And as always, where there is Mo, there are smiles. What most people don't know about Rivera, or maybe some have been lucky enough to see the innocent and playful side to a man who is surprisingly anything but intimidating, is he's a kid at heart. Playing for the Yankees is hardly comparable to little league, but the 37-year-old Panama native who thanks God for each day he's alive treats each game, each play and each season like time on the sandlot, even through the tough times this year has brought.
"It was frustrating at the beginning," Rivera said in a candid exclusive interview. "We were losing. We weren't winning. But it's not frustrating anymore (to watch from the bullpen) because it's easy to sit here and watch my teammates win the game. To see the team lose, it's hard. But I'm not a negative person. I'm a positive person and I want to win. I'm enjoying this and hopefully we continue doing this."
Nobody hates losing more than Rivera. Well, maybe Derek Jeter, his teammate since 1995 when both were rookies, both small fish in a larger than life pond. But now, Rivera and Jeter, along with Jorge Posada, are the cornerstones of the Yankees, a role somebody such as Alex Rodriguez couldn't come close to filling even if he finished the season with 75 home runs, the incredible pace he's currently on. It's an unexplainable quality, aura and characteristic only players such as Rivera portray and exemplify. It's the true eminence of a champion.
Although the Yankees have not won a World Series since 2000 when they beat their cross-city rival Mets, a statistic Rivera himself can hardly fathom, the closer believes the key to success is simple: enjoy the game, even through the hard times. Rivera and the Yankees are no strangers to tough times this year, having experienced one of the roughest patches of Rivera's tenure in New York, losing 12-of-18 in mid-May, including five straight. After winning four World Championships with "The Dynasty Team" on the biggest stage in baseball, losing is simply something the closer is not accustom to.
"First of all, the team and the kind of players that we had back then..." said Rivera when recalling the 1998 Championship team, "I would say we don't have the players we have now that we had then. We didn't have the superstar players that we have right now, but those players were determined. They were veterans and knew how to play the game.
"We wanted to win and we wanted it all. Those guys back then, they wanted to win it all. I won't say that we don't want to win (now), but we have to find a way. We have to do things different. We have to do the little things. Somebody has to sacrifice for the other one to do something. (Scott) Brosius, (Paul) O'Neill, they came to the team to play. They were special players. I'm not saying that our guys don't come to play. I'm not saying that. But those guys were separate. They were big time, they were clutch. They were there. It's hard to find players like that. We have more players, more superstars, but it's not like the guys we had before."
The 2007 season may not have the same outcome as '98 when the Yankees won 114 games, but times they have a suddenly changed. While Rivera cannot pinpoint why his team has won 14 of their last 17 and recently came off an exhilarating nine-game winning streak, the closer won't dig too deep for the answer. Always with his glass half full, Rivera believes he knows the answer. His teammates are finally taking a piece out of his own book of life. They're enjoying the game.
"We're just having fun," Rivera said. "You come to the stadium and the first thing is you're happy to be here and you're thankful. Come to the field and enjoy. It's amazing. Fifteen or 20 days ago we weren't playing at all. All of a suddenly we just turned it on and things are going our way. And thank God. We're playing the way that we should play.
"I will say this, we weren't enjoying the game and now we are enjoying the game. Even though we lost some games (in the beginning), we enjoyed the games. Not that we enjoyed losing but we enjoyed the game even though they beat us. Now it's different. We see the guys relaxing and doing the things the way they know. And that's the opposite of what we were doing."
And what was the worst time for Rivera during the Yankees' losing streak? Not the sight of the Red Sox seemingly running away with the American League East. Not the Mets getting the majority of the positive press in New York for once, and not the idea that his last year in pinstripes could be an unsuccessful one. But rather the heat his long-time manager Joe Torre was receiving from the media and The Boss George Steinbrenner.
"It's like the head to a body," said Rivera of Torre. "If you don't have the head the body won't move. That's Mr. Torre to us. Mr. Torre has done a tremendous job. And I don't understand the criticism. Nobody says anything now because we're winning.
"He played the game. He understands the game and he knows how we go through tough times. That's how we work. When you have a manager like that they understand what we're thinking and how we go through our business. I don't want to be in his position but I will say it's a little bit easier to manager... instead of not knowing what's going on and not knowing what to do."
Win or lose and with or without Torre as a leader, it's hard to think of the Yankees without No. 42. Rivera is in the last year of his contract, and like Bernie Williams' departure after 16 seasons in pinstripes, there would once again be a void in the left-front corner locker of the clubhouse. Somebody will have to step up and take over the leadership role that Rivera occupies even on days he doesn't even speak. And of course, somebody will have to resume the role of the jokester. Frankly, these are all irreplaceable traits that somehow have transformed themselves into extraordinary and exceptional attributes for the mere reason they come from such an extraordinary player and person such as Mariano Rivera.
It's up to Brian Cashman to keep Rivera, who has publicly stated he wants to pitch in the new stadium in 2009. Rivera isn't ready to stay goodbye to the Yankees just yet, but he's prepared to bid farewell to the place where the best memories of his life were created. And with that goodbye, comes a hello, an inception to where Rivera hopes more banners will be raised, more trophies will be held and more champagne bottles will be opened, just like the unforgettable moments of the dynasty days. Until then, today is all Rivera is thinking about, with a smile of course.
"I will start thinking contract after the year," Rivera said. "I have nothing to think about. All I have on my mind is do my best for the team and hopefully giving my best gives us the opportunity to win. After the season I'll start thinking about contract. But for now, that's far for me.
So is Rivera imagining himself in another uniform?
"I'm not," Rivera said. "But if I have to do something, I have to do something."