I was living a long way from New York, still doing a lot more farming than writing, when Mariano Rivera was serving as setup man for John Wetteland. Since I moved east and landed the Yankees beat, I’d heard that Rivera referred to Wetteland as his mentor, but I’d never heard it first hand until yesterday.
“That’s the way I feel with him,” Rivera said. “In ’95, I was a rookie and I always watched; ’96, 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. So I mean, I learned a lot from him, how to pitch, especially in playoffs. It was great for me to have him there in the bullpen. … It’s not that I was looking for the position, but I just wanted to learn, seeing the guys, see how — he’s older than me, been playing the game for so many years. You wanted to learn with those guys. And I did.”
Yesterday’s Rangers presentation of a cowboy hat and cowboy boots reminded me of the A’s giving Rivera a surfboard as a retirement gift. It’s a nice local touch, but it’s hard to imagine Rivera having much use for it. But yesterday’s pregame ceremony was more about who than what. Nolan Ryan and Joe Nathan were appropriate presenters, but it was all about Wetteland. That’s the moment Rivera will surely remember about his last trip to Texas.
“One thing that he says that I always remembered was, don’t get beat with your third-best pitch,” Rivera said. “Meaning when you’re go in there, you always bring your No. 1 pitch. You get beat with that one. In a tough situation, don’t get beat with that (other) one.”
After the pregame ceremony, Wetteland spoke for about 15 minutes about his relationship with Rivera and his memories of the game’s greatest closer. A few highlights…
Back in 1996, did you expect this from Rivera?
“Who could say that, really, about anybody? If you look back in retrospect, it becomes clear why we’re standing here so many years later. I’ve never seen anybody pay such attention to detail when they’re young. He was even talking about it out there when we were kind of having a moment; he said that when he came in, there were already lots of ‘men’ in the bullpen and he felt like a little kid. I told him, ‘You never said a word. You just sat there. But you were always watching everybody.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I was taking in everything I could.’ When you look back from where he started and the process of how Mariano Rivera – not a scared kid, but a wide-eyed kid – becomes arguably and far-and-away the greatest closer that ever lived, you can kind of see it now. The thing that blows my mind is how the body holds up.”
“He was hittable. When I first saw him pitch, he was still a starter. It was fastball, slider, changeup. Pretty good command of everything, but there wasn’t a whole lot of separation with the slider, the fastball was a four-seamer mostly at the time. It had some explosiveness to it, but he really lacked that second pitch that was good enough to off-set that as a starter, or the combination of a second and third pitch. I saw him get hit around quite a bit. I remember when he came into the pen, it was in ‘96 I believe, we had a good core of guys there. He would sit there quiet, but he would know what was going on, what was being said. When we talked hitters, he was listening. Nothing escaped this guy. Nothing. I still remark on it to this day; when I bring it up to him, he says, ‘yeah, that’s absolutely what I was all about.’ He’s a very intelligent, wise man. He’s going to make some correct assessments along the way. I think that may have been the catalyst as to why he always seems to stay one step ahead of the game and the way hitters hit. If you’ve noticed, his pitching evolved too over the course of his career. He used different stuff at different time; little epochs of his career where he uses different ammunition.”
What made him no longer hittable?
“Cutter. Honestly, you can have a good Major League career if you have command of three pitches — even two if you have command of those – but you’re going to get hit a little bit. There needs to be a separator, and when the cutter arrived on the scene, that was a separator. Really, ever since, Major League hitters will tell you, ‘I swear I was on it, and next thing I know, I’m holding talcum powder.’”
Wish you’d been his teammate longer?
“Never crossed my mind. I think that’s more of a perspective than a want or a desire. I was with Mariano as long as I needed to be with Mariano, and he’ll tell you the same thing. And the Yankees needed Mariano then. When I became expendable, it was a perfect storm. It was a shrewd business move. That man was ready to step in. I could get a job somewhere. Everybody won. But the thing I find remarkable about his first year closing, you’re still talking about a young kid, and you’re talking about half a year or so of rubbing elbows with veteran guys and seeing how it’s done. We would play catch every day and work on things, but still it’s a half year and boom, he’s closing for the Yankees. And the guy that departed was the MVP. That’s got to be a really tough spot. I know that position is tough enough, and then you throw that on there. Once you see him come through things like that, those are the kinds of things that mark closers. What are the affectations? If there aren’t many, you’ve got a chance. To see him handle that kind of a situation in his career, the way he did, you knew he was going to be just fine.”
Feel honored to be a part of this?
“I had a fishing trip planned. I wasn’t going to miss today, period. That’s not going to happen. Obviously I love Mariano to death and there’s a lot of history there and a lot of great moments, a lot of next things shared. Quite honestly, as I’m thinking about that, it has more to do with him as a man and just talking to him. That’s kind of what we did out there. We talked a little bit about baseball, but it was mostly just about where we are as human beings, the way things are. And he’s talking kind of like an old man now. ‘Things used to be so different, John,’ you know, ‘And the kids used to be this way, and now…’ It’s so funny to hear this stuff. It’s just going to happen again. Shawn Kelley is going to grow up in the game and say the same things, but always when Mariano opens his mouth, it carries a little extra weight.”
Associated Press photos