SEATTLE — Mariano Rivera is rightfully known as the maestro of the ninth inning, baffling hitters with the same pitch, the cut fastball, over and over, all the more maddening for the lack of mystery over his repertoire.
“When everyone knows what you’re doing, but you still get everyone out, that’s unbelievably impressive,” Mariners veteran Jason Bay said. “You’d think, after awhile, guys would catch on. But no one’s caught on.’’
On Friday at Safeco Field, however, Rivera didn’t wait until a save situation (of which he’s converted 630, not counting the 42 — his grandfathered uniform number — in the postseason) to amaze and impress.
This Yankees series at Safeco Field is Rivera’s final one in Seattle before his announced retirement at the end of the season. Rivera decided in spring training that rather than do the typical deal of trotting out to receive a rocking chair or a motorcycle as a gift in each city, he’d do something more personal, more poignant.
So in each final stop, Rivera is sitting down with a small group of folks, be it season-ticket holders, stadium workers or just people from the community. It’s an intimate gathering to talk baseball and life, a farewell tour of personal interaction unprecedented among superstar athletes.
Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ public-relations director, has observed several of these sessions now, watching the nervousness rapidly dissipate as Rivera’s down-to-earth nature puts people at ease.
“There’s an awe, I guess, which is understandable,” Zillo said. “But at some point it turns into just human beings talking and sharing.”
On Friday, in a room under Safeco Field, a dozen or so young Mariners employees — high-school and college students with a passion for baseball, some of them special-needs kids, who work seasonally as “fielders” doing a variety of ballpark tasks — sat in a circle of chairs, chatting with a future Hall of Famer.
Rivera, who at age 43 is making his final season one of his best, would say of these sessions: “I learn from them. I thought I would just say thank you.”
For more than 30 minutes, while the Mariners took batting practice, Rivera warmly answered questions from the kids, imparting the need for humility, for chasing one’s passions, for standing up to failure, for faith. Not groundbreaking pearls of wisdom, but impactful coming from an athlete of his stature.
When asked about the struggles of closing (pertaining to Mariners’ closers over the years), he replied: “We’re all going to fail. It’s what you do when you fail. You can take it as a failure, or a steppingstone to get better. When I don’t get a save (he’s blown 74 in his career, plus one in the seventh game of a World Series), I want to find out why.”
On finding one’s place in life, he said: “First of all, you have to love what you’re doing. If you do, you’re in the right place. If not, I recommend you find something you love.”
Then Rivera cautioned: “Don’t believe you are better than anyone. Maybe you are, but don’t let people know. Meaning, don’t shove it in their face. Be kind. The best tool you have is being humble. It’s not weak or soft.”
Reflecting on his struggle to recover from last year’s season-ending (and career-threatening) knee injury, Rivera told his audience: “When I was rehabbing my leg, I said, if the Lord permits, I’m going to come back. The last scene of Mariano Rivera is not going to be laying on the dirt in Kansas City. If the Lord gives me the strength, I’m going to come back. I kept those words in my head.”
He’s come back with a vengeance — 22 saves in 23 attempts — yet Rivera says he’s not temped to change his mind about retirement. Nor is he wistful about leaving the baseball life he has had for more than 20 years. He and his wife plan to operate their church in New Rochelle, N.Y., after his retirement.
“No sadness. None at all,” he said in a dugout interview, one that was delayed while he spent almost an hour during Yankees batting practice signing autographs.
Sitting next to Rivera under Safeco, Zillo told the story that still makes Mariners fans cringe, about how an injury to veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez in the spring of 1996 caused Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to campaign for a trade. The Boss wanted to bring in an established shortstop, because he didn’t think the kid they had, Derek Jeter, was ready.
“He wanted to make a trade with Seattle for Felix Fermin, a veteran shortstop,” Zillo said, adding: “They were very close to making the trade, which would have sent this guy (gesturing to Rivera) to the Seattle Mariners for Felix Fermin. Pretty heavy stuff, I know.”
You could dwell all day on the revisionist history of two franchises if that deal had gone through. Rivera wants no part of it.
“It didn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t use the words ‘what might have happened.’ It really doesn’t count. It didn’t work. I’ve said before, the Lord has purposes in our lives. Mine is to be with the New York Yankees.”
For another four months, anyway — five if they get to the World Series. Few in history have performed their job better than Rivera, and not many have gone out with more grace.