Mariano Rivera’s Attitude

From Buster Olney

My first season covering the Yankees for the New York Times was in 1998, in the first spring after Rivera gave up a pivotal game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the 1997 Division Series, in Rivera’s first October as a closer. Baseball history is littered with relievers who never recovered psychologically from significant blown saves, and from the first day of spring training, Rivera was asked repeatedly about the home run and its impact on him. He always answered the questions patiently, evenly.

As the Yankees gathered momentum in their 114-win season of ’98 and another postseason appearance became inevitable, Rivera faced another round of questions about the Alomar homer. His response with his words, with his body language, was always the same.

Having watched this for six months, I approached him away from the other reporters, from the cameras. “The Alomar home run really doesn’t bother you, does it?” I said.

“You know why?” Rivera said, and what I did not know then was that the curtain of courtly affability was about to drop, and what I would see, for the first time, was the competitor who wanted to bruise thumbs with his cut fastball.

He continued. “Because I made that home run,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He stood up from the chair in front of his locker and took a hitter’s stance; he was imitating Alomar, a right-handed hitter. “I threw a fastball high and outside,” he explained, adding a guesstimate on what the velocity reading was — about 97 or 98 mph. Rivera flailed with his arms, invoking Alomar. “He stuck his bat out and hit the ball to right field. Any other pitcher in baseball, and it’s a fly ball to right field. The power came from me. I made that home run.”

In other words, Rivera was so dominant — in his own mind — that the only reason he had been beaten by Alomar was because of his own greatness.

It was the greatest Jedi mind trick I had ever heard. And he believed it, fully. Rivera has pitched in 120 postseason innings since the Alomar home run and allowed one other homer, by Jay Payton in the 2000 World Series.