All-time saves leader also discusses watching his son pitch in Nats' system
By Mark Newman
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- In an extensive interview that aired on MLB Network during "MLB Tonight" on Thursday, all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera talked about a number of topics, including the Hall of Fame, helping former teammate CC Sabathia come back with a cutter and the "fine line" between enjoying the game and showing respect.
Rivera also discussed the Yankees' chances in 2016, watching his son Mariano Jr. pitch, being honored this year in Monument Park but staying forever humble, and the challenge that closers Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees and Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox both face in moving to the American League.
Rivera, who saved 652 games in the regular season (and another 42 in the postseason), spent much of the day Tuesday at MLB Network's studios, serving part of his ambassador role with The Hartford by throwing about 100 Wiffle ball pitches to execs and agents, signing autographs and answering their questions about baseball and life. He also sat down with Tom Verducci and Al Leiter for a 45-minute conversation, which included his thoughts about being eligible for the 2019 Hall class.
"When I see it, I believe it," Rivera said with a smile, perhaps mindful that Trevor Hoffman, second to him in all-time saves, fell short in his ballot debut this year. "That's the top of the top, the cream of the cream. There are good players, there are great players, and there are the players who just belong there. The Hall of Fame, to me, is something that you don't have to discuss. To me, the Hall of Fame is when you see a player, you mention the name, you don't have to discuss, 'Oh, what did this guy do?' It's automatic. To me, that's what the Hall of Fame represents."
Rivera spoke at length about the evolution of his famous cutter, which he said is really just a four-seam fastball that he tried unsuccessfully to "stop from moving." He said he was unable to throw straight pitches to the Yankees in batting practice last week at their Spring Training complex in Tampa, Fla., and there was special interest in the cutter by one Yankee in particular: Sabathia.
Since Rivera retired after the 2013 season, Sabathia, the 35-year-old, six-time All-Star left-hander, has won only a combined nine games. He left the Yankees before their 2015 American League Wild Card Game loss against the Astros to enter an alcohol treatment program. Sabathia spent part of a recent bullpen session talking to Rivera about the pitch, which he said is "going to be a big pitch for me."
"I saw CC throwing bullpen, and I was watching, and I liked what I saw," Rivera said. "But the point is, he has to trust it. He doesn't throw in the 97-98 [mph range] that he used to throw before and blow people away. Throw one game, rest two games and the third day he was pitching again. That's not the CC you will ever see again. Only by the miracle of God will he ever do that again. ... Knowing the way he is, the way he always competes, he can use that pitch and be effective. But he has to be positive on that."
According to Rivera, that is sort of the Yankees in a nutshell.
"Definitely it is a playoff-caliber team," he said. "They have everything they need. They have speed, power, the knowledge. They have a combination between older players and new players. Especially the rotation, they have a lot of young players there. So I don't see why not."
Naturally, Rivera has special interest in the Yankees' formidable bullpen. Led by Andrew Miller (who won Rivera's namesake AL award) and Dellin Betances, its strikeout ratio of 10.11 per nine innings was the second-highest in Major League history. Adding Chapman (10 strikeouts through 5 1/3 Grapefruit League innings) in a trade with Cincinnati means they have the top three strikeout relievers from 2015, and the potential for an unheard-of 7-8-9 inning rollout. Chapman will start the season under a 30-game suspension.
"There's no doubt in my mind that they can be better than the bullpen we had in '96," Rivera said on this 20th anniversary of his first World Series ring, before he took over for John Wetteland as closer. "Because remember, I was also throwing sometimes the sixth inning, the seventh and eighth. A lot of times I did that. This time, the starter has to worry about seven innings, six innings -- 'six and fly,' they used to call it. Now [it's] five-and-fly."
Asked to predict a winner of the Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year Award for 2016, he noted that Chapman and Kimbrel both left the NL to join The Rivalry. Not surprisingly, Rivera says: "Well, that would be Chapman. Because he's with the Yankees. That would be something special.
"But it's not easy, though. I always say this, for some reason the National League, you have those guys closing in those games there where you don't have the [No.] 4 hitter that is the DH. Now you have the DH here that is hitting 30-35 home runs, and all of a sudden, you've got to face this guy. So the game is a little different. But at the same time, those are guys capable to do a lot of stuff -- good games, good pitchers, and hopefully we'll see those pitchers that we want to see in those situations."
Watch the video and you can see Rivera's length response to the comments Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper made recently about traditional taboos against showing up others in uniform.
"We're not robots, not machines. You have to show your feelings," Rivera said. "But in showing your feelings, you also have to respect. You have to make sure you don't cross lines. There is a human being throwing there, and you hit a home run to win the game and you're flipping and doing all that stuff, you're hurting his feelings. Now what happens if the guy is in retribution, he's throwing something and he punches you out and is throwing things, and now you're upset because he is doing that? It's a fine line."
Rivera can give plenty of advice about that to his son. Rivera said his son (29 strikeouts, three walks last season) will start the season with Hagerstown, the Nationals' Class A South Atlantic League affiliate.
Mike Dunn, assistant vice president of brand for The Hartford, said Rivera's interaction with his "new" team was a blissful day -- and characteristic for the ever-humble Rivera.
"Our sponsorship is all about revolves around relievers and closers. We do that because our brand is about helping our customers prevail, and in the same way relievers and closers come in and help their teams prevail when the game is on the line," Dunn said. "I don't think there's a better closer than Mariano Rivera, not only because what he achieved on the mound, but because of who he is as a person. Everything that Mariano stands for and is about is just so in line with what The Hartford brand is about."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.