Yankees’ Record-Setting Reliever Rivera to Retire After Season

Mariano Rivera announced he is closing a career in which he’s helped the New York Yankees win five World Series titles and produced a Major League Baseball saves record that some historians say will stand forever.

Rivera, at 43 baseball’s oldest active big-league player, said at a televised news conference in Tampa, Florida, today that this season will be the last of a 19-year run, which began in 1995 as a starting pitcher.

“It’s not too easy when you come to a decision like this,” Rivera said. “I’m retiring from the game I love and have passion for and enjoyed for so many years.”

The right-hander who jogs into games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” will exit with the legacy as possibly the most effective relief pitcher in baseball history. He has a record 608 regular-season saves -- more than twice as many as any other active player -- and 42 more during the postseason, where he’s compiled an 8-1 record with a 0.70 earned run average in 96 games.

Since 1997, Rivera has been the Yankees’ closer, the man out of the bullpen who gets the ball to record the final outs of victory. A 12-time All-Star, he was limited to nine games last season after tearing a knee ligament in May while chasing batting-practice fly balls in center field at Kansas City, a pre-game pattern he has followed for years and one which he says he has no intention of dropping.

Empty Tank

Rivera hinted during spring training a year ago that the 2012 season might be his last, then vowed to return after the injury. He signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Yankees in December.

“Now is the time,” he said. “I’ve given everything and the tank is almost empty. The gas that I have left is for this year.”

The son of a Panamanian fisherman, Rivera was signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent for $3,000 in 1990. He wasn’t regarded as a top prospect, and was left unprotected by the Yankees when the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins stocked their expansion-team rosters in 1993.

He broke into the majors as a starter with Yankees in 1995 before being moved to the bullpen as a set-up man for then- closer John Wetteland. Rivera finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting as a reliever in 1996 in helping the Yankees win the World Series for the first time in 17 years.

Rivera’s success is built on a cut fastball that can break bats, a pitch he’s called a gift from God and one discovered while playing catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza in 1997. Jim Thome, who hit 612 home runs in 22 years in the majors, calls the pitch “the best ever in the history of the game.”

Rivera has averaged 40 saves since 1997 and is one of two pitchers, along with Eric Gagne, with two 50-save seasons.

Saves Leader

In 2011, he surpassed Trevor Hoffman as baseball’s all-time saves leader when he recorded the 602nd of his career. Peter Golenbock, who has written more than a dozen books on baseball, said then that Rivera probably would hold “until the end of time.”

Rivera has been even more effective during the postseason, when he helped the Yankees win World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. He recorded the final out in each of the three consecutive series clinchers.

“He basically made my career,” Joe Torre, the Yankees’ manager from 1996 to 2007, said two days ago as reported in the New York Times.

Rivera’s saves in the playoffs and World Series are nine more than the combined total of Brad Lidge and Dennis Eckersley, who rank second and third on the list. Rivera also had 14 postseason saves of six outs or more, double the expected job of the modern closer.

Infrequent Failures

Rivera’s failures were infrequent, yet memorable. He couldn’t close out the 1997 American League Division Series against Cleveland, allowing an eighth-inning Game 4 home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. He blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, and had three blown saves in the 2004 playoffs, including two against Boston.

A religious person who has said he’ll become a preacher once his baseball days are done, Rivera has avoided the scandals and tabloid headlines that frequently accompany sports stardom in New York.

“I don’t get nervous,” he was quoted as saying in a 2006 article in USA Today. “I trust God.”

He has dealt with personal tragedy, such as in October 2004 when he rushed to Panama during the playoffs after two relatives died in a swimming pool accident at his home. After a six-hour, 2,200-mile flight back to New York, he saved Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.

The torn knee ligament was the first significant injury of Rivera’s career and he’s shown few signs of decline as he’s gotten older. Since 2008, Rivera has had a 1.72 ERA in 264 games. He had 44 saves and a 1.91 ERA during his last full season in 2011.

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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