During the rehearsal on Friday for the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Sunday afternoon, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera raised his hand.
“Can I ask a question,’’ Rivera quipped. “Why do I always have to go last?”
Former Oriole and Yankee Mike Mussina, who will be the first of the new inductees to speak on Sunday, had the answer.
“You know why, Mariano,” he replied, “starters go first and closers go last.’’
The order of the speeches is not picked at random, but Rivera’s place at the end of the line is not just because he is the most prolific closer in the history of the sport. It’s also because he is the main event after becoming the first-ever unanimous selection by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, but Mussina wasn’t going to let up.
“We thought it was appropriate, that I would go first and he would go last,’’ Mussina said during Saturday’s Hall of Fame news conference, “because we’re basically talking about starters, DH’s and closers. That’s who we have going this year. But he wanted to trade. He wanted to see if I was willing to trade with him. I said no, I’m going to go first.”
Mussina wasn’t through having fun with his former teammate, who was across the room regaling an even larger crowd of media. Harold Baines, Lee Smith and Edgar Martinez also had individual scrums at the Clark Sports Center.
“That’s what I said,’’ Mussina continued. “He just needed to understand that. I just think he didn’t want to sit up there all that time and go sixth. That’s what I think. I told him he should to do what he did during the regular season and wait until the seventh-inning stretch and then come out on stage. It would be the same.
“I also said to him that when I’m done, I’m going to leave, because that’s what happened when I came out of the game. I’d go inside, go in the locker room and take a shower. He said, ‘That’s okay as long as I don’t have to come out until Bernie (Williams) plays the seventh-inning stretch.”
That interplay was just a sign of the relationship that developed between Mussina and his closer over the eight years they pitched together for the Yankees. He pointed to the 123 regular season games he won as a Yankee and the role Rivera played in securing many of them.
“To be there for eight years knowing that I have his caliber of closer back there for that many straight years at that level of talent,” Mussina said. “He’s probably the best that ever played that position and did that job, so it’s comforting as a starting pitcher knowing that if I do my job well, he’s going to do his job and we have a chance to win that day…All the starters felt that way.”
Rivera saved more games than anyone in history (652) and he did it with one pitch – his famous cut fastball. That has to seem counter-intuitive in a sport where there is a direct correlation between mixing pitches and changing speeds. Relievers don’t need to have a large repertoire, but they generally need more one pitch. So what made him that good for that long?
“He threw the ball hard enough and that one pitch was just -- it was a new thing on the block there for a while and people just couldn’t get a good grasp on it,’’ Mussina said. “Swings were bad and bats were broken and nobody hit it very well and then he started working both sides of the plate and he sank the ball once in a while and he kept evolving. He just got better and better.”
Baines also marveled at the way Rivera could make look different every time he threw it.
“He had one pitch, but he could use both sides of the plate,’’ Baines said. “That cutter broke so late, you couldn’t tell ball or strike. When you got two strikes, you didn’t have enough time to recognize ball or strike. I got him early in his career, but when he learned that pitch, he became pretty good.”
Mussina won 270 games as a starter with a five-pitch mix that featured two fastballs, a slider, a changeup and his signature knuckle curve. But, according to one of the best hitters to both play with him and against him, it was his intellect that made him so tough to face.