Commentary

The daunting task of replacing Rivera

David Robertson, son of Alabama, faces replacing his own version of Bear Bryant

Updated: February 21, 2014, 10:44 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ray Perkins was sharing stories Friday about hiring Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick as assistants with the New York Giants and about helping George Young draft a couple of college kids named Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms. But as much as Perkins played a role in four of the most important moves in Giants history, he knows that millions of football fans remember him for something else.

Perkins was the guy who replaced Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Ray Perkins and Bear Bryant
Getty ImagesRay Perkins faced replacing the legendary Bear Bryant, much like how David Robertson faces replacing Mariano Rivera.

He wasn't the least bit afraid to do it, either. In fact, in the early hours of his Giants administration, Perkins, one of Bryant's old wide receivers, told The Star-Ledger he would "walk to Tuscaloosa [Ala.]" from East Rutherford, N.J., if the Bear retired and Alabama came calling.

"I didn't end up walking when they called," Perkins recalled from his Mississippi home, "but I sure did go."

David Robertson, son of Tuscaloosa, graduate of Paul W. Bryant High School, star baseball player for the Alabama Crimson Tide, is not being asked to go anywhere to replace a legend in a different age and different game. If Mariano Rivera's 652 saves are the equivalent of the Bear's six national titles, at least Robertson gets to stay in the Bronx in his attempt to follow the toughest act in sports.

"And David should consider it an honor," Perkins said. "Mariano is considered the greatest ever, right? I saw Coach Bryant as the greatest ever, and people kept talking about the pressure, and more pressure, blah, blah, blah. I never looked at it as pressure. Just an honor."

In the Yankees' clubhouse Friday morning, with the day revolving around the man occupying an adjacent locker, Masahiro Tanaka, the team's most important right-hander spoke of growing up in Bear Bryant's Alabama. Robertson had a cannon for a right arm, and around Tuscaloosa, that often meant an early and vigorous grooming for the quarterback's job with the Crimson Tide.

But there were a couple of problems the 5-foot-11 Robertson couldn't solve. One, his size. He didn't think he was big enough to start on his high school teams, so he decided to try out as a placekicker as a senior. "Just so I could say I played," Robertson said.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera, David Robertson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesRobertson earned Rivera's trust and respect.

The other problem was his arm. "I couldn't throw a football at all," he said. "It's a different throwing motion, and I could throw it maybe 30 feet. Football just didn't work for me."

Baseball? That worked for him just fine. He was talented enough on the mound to draw Alabama's interest, though he wasn't offered a full ride. "Nobody gets a full scholarship in baseball," Robertson said.

"The storied program at Alabama was football, and you'd see the football players with better equipment and more staff. We'd get three or 4,000 fans for home games, which wasn't bad, but it was nothing like drawing a hundred thousand for a football game."

People noticed, anyway. The Yankees drafted Robertson in the 17th round in 2006, and two summers later, he was sitting in a Shea Stadium bullpen when a certain closer started heading his way in the middle of a Subway Series game. The rookie couldn't believe he was on the same team, in the same pen, as the one and only Rivera.

"I was a nervous wreck for a good week," Robertson said, "until I had a chance to speak with him."

They hit it off, if only because everyone hit it off with Mo. Only this was different. Robertson ultimately became Rivera's setup man, the teammate most responsible for tweaking the lights and rearranging the props before Mo and his magical, mystery cutter took center stage.

Along the way, Robertson earned the closer's respect and trust. He pitched 5⅓ innings in the 2009 postseason without surrendering a run, helping Rivera win his fifth World Series ring.

"They grew very close," Robertson's wife, Erin, said by phone. "So when Mo first announced last year that he was retiring, David's first reaction was, 'I'm really going to miss him.' I mean, that was David's closest friend on the team. That was his buddy. He wasn't thinking of replacing Mo. It was more like, 'What am I going to do without him?'"

Of course, everyone's been asking that of the Yankees: What are they going to do without him? David Robertson, complementary reliever in the high socks, represents the answer to that question.

"The organization is hoping I can do the same things in the ninth inning that I've done in the eighth," Robertson said. "But it's like following Derek [Jeter] after he retires; nobody's going to replace Mariano. Nobody's going to do what he's done."

But can the 28-year-old Robertson, with eight career saves, pitch at a Rivera level into the foreseeable future?

"Yeah, absolutely," the new closer said. "I don't see why not. I think I'm personally capable of doing it. I'm not going to be able to throw one pitch and do it. I'm going to have to do it with a bit of a repertoire and sneak some pitches by some guys, but I don't see why anyone couldn't do what he's done for a short period. I just don't know about carrying it for 19 years."

Robertson isn't afraid to give it a shot for five seasons, maybe ten, and that's a heck of a start. He's already reaffirmed his bond with New York, using his High Socks for Hope foundation he started with Erin -- first to help those in Tuscaloosa devastated by the 2011 tornado -- to furnish the homes of those who lost everything to Superstorm Sandy.

Though he's on a one-year deal and facing free agency, Robertson has the look and sound of a New Yorker who doesn't plan on going anywhere any time soon.

"David's a very confident person in every aspect of his life," Erin said. "He's not trying to become Mariano, but I know he believes he'll have success following him. When David first came to New York, he thought he was good enough to someday be the Yankees' closer. He's learned so much from Mariano, who was a great role model. Mostly, he learned from Mo how to keep your composure. I don't see that changing."

Nor does her husband. Robertson called Rivera a mentor who always lifted his spirits when they needed lifting and who always "jumped my case if my attitude was bad here at the field." They last spoke in January at the Baseball Writers' Association of America dinner in New York, at which the newly retired Rivera approached his successor and asked with a smile, "Are you scared?"

"Scared of what?" Robertson answered. "I haven't even thrown a pitch yet."

That day is coming in early April, when Robertson feels the full weight of replacing an icon. So the conversation Friday moved back to his Tuscaloosa roots, back to his beloved Crimson Tide. Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide.

Robertson described himself as a big Nick Saban fan. "That's the legacy I'm looking at," he said. "But if you ask the old-timers, it's like Bear Bryant is still alive. They still love the Bear down there."

Back in the day, Ray Perkins loved him like a father and handed off the Giants to Parcells in 1983 so he could take the office Bryant relinquished weeks before his death. Perkins went 32-15-1 and won a few bowl games before returning to the NFL to coach Tampa Bay four years later.

On the phone from Mississippi, Perkins was told that the Yankees' graduate from Paul W. Bryant High, Robertson, believes he's very much up to the challenge of succeeding Rivera.

"That's the right approach to have," the old football coach said. "I'm sure David's thinking, as much as he respects and admires Rivera, 'Let's see if I can do better than him.' If he didn't believe it, he wouldn't be there.

"And the thing he should remember most is, don't focus on the pressure. This is a great honor, and that's the only way to look at it."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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