Commentary

True stories of Mariano and Trevor

The two greatest closers in baseball history have much more in common than just stats

Updated: September 20, 2011, 1:49 PM ET
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

There has never been a summit of the No. 1 and No. 2 all-time save leaders, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. They have attended the same All-Star Games, played against each other in the regular season and the postseason and probably have crossed paths at various events.

But there has never been a time when the two relief pitchers grabbed a couple of chairs in the corner of a bullpen or a banquet room to talk about their craft, about Rivera's cutter or Hoffman's changeup or how the music for their entrance into ballgames was chosen.

Mariano Rivera
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRivera's been breaking bats with the cutter for 15 years now.

I know this, because through the years, I've asked both about their contact with the other -- because I was fortunate enough to cover both extensively. I shared the San Diego Padres beat coverage at the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993 and 1994, in the summers that the Padres traded for Hoffman and then installed him as their closer. A few years later, at the New York Times, I was assigned to the New York Yankees for four seasons and had the opportunity to watch Rivera establish himself.

When I've posed the question -- Have you two guys gotten a chance to talk much? -- their responses have been predictable: No. They speak with complete respect for each other, they talk about the good things they hear about each other. But neither is the sort to stroll across the foul lines and throw a Big Papi-like hug around someone wearing another uniform.

Rivera and Hoffman have been in different leagues, mostly on opposite coasts, and there is no doubt that if they were neighbors, or had happened to be teammates, they would be great friends, because they are so similar -- genial and generous, and each has an earnest, self-deprecating sense of humor.

But there is this, too: Rivera and Hoffman haven't had a summit, I suspect, for the same reason that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady aren't best buddies. Rivera and Hoffman have been competing against each other, for years.

• • •

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.

• • •

Hoffman was booed the first time he pitched in a home Padres uniform, because he had come in a trade that enraged San Diego fans. The Padres' ownership had ordered massive cost-cutting in which general manager Joe McIlvaine did not want to participate, and so after Randy Smith replaced McIlvaine in June 1994, he knew his first responsibility would be to trade All-Stars Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff.

Last week, Smith -- now the director of player development for the Padres -- pulled out the notes of the trade talks he had. The Boston Red Sox had briefly expressed interest in Sheffield, Smith recalled, but they had backed off, and so Smith was left with little leverage. "The only option we really had was Florida," said Smith.

And Smith, who had come to the Padres from the Colorado Rockies, knew the Florida Marlins' farm system well, because as he had prepared for the expansion draft in the fall of 1992, he had sifted through the same players as the Marlins had.

Dave Dombrowski, then the general manager of the Marlins, swapped names with Smith over a week's time, with some players being added and dropped in the proposals -- Andres Berumen, Matt Whisenant, Darrell Whitmore. All along, however, Smith insisted that Hoffman be included as the centerpiece of any trade.

Hoffman
ProCards Hoffman followed an unusual path to the bullpen.

Smith had not scouted Hoffman in person in years, not since the player's days in college, when Hoffman was a shortstop; at that time, Smith filed a report projecting Hoffman -- an exceptional athlete with a powerful arm -- to be a catcher in pro ball. But in Smith's time with the Rockies, he had gone through the reports on Hoffman and knew that he had the potential to be a bullpen weapon, with his mid-90s fastball. "He didn't want to trade Trevor," Smith remembered, "but every proposal I gave him came back to Trevor."

Dombrowski shaved the package of players around Hoffman and agreed, less than three months into Hoffman's major league career. After the trade was made, Smith joked with Hoffman about his first scouting report, which had him as a catcher. "I only missed by 60 feet," he said.

Hoffman was quiet in his very first days with teammates, initially drawing attention because of how he played catch with a football as part of his training regimen. And in his first days with the team, some of the other Padres mentioned this about Hoffman: After a poor outing, he had a unique way of processing his rage about failure. There was a short time after games in which Hoffman would disappear, to be by himself, and then when he returned to the clubhouse, he was restored; it was like he left his anger in a closet someplace. And once with teammates, he went back to being his friendly, funny self.

Hoffman replaced Gene Harris as the San Diego closer early in the 1994 season. After the 1995 season, Smith left the Padres to become the general manager of the Detroit Tigers, a struggling franchise. In 1996, Smith's first season with the Tigers, Detroit went 53-109, and the Padres won the National League West.

A few hours after the Padres clinched, Smith was awakened by a phone call in the middle of night. It was Hoffman, calling to say thanks for the trade, and to tell Smith how important he had been in what the Padres had accomplished.

• • •

Maybe part of the reason Rivera and Hoffman rank first and second in saves is because of their unusual journeys. Hoffman had failed as a minor league shortstop and when his first organization, the Cincinnati Reds, suggested that he try pitching, he realized what he was actually being told was that his pro baseball career was in jeopardy.

Rivera had not been a touted prospect at all, suffering a major arm injury early in his minor league career, and in the spring of 1995, he was viewed by a lot of scouts as a possible No. 4 or No. 5 starter in the majors, because of his average fastball -- 89-91 mph. He wouldn't make his debut until he was 25 years old.

So this is why the Yankees considered trading Rivera twice in the span of one calendar year. First, in May 1995 -- as former GM Gene Michael told the story many years ago -- the Yankees were involved in talks with the Tigers about David Wells, and the Tigers were interested in Rivera. One day, Michael got a report from the team's Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, in which there was word that Rivera's fastball had been clocked at a consistent 95 mph the night before, and he had touched 96 mph.

There was a major split between the New York and Tampa branches of the Yankees' front office at the time, and Michael's initial thought was that Rivera's velocity reading was an artificial production of the Tampa group, in an effort to pump up the team's prospects. Michael called to Columbus and asked them to double-check their radar readings; the word came back that the radar gun was fine. Then Michael called a scout from the Tigers, Jerry Walker, who he knew had been trailing Rivera, and in the midst of talking about other players, Michael asked Walker about Rivera's velocity -- and Walker confirmed that Rivera's fastball had been in the mid-90s. Michael ended all consideration of trading Rivera that summer, convinced there was more in the young right-hander that he hadn't yet shown.

But in the spring of 1996, the Yankees were again talking about trading Rivera. Veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez had gotten hurt and, early in spring training, Yankees officials -- including owner George Steinbrenner -- decided to commit the position to Derek Jeter, the organization's top prospect. After Jeter struggled in spring training, however, one of Steinbrenner's advisors, Clyde King, told Steinbrenner that he didn't think Jeter was ready. The Yankees needed another infielder, King believed, to start the year. Under orders from Steinbrenner, the Yankees' front office reached out to the Seattle Mariners about veteran shortstop Felix Fermin, and in return, the Mariners asked for either Rivera or Bob Wickman.

With spring training coming to an end, the Yankees' staff met and there was a spirited discussion about why the trade shouldn't be made -- but it wasn't because anybody was lobbying for Rivera, as one participant recalled. The debate focused on Jeter. "We had all said we would stick with Jeter, no matter what," Michael argued. "That's what we should do."

Steinbrenner, typically anxious about spring training failure, was talked off the ledge, and almost accidentally, Rivera remained with the Yankees. Fermin had 16 more plate appearances in the big leagues before he retired.

• • •

On a Sunday in spring training in 1994, I heard that Trevor had reached a contract agreement with the Padres. I had a source I could reach on weekdays to get details, but because this was the weekend, I was in a tough spot. I approached Trevor at his locker and asked him about his contract.

"Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked, and took me to a side room at the Padres' new spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. After closing the door, he asked, "How should I handle this? About the contract?"

He was earnestly seeking advice on how to respond to my question, which put me in an unusual situation as a reporter.

"Well," I said, "if somebody asked me what my salary was, I would tell them it wasn't any of their business. I wouldn't answer the question."

But then I added that by Monday morning, I would know the details of his contract anyway, and I mentioned to him how it came to be that all players' salaries were known -- that, as Marvin Miller educated the players in his first years as union head, he had wanted them to have full awareness of what their peers earned.

[+] EnlargeHoffman
AP Photo/Gregory BullRecord or not, Hoffman is revered in San Diego.

Trevor mulled that over for a bit. "Three years, $1.5 million," he said.

As Hoffman closed in on the 500th save of his career, I started working on a story about him for ESPN The Magazine. One of the questions that I had written in my notebook was something that I had wondered for more than a decade. Why did his fastball velocity decrease significantly in 1995 -- a change that had forced him to develop his changeup?

Trevor smiled. "Off the record?"

"Sure," I replied.

"You remember that first day after the strike in 1994?" he asked.

Absolutely. It was August, and the Padres had just returned from a trip to Houston, and the players arranged a golf outing, asking me if I wanted to play. I had been in the same foursome as Andy Benes.

After the golf, Hoffman had gone to a beach in San Diego. While playing touch football, he dived for a catch and fell headlong into the waves. The sound of his right shoulder as he hit the sand, he said, was like that of air going out of a tire. When the players' strike was settled the following spring and baseball resumed, Hoffman's fastball was closer to 89-90 mph than 95-96 mph. In his desperation to find a solution, he started using a changeup grip he had learned from a minor league teammate, Doug Bochtler, experimenting for the first time with the pitch in a spring training game. For Hoffman, the changeup became his signature pitch, in the same way that Rivera is known for the cut fastball.

Hoffman finished the story, and I laughed. "Trevor," I said, "you've got almost 500 saves and you've played, what, 15 years in the big leagues? What difference does it make if anybody knows how you hurt your shoulder? That's part of history."

He thought about it for a moment. "Go ahead and write it," Hoffman said.

• • •

Rivera described in 1998 that he discovered his cutter the summer before, while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza. As Rivera's cutter gained legend, some claimed prior sightings, in 1995 or 1996, or when in the minors. But Rivera says now, as he said years ago, that he didn't even conceive of a cutter until 1997.

You can't blame others for the UFO sightings, however, given how legendary the pitch has become -- and how notorious, among left-handed hitters particularly, because of how many bats Rivera has broken. In the last inning of the 1999 World Series, Rivera broke Ryan Klesko's bats three times in the same at-bat, and as Klesko raged on his way to first base, some Braves players stifled laughter in their dugout, even as they were just seconds from elimination.

In the spring of 2001, I decided to keep track of how many bats Rivera broke that season, by talking with the batboys who collected the shards, and by double-checking with the team's catchers. I told Rivera in May about the project, and he was immediately invested, because of what the number represented. Rivera would stoically react to each success or failure, but he acknowledged that there were times when he had to turn on the mound, away from the hitter, after exploding a bat, because he feared that he might break out laughing and disrespect the batter.

As usual, Rivera destroyed bats all season, sometimes as many as three or four in an appearance. But late that year, Rivera began to question the math. "C'mon, Buster," he said with a laugh. "I think you're shorting me."

The last broken bat he accumulated that year came on his final pitch, when he shattered Luis Gonzalez's 34-inch bat, 22 inches from the handle. (Oddly enough, that broken-bat single won the World Series for the Diamondbacks.)

He asked me earlier this season how many bats he broke that season. I need to find the record books I kept, but I'm pretty sure that was the 47th or 48th bat Rivera broke that year.

"I still think you shorted me," Rivera said, chuckling.

• • •

Hoffman and Rivera will have their summit, although they don't know it yet. But I know it, knowing both men.

There will be a day in the years ahead and the two of them will be in the same place, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Maybe it'll be on the back deck at the Otesaga Hotel, or in some side room at the Hall of Fame. Maybe it'll be when Hoffman returns to see Rivera's induction, because Hoffman will probably get in first.

But Rivera and Hoffman will see each other and shake hands, and with their long-distance competition over, they will sit and have a hell of a time, talking cutters and changeups and broken bats, and discover a lot that they already know.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his blog each morning on ESPN.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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