Elliott: Rivera had gentle touch, with his cutter, with fans

Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest to ever wear the Yankee pinstripes and the greatest closer in baseball history, will earn entry into Baseball's Hall of Fame when voting is announced on Tuesday. (Kathy Willens / AP)

Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest to ever wear the Yankee pinstripes and the greatest closer in baseball history, will earn entry into Baseball's Hall of Fame when voting is announced on Tuesday. (Kathy Willens / AP)

*This article was originally published on the Canadian Baseball Network on January 23, 2019.

By Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

We’ve seen hundreds of Mariano Rivera’s 652 saves from April to October.

Rivera was the perfect closer, the first unanimous player elected to the Hall of Fame. He allowed 11 earned runs in 96 games working 141 innings (an 0.70 ERA) in post-seasonn play. That number 11 is one less than the number of people who have walked on the moon.

My favorite Rivera moment came when he wasn’t even on the mound.

It was a regular Tuesday night at the Rogers Centre on Aug. 28, 2013. It was the final season of his 19-year career. The Yankees were coming back in September, this was not his final trip in.

If you get there early enough to see the rope along the warning track behind home plate during batting practice.

There wearing her New York Yankees swag was Dorothy Massia. I spotted Dorothy because I knew her daughter Claudette Scrafford, who is manuscript archivist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

With Claudette (Hawkesbury, Ont.) was her sister Micheline Eves (Ottawa, Ont.), who both brought their mom to a Yankee game so she could see her team as a 70th birthday present.

Coach Tony Pena stopped by to say hello to the Yankee fan. A gentle request was made to bring Rivera over.

Bench coach Rob Thomson (Stratford, Ont.) stopped by too.

At the end of batting practice the Yankees headed into the first base dugout. We watched from afar. There was a sight: while the grey uniforms merged into the first-base dugout on the way to the clubhouse, slicing through players were Pena high-stepping like he was in a Vegas chorus line. On his arm was a smiling Mariano Rivera.

Pena introduced Rivera to the birthday mom. Then, Rivera spoke to the mom, her two daughters and other Yankee fans. But he gave special attention to the three women.

As Rivera finally said goodbye, Scrafford said: “Hey Mariano we’ll see you in Cooperstown in 2019.”

“Hope to see you there,” said Rivera politely and he turned, heading for the dugout.

He took two steps, returned, looked the birthday gal in the eye and said “And I’ll see you there too.”

Well, outside of Mickey Mantle signing autographs in the lobby of the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Detroit, I had never seen a ballplayer bring smiles to people the way Rivera did.

Massia has moved in Eves, who now lives in Ottawa and is a financial officer of the health services for the military. And Scrafford said her mom is “Looking forward to being here in July.”

Scrafford was at the Rogers Centre for Winter Fest with plaques of Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar and Pat Gillick. Fans are so thrilled to have their photo taken with a plaque.

* * *

Mariano Rivera didn’t tour the majors accepting gifts every stop as a lot of retiring Hall of Famers did. In his final year, the Yankee closer thanked clubhouse attendants, grounds keepers and met front-office people. He’d autograph a ball, pose for a picture and answer questions.

On Tuesday, Aug 28, 2013, he headed to the old Founder’s Club for 45 minutes to say thanks to 26 longtime Blue Jays employees. Rivera asked Jays employees to tell them their names and department before asking questions.

_ Shelia Stella, of the Jays ticket office now the longest serving member of the organization, asked Rivera about the other side of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

“Mr. George was loyal to his workers,” Rivera told his captive audience. “I have so much respect for him. He put us in the best hotels, on the best flights, solved families’ problems. He was more than my boss.”

Rivera told how in the last couple of years of Steinbrenner’s life the Boss would be driven around the Yankees complex in a golf cart, never leaving before saying goodbye.

“I’d be running or shagging flies in the outfield, someone would say The Boss wants to see you,’ “ said Rivera. “He’d ask, You OK?’ I say yes. He’d say, I love you,’ I’d say, I love you, Boss.’ “

Rivera recalled being on the mound in Phoenix in 2001 when the Yankees lost Game 7 to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a Luis Gonzalez single. He recalled how Steinbrenner came to his locker.

“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘I did my best, Boss, but it wasn’t good enough.’ We hugged. If there was one thing I could change, I wish he was still alive.”

_ “My name is Mary-Anne and I was wondering ...” asked Mary-Anne Sturley. “Mariano?” asked Rivera to laughter. “No, Mary-Anne,” said Sturley, who broke in with Dave Stieb during the 1979 season. She asked Rivera which were the players he most wanted to meet as a rookie. Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio was the answer.

_ Patti Deangelis, Aramark Sports manager for 25 years, was asked who was her favourite all-time non-Jays player. She picked Mantle and later told Rivera the story. “Mantle was here signing years ago and a guy in the clubhouse gave me a ball, it made me cry,” said Deangelis. “I told Mariano his autographed ball is going beside Mickey Mantle’s.”

_ Glenn Jackson from ticketing asked Rivera which celebrities he wanted to meet. The answer? President George W. Bush and Billy Crystal. Said Rivera: “I always liked Billy’s sense of humour. We’ve met, we’re good friends.”

Hardest to strike out? Edgar Martinez, also in the class of 2019 along with Roy Halladay, and Mike Mussina. Said Rivera: “I’m glad he retired.”

_ Mike Andrejek in merchandising asked Rivera if he knew how many jerseys of his would have sold in Toronto?

_ Susan Woollard, a nurse for 23 years, thanked Rivera for his time.

_ Day 1 employee Howard Starkman asked Rivera how he wound up with uniform No. 42.

“When I was first called up, I had No. 58. Next time I was called up, No. 42 was in my locker,” said Rivera, who said he was naive and didn’t know the history until Jackie Robinson’s number was retired in 1997.

“The number is a blessing, a responsibility,” said the last man who will ever wear No. 42.

Rivera said his cutter came from God -- no one taught him the pitch. “God knew I needed the pitch to be successful.”

As the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) once said: “Everyone gets mad when they lose, but not when it is Mariano Rivera. He’s so honourable.”