FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Mariano Rivera made it official on Saturday morning that he will retire from the New York Yankees after this season. He will leave with the utmost respect of rivals, including the Twins managers -- Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire -- that watched their teams' attempts to rally against Rivera for the 16 seasons from 1996 through 2011.
It was in 1996 when Rivera took the set-up role in front of John Wetteland and the Yankees won a World Series for the first time in 18 years. And it was after a magnificent 2011, with 44 saves and a 1.91 ERA, that Rivera said 2012 would be his last season _ only to tear an ACL in his knee after only nine appearances.
That brought him back for one more season, at age 43, and there will be many pregame ceremonies at American League ballparks as the greatest relief pitcher to ever take a breath makes his final rounds.
"Super Mario,'' Kelly said. "We called him that way back when he was pitching in front of that other fellow [Wetteland]. You knew Super Mario had to take over as the closer, and it happened the next year.
"The Yanks always had good pitchers in front of him, but when it got to the playoffs, Super Mario was good for four, five, even six outs for [manager] Joe Torre.
"There were a few seasons that I thought he was the Most Valuable for sure. I don't know why that didn't happen. I don't know how anyone could be more valuable than he was.''
The "cutter'' is now very popular with righthanded pitchers. Rivera made it so, even though the attempts to duplicate the late, bat-busting break on Mario's version has been futile.
"He must have super strong wrists or something,'' Kelly said. "The only team that seemed to be able to do anything against him was Boston. We tried to see what the Red Sox did against him, but we were never able to figure it out. I suppose the reason was we didn't have the ballclubs then to be a challenge for Super Mario.
"Ninety-six, 97, 98 [mph], alive, electric ... start playing 'The Song.' ''
The Song would be Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York'' -- which plays over and over after a home victory for the Yankees.
"The one I remember is sending up Jason Kubel, when he was a just a kid, to pinch-hit in the playoffs,'' Gardenhire said. "Torii [Hunter] was yelling at me, 'Right-handers hit him better,' and I'm saying, 'Oh, yeah, what are your numbers against him?' ''
Kubel struck out on a high fastball, and Gardy took some heat -- as if there was someone on the bench that wouldn't have gotten devoured in a similar manner by Super Mario.
Asked where Rivera ranks in importance to the Yankees' mighty run since '96, Gardenhire held up his index finger to signal "No. 1,'' meaning ahead even of the historically great shortstop, Derek Jeter.
"Rivera not only got you out, he hurt your feelings,'' Gardenhire said.
Arizona had a famous ninth-inning rally off Rivera in Game 7 of 2001 that prevented a fourth straight World Series title for the Yankees. Luis Gonzalez blooped a game-winning single over a drawn-in infield, then ran triumphantly toward first base.
Kelly held two fingers a centimeter apart and said: "He hit the ball this far off his fingers -- woo, woo -- and then ran around like it was a line-drive to the wall. You can't make a better pitch. He got lucky, so I guess that was possible against Super Mario.''
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