(Mariano Rivera pitches at Safeco Field in a 2005 game. What if he did so wearing a Mariners uniform? Seattle Times staff photo.)
My 16th annual Grapefruits of Wrath tour brings me today to Legends Field, where I’ll be taking the temperature of the New York Yankees. The Yankees are finding out how the other half live; they have a huge void at the bottom of their rotation, behind C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett (the last of whom was erratic in his own right last year). Manager Joe Girardi is looking at retreads (Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon) and never-weres (Sergio Mitre) as well as youngsters (Ivan Nova, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances). Cliff Lee didn’t want their money, Zack Greinke ended up in Milwaukee, Andy Pettitte retired, and so the Yankees find themselves still scouring the trade market for a last-minute deal.
All that while, the remaining cornerstones of their five World Series championships since 1996 — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada — move ever closer to the end of the line. It’s a definite period of transition in the Bronx, one that could soon leave them in a much more vulnerable position than they’ve been since the pre-Joe Torre era. At least that’s the way I see it.
Meanwhile, a story yesterday by Joel Sherman of the New York Post caught my eye. Sherman revisits an old, but still provocative, scenario:
The last time the Yankees were this uncertain about their shortstop, they nearly traded Mariano Rivera.
It was the spring of 1996. The Yankees had said they were committed to a rookie named Derek Jeter. But he was shaky that spring, the first in the organization’s new facility here. In fact, Clyde King, serving as an advisor to owner George Steinbrenner, told him: “We can’t win this year with Derek Jeter playing shortstop every day. He’s not ready.”
That so unnerved Steinbrenner that he called a March 26 meeting of all the organization’s top executives in then-manager Joe Torre’s office.
Seattle was handing the full-time shortstop job to a youngster named Alex Rodriguez, making both Felix Fermin and Luis Sojo available. The Yankees were pondering an offer that would land them Fermin. Seattle wanted either Bob Wickman or the young right-hander who had pitched so well in relief against them in the 1995 AL Division Series after being undistinguished as a starter that year: Rivera.
A contingent led by Gene Michael, recently deposed as general manager, convinced Steinbrenner to stick with the plan. Jeter wound up the AL Rookie of the Year, Rivera went from a long man in the pen to the most dominant pitching force in the league and the Yankees won the 1996 World Series.
A 2009 story in the Bergen Record by Ian O’Conner provides more context. O’Conner quotes current Yankees GM Brian Cashman — who was in the meeting — confirming that Rivera and Wickman were indeed on the table.
“We had no idea we were sitting on a Hall of Famer and the greatest closer of all time,” Cashman said. “We didn’t want to do it, but The Boss (Steinbrenner) was pretty interested in making us go do it. It would’ve been a disaster if it was Rivera.”
That decision to hold Rivera obviously changed the course of Yankees history — but it’s also fascinating to ruminate over the ramifications for Mariners history if they had landed Mariano Rivera in 1996. First off, they probably don’t trade Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to Boston in 1997, because there no longer would have been a crying need for Heathcliff Slocumb (if there ever was a crying need for Heathcliff Slocumb). Maybe that mighty 1997 Seattle lineup of Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, with Randy Johnson atop the rotation, powers its way to a World Series title with Mariano stabilizing what we all remember as a tremendously problematic bullpen. Who knows how much more postseason success the Mariners could have had in the early 2000s with Rivera’s brilliance in the pen? Think of all the closers who probably would have never wound up in Seattle, from Jose Mesa to Eddie Guardado to perhaps Kazu Sasaki. Maybe their recent decline would have been forestalled, because more and better players would have seen Seattle as a destination spot.
That’s all pure hypothetical bluster, of course. I find it hard to believe that the Yankees really would have given up a promising player like Rivera to get Felix Fermin. I mean, Felix Fermin? He was coming off a season in which he had hit .195 in 73 games. Gene Michael, in that same O’Conner article in the Bergen Record, said the Yankees were starting to realize what they had in Rivera.
“Mariano had been a mediocre starter with no cutter and no movement,” Michael told O’Conner. “We had him in the minors, and he had a straight fastball that was between 88 and 91 mph.
“But suddenly I see the reports from Columbus clocking his fastball between 95 and 96 mph. I thought there was a mistake on the gun, but I called down there and it checked out. I told Buck Showalter we had to get him back up here.”
In a day game against the White Sox in Chicago on July 4, 1995, Rivera gave up two hits over eight shutout innings, striking out 11. O’Conner writes:
“Holy cow,” Michael told himself afterward. “We’ve got something now.”
The Mariners received a hint of what the Yankes had in the 1995 playoffs. Rivera, working as John Wetteland’s setup man, pitched 5 1/3 innings against Seattle, gave up three hits and no runs, and struck out eight. Five hundred and fifty-nine saves later, he’s headed to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot — as a Yankee.
The upshot of the March, 1996 meeting, writes O’Conner: “The Boss was convinced to back off Jeter, and (general manager) Bob Watson was given permission to call the Mariners and tell them the Rivera/Wickman deal for Fermin was off.”
As it turned out, Fermin played just 11 more games in the big leagues. He was released by Seattle on April 13, 1996, and it took nearly a month before anyone picked him up. It was, yup, the Yankees, who signed Fermin on May 8 — and released him on May 22, after seven lackluster games in Columbus. Fermin landed with the Cubs on May 29, went 2-for-16 in 11 games, and was released on Aug. 9, never to return to the majors. Fifteen years later, Rivera is still going strong.