A retiring Mariano Rivera maintains that aura
The old scout swore under his breath, rifling through a file cabinet in search of baseball treasure.
The sound of flipping pages then filled the silence, carrying over the phone line from Florida.
Herb Raybourn could never forget the tip that led to his discovery of the greatest closer to ever play the game.
Or the tryout on that moundless, youth field in the tiny, Panamanian fishing village of Puerto Caimito. Or the skinny pitcher he came to see — the same kid the Yankees' scout had passed on the previous year when he was a shortstop.
But Raybourn still insisted on reading from the 23-year-old scouting report, written in his school teacher's longhand. It was the first chapter ever penned in the legend of Mariano Rivera.
"I was fortunate," said Raybourn, 78, using that word a third time to describe his encounter with Rivera on Feb. 17, 1990.
In the years that followed — 19 of them with the Yankees — Rivera became an icon. In New York. In Panama. All across the baseball-playing world, as he prepares to participate in his 13th and final All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Citi Field.
His impending retirement already is mourned around the game, even if he has half a regular season — and possibly the postseason — ahead.
"This wasn't my plan. I wanted to be a mechanic," Rivera said with a giggle. "Baseball — especially professional baseball — was just far, far, far from me.
"I just took a shot."
His legacy is built on a narrative befitting a Greek god more than an unassuming relief pitcher.
Rivera, 43, was discovered in a poor, coastal village on the Pacific, growing up amid white-sand beaches and mango trees. Twice mentioned in trade talks before the Yankees fully realized what they had. Armed with a fastball that suddenly exploded from 88-91 to 95 after elbow surgery.
Then came the random — divine? — discovery in 1997 of his "miracle pitch," his infamous cutter. And his recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee in May 2012.
"There's only one Mariano," said Don Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager and former Yankees star and coach. "He's unbelievable."
The numbers are unimpeachable.
Five World Series rings. Thirteen All-Star Games and 638 career regular-season saves, the most all time.
More men have walked on the moon (12) than have scored earned runs on Rivera (11) in 96 postseason games (141 innings).
This season, he has saved 30 games in 32 opportunities, posting a 1.83 ERA.
But Rivera transcends statistics.
The silky-smooth delivery. The unflappable demeanor. The velocity that explodes from a lithe, 6-foot-2, 195-pound body. The legion of bats he's shattered with that cutter.
And his menacing entrance to his now-synonymous theme song, Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
"He's an intimidating guy even though he doesn't huff and puff out there on the mound," said Joe Torre, Rivera's manager from 1996 to 2007. "He has that velvet hammer, where he's just very smooth, very easy and then all of a sudden things explode."
The Yankees signed maybe the most important piece in their five World Series championships since 1996 for the bargain of a century — a $3,000 bonus.
And no one saw it coming. Not even Rivera himself.
"I'd be lying if I said I planned this, that I knew that I had the talent to do this," he said.
"Anybody who says they could foresee all that, they're not being truthful," said Gene Michael, the Yankees general manager from 1991-1995. "He wasn't a real top prospect.
"Then his arm got stronger. Then came the cutter. That's when he became the Mariano Rivera we know. He dominated from there."
No one wanted Rivera.
Raybourn was the lone scout to attend his tryout — only after he was coaxed into going. Rivera's catcher, Claudino Hernandez, called to implore Raybourn to give him another look, this time as a pitcher.
"There was no competition," Raybourn said. "There was nobody there."
Rivera's fastball only touched the mid-80s. He weighed just 155 pounds.
And he already was a geriatric 20 years old — four years older than most Latin American prospects.
"My talent wasn't enough to be in the minor leagues," Rivera said. "I was throwing 85, 86, 87 tops."
"He wouldn't have been signed in the States," said Raybourn, who taught in Panama while he served as a scout. "In the States, you see a boy throw like him, you skip past."
But Rivera needed only nine pitches to win him over.
Raybourn stopped the tryout and sent a neighborhood kid to hunt down Rivera's father, Mariano Sr., a fisherman working at the nearby pier.
Rivera started his rise by posting a 0.17 ERA in rookie ball. But in 1992, his right elbow began to hurt.
Rivera was scheduled for Tommy John surgery after tests found apparent ligament damage. His future was in doubt.
Then began a string of unlikely events. Maybe divine events.
The surgeon opened up his elbow — only to find he needed a repair, not a reconstruction.
"Maybe I'm weird or something, (but) I didn't worry about my surgery," said Rivera, tracing the surgical scar with his finger. "I never asked, 'What's going to happen now?' I never lost hope."
In 1995, something even stranger happened.
The sleeper prospect — who had struggled the previous year in Class AAA (5.81 ERA) — inexplicably gained 5 mph on his fastball.
"All of a sudden, whoa, this is a different pitcher," Michael said.
But it wasn't until July 4, 1995 when Rivera faced the Chicago White Sox with a 10.20 ERA that the Yankees "knew we had something," Michael said.
Eight scoreless innings. Two hits. Eleven strikeouts.
"He really surprised us," Michael said of Rivera's fifth career start. "Trust me — that's when he first knew for sure that he could pitch in the big leagues."
The Detroit Tigers noticed.
They asked for Rivera in 1995 during trade negotiations for David Wells.
Then the Seattle Mariners tried in 1996. They dangled shortstop Felix Fermin to an antsy George Steinbrenner, who had little faith in a rookie named Derek Jeter.
"That was probably the best trade never made," Torre said. "He certainly has gone down not only as the greatest Yankee reliever but the best reliever of all time as far as I'm concerned."
'The miracle pitch'
Rivera has done it largely with one pitch.
Everyone in the ballpark knows what's coming. Still, no one can routinely hit Rivera's cutter.
"It's one pitch," manager Joe Girardi said, "and he's very consistent with it."
The cutter was an accident — or blessing — that unexpectedly developed during a 1997 throwing session with Ramiro Mendoza.
It may be the singular most dominating pitch in baseball history.
Rivera himself has called it "the miracle pitch" and "a gift from God." The devout Christian means exactly that.
Norm Dermody, the Yankees' batting-practice pitcher from 1980 to 2000, once watched the Atlanta Braves' dugout unable to contain its own amusement as Rivera broke three of Ryan Klesko's bats during one plate appearance.
Those chuckles came during the 1999 World Series. Still, they couldn't help themselves.
"I'm looking over at the Braves, and there I see them smiling," Dermody said. "You couldn't hit Mariano."
And you still can't most nights.
But even Rivera's failures add to his aura. Baseball is littered with the doomed careers of closers who made meteoric rises then vanished.
Yet for Rivera, each epic failure only proved how unflappable he is.
He blew a save opportunity in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS, his first season as a closer. Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when the Yankees were just three outs from another championship. And Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the beginning of an epic collapse to the Boston Red Sox.
And each time, Rivera shook off the failure.
"You have to have the heart and soul to deal with stuff like that, especially in the fishbowl of New York," Torre said. "He's just very inspirational."