Friday, May 4, 2012

How Long It's Been: The Yankees Didn't Have Mariano Rivera

On May 23, 1995, the Yankees were on the road, beginning a 9-game Pacific Coast roadtrip in Anaheim, against the team then known as the California Angels.

The game was a disaster. The Angels won, 10-0. The Yankee starter, making his major league debut, didn’t get out of the 4th inning, allowing 5 runs, all earned, on 8 hits and 3 walks – though he did strike out 5. Three Yankee relievers whose names you don’t need to remember also allowed runs.

Meanwhile, Chuck Finley, a lefthander then known as a Yankee-killer but now more remembered as a guy who got beaten up by his pill-addicted wife, actress Tawny Kitaen, threw a 2-hit shutout. (The 2 hits were a triple by Russ Davis and a single by Randy Velarde.) He threw 144 pitches, and his manager, Marcel Lachemann, left him in despite the huge lead. As you can see, this was a long time ago.

A first big-league start like that could scar a pitcher for life. Nevertheless, he pitched 5 days later in Oakland, and beat the A’s, 4-1. He remained a starter until August, and then went to the bullpen. After 10 starts that season, he never started another… but as a reliever...

He was a 26-year-old righthander from Panama named Mariano Rivera.

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I was 7 years old when I first saw the Yankees play on TV. I’ve seen the Yankees send Albert “Sparky” Lyle, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Dave Righetti, Steve Farr, Steve Howe, John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera to close games down. I’ve seen legendary relievers like Rollie Fingers, Tug McGraw, Mike Marshall, Kent Tekulve, Bruce Sutter, Jeff Reardon, Lee Smith, John Franco and Trevor Hoffman. None of them were a match for Mariano.

If a fan born in 1988 saw his first Yankee game on TV in 1995, then that fan has now reached the age of 24 without knowing a Yankee team that couldn’t count on Mariano Rivera coming out of the bullpen (for more than a short Disabled List stint, anyway).

Now, that fan will have to – for, at the very least, most of the rest of this season. Possibly all of it. Possibly forever.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time before Mariano Rivera. And Derek Jeter. And Andy Pettitte. And Jorge Posada...

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May 23, 1995. How long has it been?

The Yankees have replaced Yankee Stadium. The Mets have replaced Shea Stadium. Games on what used to be known as “free TV” were still common, but are now rare.

The defending World Champions were… well, officially, the Toronto Blue Jays, but technically nobody, since there was no 1994 World Series. The other Canadian-based team, the Montreal Expos, should have been a contender for that Series, but have since moved.

So have the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Raiders, Cleveland Browns (restored) and Houston Oilers. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats began play, but the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, and the Bobcats replaced the Charlotte Hornets, who moved to New Orleans. The Seattle SuperSonics moved to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the New Jersey Nets have just become the Brooklyn Nets. In the NHL, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, the old Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. The Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets began play, but the Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets.

Most Clevelanders hadn’t yet realized what a jackass Art Modell is, nor had most of them heard of LeBron James.

The Atlanta Braves, the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the team currently known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have won their first World Series. In other sports, winning their first World Championship since then have been the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints, the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks, the New Jersey Devils (32 days after Mariano’s debut), the Avalanche, the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Anaheim Ducks.

The Marlins, the Diamondbacks, the Houston Astros, the Colorado Rockies, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers each won their first Pennant. The Tennessee Titans (who hadn’t done so as the Houston Oilers), the Baltimore Ravens (who hadn’t done so as the old Browns since before the Super Bowl era), the Bucs, the Saints, the Carolina Panthers, the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals (who never got that far in St. Louis) advanced to their first Super Bowl. The Orlando Magic, the Utah Jazz, the Nets, the Heat, the Mavericks, and the Cleveland Cavaliers reached their first NBA Finals. The Devils, the Avalanche, the Florida Panthers, the Washington Capitals, the Stars (who had done so twice as the Minnesota North Stars), the Hurricanes, the Ducks and the Lightning advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals.

The Braves won their first World Series in 29 years (since they were in Milwaukee), the Boston Red Sox won their first in 86 years, the Chicago White Sox their first in 88, and the Giants their first in 56, or their first since moving to San Francisco. The Rams won their first NFL Championship in 49 years, or their first since moving to St. Louis. The Colts won their first Super Bowl in 36 years, or their first since moving to Indianapolis. The Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, the Detroit Red Wings their first in 42, and the Boston Bruins their first in 39.

On May 23, 1995, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Pee Wee Reese and Warren Spahn were all still alive. So was Mickey Mantle, but not for much longer. Dave Winfield, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Ryan Sandberg, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Barry Larkin and Roberto Alomar were active players who are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Olympic Games have been held in America (twice), Japan, Australia, Greece, Italy, China and Canada. The World Cup has been held in France, Japan, Korea, Germany and South Africa -- and had never previously been held in Asia and Africa, or in a joint venture (2002 in Japan and Korea).

The European Cup/Champions League soccer tournament has been won by Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid (3 times), Manchester United (twice), Bayern Munich (who are in this year’s final as well, against London’s Chelsea), AC Milan (twice), Porto, Liverpool, Barcelona (3 times) and Internazionale Milano.

Bill Clinton was in his first term as President. George W. Bush had just been inaugurated as Governor of Texas. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and their wives, and Lady Bird Johnson were all still alive. (Reagan, Mrs. Johnson, and Mr. and Mrs. Ford have since died.) Barack Obama was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and Mitt Romney had just lost his first race for public office, for the U.S. Senate seat of Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The Governor of New York was George Pataki. The Mayor of New York City was Rudy Giuliani, and the Governor of New Jersey was Christine Todd Whitman.

The Internet was still new to most of us. Most of us had never heard of Microsoft or Netscape or America Online. There was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter, no Instagram and no Pinterest. VHS videotapes were still the dominant way of recording and playing back movies and TV shows. Mobile phones were still roughly the size of the communicators on Star Trek.

Major films of the spring of 1995 included Outbreak, Bad Boys, While You Were Sleeping, New Jersey Drive (about carjacking, not the Devils’ drive for the Stanley Cup), Crimson Tide (not about the University of Alabama football team), the Scottish-themed historical epics Braveheart and Rob Roy, the film version of The Bridges of Madison County, Batman Forever, and The American President, starring 51-year-old Michael Douglas, playing a widowed President dating an environmental activist played by 37-year-old Annette Bening, who was married to 58-year-old Warren Beatty. Douglas was not yet married to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was then 25 and starring in Catherine the Great. Not an autobiography.

Television shows that were about to air their final first-run episodes were Empty Nest, Blossom, Full House, Matlock and Northern Exposure. Newly-debuted were NewsRadio, Sliders and the entire WB and UPN networks (eventually to merge), including Star Trek: Voyager. Soon to debut were Ned & Stacey (the first series to star Debra Messing), Caroline in the City, JAG, MADtv, The Drew Carey Show, and a show only slightly more cartoonish than that one, Pinky and the Brain.

And yet it was the Yankees who ended up taking over the world. In the spring of 1995, the Number 1 song in America was “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. The federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed. Singer Selena was shot and killed. Actor Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in a horse-riding competition. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia, and rescued 6 days later. And British troops were pulled off the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland for the first time in 26 years.

Howard Cosell, and Ginger Rogers, and Jonas Salk died. Not many famous people, who would now be 17 years old, were born, but when Mariano first toed the rubber, Saoirse Ronan was 13 months old, Justin Bieber was 14 months old and Dakota Fanning was 15 months old.

May 23, 1995. Mariano Rivera made a very awkward major league debut. He went on to become the greatest relief pitcher who has ever lived.

Will we ever see him pitch again? Outside of Old-Timers’ Day, that is? He says he'll be back. Stay tuned.

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