9/23 “Let’s go Mo”
Cubs coach Mike Borzello was the Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996-2007, and prepped Mariano Rivera before every outing. On Sunday, he reflected on his days with the game’s greatest closer:
The phone in the Yankees bullpen would ring and the message was always the same. Get Mo going. Mike Borzello, sitting in the dugout at Wrigley Field, 800 miles from Yankee Stadium and Mariano Rivera, knew what that meant. Borzello, 43, was the Yankees bullpen catcher from 1996-2007, and his job was to get Rivera ready, which meant doing the same routine before “The Sandman” began to play.
Rivera would loosen up with a weighted ball, then pick a baseball and throw three times, long toss, to Borzello, then tell the catcher to get down. He’d throw six or seven to his glove side, then five or six to the other side, then a few more back on the glove side.
“Once he was loose, whether the inning was over or not, he’d stand there and watch the game and there was no nervousness at all,” Borzello said Sunday. “He never over-threw, never got jittery, and he would just wait and see the third out, say, ‘Three more,’ then throw one easy, then one hard, and then let the last one go, and he was gone into the game. You always felt like the game was over.”
Borzello is now a special assistant on manager Dale Sveum’s staff, but on this sunny day prior to the Cubs’ series finale against the Braves, he could see Rivera go through his drill as if it was yesterday.
“The last throw, I’d always yell, ‘Let’s go, Mo,’ and you’d see NO. 42 go through the door and you were in good hands,” Borzello said.
Sunday was Rivera’s last game at Yankee Stadium, and this week will be the closer’s final stretch of his farewell tour as he heads into retirement. Borzello was a little sad, but also felt the timing was right.
“I can’t picture the Yankees without Mariano there,” he said. “I didn’t think he’d pitch this long. I think as time went on, he really — not that he didn’t love the game — but he really fell in love with it and it’s hard to let go. He could stay another three, four years.
“I think it’s the right time [to retire],” Borzello said. “I didn’t want to see him limp to the finish line, I didn’t want to see him taken out of the closer’s role and used as a set-up guy and chasing a number. I’m happy it’s ending the way it is.”
Borzello first met Rivera in Spring Training in 1996. Rivera had pitched in 19 games with the Yankees in 1995, including 10 starts.
“He was trying to figure out what he was going to be,” Borzello said. “He was basically going to make the team as a long man.”
The Panamanian pitcher and the native New Yorker, who are the same age, meshed. And Borzello was there when Rivera started to throw his trademark cutter, although it wasn’t planned.
“For most of ’97, he was a four-seam, slider guy,” Borzello said. “It was a true four-seamer and he could spot it and elevate it. That was his weapon. Because of his easy delivery, it got on guys. He was successful as the set-up man to [John] Wetteland.”
But one day in Detroit, in Rivera’s second year as the Yankees closer, the right-hander was warming up in the bullpen and something odd happened.
“All of a sudden, he’s throwing the ball and it’s cutting late, almost like there’s something wrong with the ball,” Borzello said. “Back then, the cutter was just coming around and there was no such thing as a cutter. There was a four-seamer, there was a sinker, there was a slider and [the cutter] wasn’t a prevalent pitch then. All of a sudden, this ball is cutting late and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ He’s looking at me with the same look that I’m looking at him. Now we switch the ball out. I remember it like it was yesterday. We switch the ball and it’s the same thing.”
Rivera didn’t change his grip, hadn’t altered his routine. He did throw his four-seam fastball with two fingers close together; Borzello said most pitchers spread their fingers apart. But now Rivera couldn’t throw the ball straight.
Still, he went into the game, and picked up the save. The next day, Rivera, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and Borzello headed to the bullpen.
“[Rivera] wanted to try to fix what he thought was a problem,” Borzello said. “The ball is cutting — it looks like a straight four-seamer for probably 55 feet, and the last five feet, it’s darting. He’s trying to change things and he can’t fix it.”
Rivera was frustrated but said he’d figure it out, and the rest is history. Rivera will leave baseball as the all-time saves leader, and is one of two players to top 600 saves.
“He always talks about this being a gift from God, and it’s almost like it was because in one day, this guy went from the truest four-seam fastball you could ever catch to this ridiculous cutter that revolutionized the game,” Borzello said. “From that year forward, everyone wants to throw a cutter like Mariano Rivera, and it’s not easy to do. Guys have come and gone trying. They get close but no one’s like Mariano.”
Borzello hasn’t talked to Rivera since 2010. That year, Borzello was on the Dodgers’ coaching staff, and the two met during an Interleague series. How classy is Rivera? Borzello asked if the right-hander would talk to Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton about the mindset needed to be a successful closer, and Rivera spent 30 minutes in the field during batting practice with him.
“He’s the most calm and collected player — him and Derek Jeter are similar in that way — but as a reliever, you see the anxiety build as the game goes on,” Borzello said of Rivera. “Guys know their role and know they’re getting close, and there’s a lot more tension as the game gets closer to the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth innings. His personality and his demeanor never changed from the day I met him in Spring Training in ’96 to getting the last out in a World Series. It was always the same demeanor and you felt he was always in control.”
Borzello’s father lives in the Los Angeles area and saw Rivera this year when the Yankees played the Dodgers. The closer asked to pass on a message to have “Borzy” call him. Borzello still has his catcher’s gear from his days with the Yankees and the glove he used to warm up Rivera for the 433 saves he recorded when the two were together in New York.
He also has four World Series championship rings.
“If you’ve got one of those World Series rings, you know he was the one who gave it to you — he was a big piece,” Borzello said of Rivera. “I look at them, and it takes me back to all those times.”
— Carrie Muskat