September 28, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Jerry Green

Mariano Rivera, almost a Tiger, instead became greatest reliever ever

Mariano Rivera almost became a Tiger in 1995. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

That historic season, Sparky Anderson was a lame duck as manager of the Tigers. “Thanks for all you’ve done, don’t let the door hit you in the...”

We all know the rest of the cliché.

The Tigers were stuck deep in their barren years. In Sparky’s last year, the Tigers were desperate for pitching.

At the same time, the Yankees had a young, right-handed pitcher who had failed for them as a starter. The Yankees, too, needed pitching help. They sought to trade for David Wells, Sparky’s most dependable pitcher.

The Yankees made a pitch for Wells. They offered the young pitcher they hoped to get rid of to the Tigers for Wells, according to well-documented archives. The deal was close to reality — a young prospect for a veteran. Typical of deals negotiated every midsummer when one team is in contention and the other is lost, out of it, stumbling, gazing into the future.

But this time, the Yankees reneged. The young pitcher had unexpectedly shown an improvement in the velocity of his fastball. Gene Michael, the Yankees’ general manager, changed his mind.

The right-hander the Yankees nearly traded to the Tigers was a Panamanian rookie named Mariano Rivera. He was a young man who had worked on fishing boats out of Panama and learned to play baseball with milk cartons as gloves and tree limbs as bats.

The year was 1995.

The Yankees relocated Rivera to their bullpen.

The long goodbye

That season the Tigers went 60-84, and Sparky was forced out. They would go from manager to manager, and it would be another 11 years before they would finish above .500 again, under Jim Leyland in 2006.

Mariano Rivera would become the most celebrated relief pitcher in the history of baseball. He would collect the most saves, 652, in his 19 seasons; the most saves in the postseason, 42 — and the most plaudits, countless.

It is all part of Major League Baseball’s deep-rooted history and its occasional dip into romanticism and sentimentality.

“Let’s face it,” Joe Torre, who managed Rivera through most of his career, told the New York media. “The regular season for Mo is great, but that’s the cupcakes and the ice cream.

“What separates him from everybody else is what he’s done in the postseason.”

The Yankees, with Rivera emerging from their bullpen, won seven pennants and five World Series. Of his 42 postseason saves, 11 were in the World Series.

Mariano Rivera’s final season with the Yankees has been a series of farewells celebrations in town after town. At age 43, he has been gifted by opponent clubs — a rocking chair made from fractured bats from the Twins, a plaque from the Tigers. He has been applauded by rival players from the tops of dugout steps.

All of the melancholy tributes were deserved. Rivera has handled it with the dignity and class.

His departure has provoked tears amidst all the cheering.

The tears were Mariano’s own.

The other night he sobbed in the arms of Andy Pettitte and the hugs of Derek Jeter at the mound in his final appearance at Yankee Stadium. Television was sure to swarm us with repeated images of the scene. The season-long scene.

I do not recall similar farewell tours for Al Kaline and Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial and Sandy Koufax and Ted Williams. Kaline’s farewell was applause as he was replaced by a pinch-runner — Ben Oglivie by memory — in 1974 at Tiger Stadium.

Ted Williams departed — as detailed by John Updike in “Hub Fans Bid The Kid Adieu” — running around the bases on a home run at Fenway Park, then being replaced in left field by Carroll Hardy. In his adieu, Williams ran off the field head down without acknowledging the cheers and vanished into the dugout.

Rivera simply is more gracious than the great, deeply private Williams was.

Sandman wasn't superhuman

It’s funny — perhaps simply because of my characteristic negativity through 50 years of writing sports for The Detroit News — but Rivera’s failures stick out more than his classic successes.

So vivid are the images from Game7 of the 2001 World Series — the tradition-flush Yankees versus the four-year old Arizona Diamondbacks.

Torre called on Rivera to pitch the eighth and ninth and save the World Series for the Yankees. The Yankees were trying to protect a 2-1 lead. Rivera did fine in the eighth.

But in the bottom of the ninth he gave up a single to Mark Grace, threw away a bunted ball for an error and allowed a double by Tony Womack that tied the score, then hit a batter.

Then the drama: Luis Gonzalez flipping a bitty single over the head of Jeter at shortstop. Luis clapping his hands enroute to first base. The winning run scoring. And the Diamondbacks defeating the mighty Yankees in the midst of a dynasty.

It was magical baseball theater.

But perhaps the Yankees were filled up on an overload of cupcakes and ice cream. Torre was the true culprit. Too greedy. Torre’s strategy backfired — trying to squeeze two innings out of Rivera, trained to be a closer. One inning; four outs max.

Then this failure followed three years later with Rivera so terribly vulnerable against the Red Sox in the AL Championship series — after the Yankees held a 3-0 lead in the seven-game series.

Then there is the familiar image — the one seen most often through the years: the bullpen gate opening, Rivera walking through it to the edge of the outfield, then trotting to the pitcher’s mound to the sound of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” That scenario followed by batters swinging futilely at has famous cutter.

“I get the ball, I throw the ball and then I take a shower,” Rivera has told the media through the years.

Or this year, take a bow.

Rivera pitched his 19 seasons for the Yankees professional dignity. I am all in favor of longevity and loyalty. And Rivera pitched and won — most often — with those traits.

The postscript is that back in 1995, the Tigers traded Wells to the Reds — and he ultimately landed with the Yankees and pitched a perfect game.

In that deal for Wells 18 years ago, the Tigers received pitcher Dave Tuttle, infielder Mark Lewis and — a fanfare, please — pitcher C.J. Nitkowski.

Cupcakes and ice cream indeed!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at

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