By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dignified yet deadly efficient with a game on the line, Mariano Rivera rose from makeshift games on the beach of his hometown fishing village in Panama to become Major League Baseball's greatest closer.
The slender right-hander with the easy motion frustrated hitters for nearly two decades, relying more on precision than power, armed with a confounding, late-breaking version of a fastball that became his signature pitch - the cutter.
Darting in toward a left-handed hitter just as it reaches the plate, Rivera's cutter ruined hundreds of bats as hitters swung at the tantalizing offering just before it broke in toward their hands and cracked the thin handle on their lumber.
Thursday marked Rivera's last game at Yankee Stadium, ending an extraordinary 19 seasons with the Bronx Bombers in which he has registered a record 652 saves with four games to go, and another record 42 saves in the postseason while taking home five World Series rings.
Other relievers have come close to Rivera's heights in shorter stretches, but the man affectionately known as 'Mo' was unparalleled in his consistency and remarkable longevity.
In his first season as a closer, he saved 43 games in 1997. As the oldest player in the major leagues this year at age 43, Rivera has saved 44 games as the 2013 season draws to a close.
Universally respected, Rivera has been honored with tributes at every stadium stop in his farewell season, and the humble champion in turn has visited with stadium workers in private sessions before each occasion to show his appreciation.
Growing up, Rivera and his playmates fashioned gloves out of milk cartons or discarded cardboard and used netting wrapped in electrical tape for a ball in games on the Puerto Caimito beach.
When not helping his father on the fishing boat, Rivera played shortstop on amateur teams and caught the eye of a scout who signed him to a $3,000 contract with the Yankees in 1990 as a 20 year old.
That turned out to be a good deal for both sides. The Yanks returned to the top of the sport thanks in large part to Rivera, whose brilliance brought him about $170 million in paychecks.
New York turned Rivera into a pitcher and he was originally groomed to be a starter.
Rivera made his major league debut as a starting pitcher in June 1995 against the Angels, yielding eight hits and five runs over 3-1/3 innings in a 10-0 loss. He and fellow rookie Derek Jeter were both optioned to Triple A immediately after.
But Rivera showed his trademark resiliency. He increased his velocity into the mid-90s and was called back later that season.
After some up-and-down starts, Rivera was sent to the bullpen where he thrived.
In 1996 he became the primary set-up man for closer John Wetteland, and used a lively, rising fastball to hurl 107.2 innings with 130 strikeouts and a 2.09 ERA and help the Yankees win their first World Series in 18 years.
The next season Wetteland left as a free agent and Rivera was made the closer.
Another turning point came in the middle of the 1997 campaign when while loosening up with fellow-pitcher Ramiro Mendoza, Rivera found he could snap off a fastball that cut in sharply at the last instant. And so was born his famed 'cutter.'
Rivera and former minor league mates Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, formed the core of a team that won three World Series in a row from 1998 and appeared in two more before returning to the winner's circle in 2009.
The Panamanian was named to 13 All-Star games, more than any MLB pitcher other than Warren Spahn, who went to one more.
Rivera set postseason records for most games pitched (96, second best is 55), most saves (42, second best 18), and lowest earned run average among pitchers with at least 30 innings at 0.70 over 141 innings, heading a top-10 list that also includes Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax.
There were a few postseason bumps along the way.
His first failure came in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1997 Division Series when Sandy Alomar Jr. tied the potential elimination game with a home run off Rivera before going on to win in the ninth and the next day to advance.
Rivera responded to that disappointment by throwing 33-1/3 consecutive scoreless innings over the next three postseasons to break the record of 33 set by Yankees starter Whitey Ford during the World Series from 1960-62.
In 2001, by now believed to be virtually invincible when protecting a lead, he made a rare throwing error before yielding a game-winning, broken bat single by Luis Gonzalez for an Arizona Diamondbacks walk-off win in Game 7 of the World Series.
Three years later he had a chance to put the Yankees into the 2004 World Series with a sweep of the Boston Red Sox, but failed to shut the door in the ninth of Game 4 and their bitter rivals went on to complete MLB's only comeback from an 0-3 deficit on the way to ending Boston's 86-year title drought.
Rivera showed his class the following April on Opening Day in Boston, when the Red Sox hosted the Yankees.
When it was Rivera's turn to be introduced, he received an ovation from Fenway fans acknowledging his role in Boston's unprecedented league championship series comeback.
Rivera smiled and laughed at the backhanded salute and played along, raising his arms and tipping his cap, endearing himself to Red Sox fans with his sportsmanship.
Presents rained down on Rivera at each tribute this season, with perhaps the most fitting being a rocking chair made from broken bats suffered by Minnesota Twins hitters.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)
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- Mariano Rivera