SAN FRANCISCO – The heavy-metal band had gathered in Northern California, across the Bay from San Francisco. The four members liked to work at the drummer's house. They had an album to write and compose and bleed over, and it was comfortable there. Also, they were close enough to Candlestick Park where they could kill a night or two watching the Giants play.
They'd call this, their fifth studio record, "Metallica," which would come to be known as The Black Album and go platinum. It was the summer of 1990 and the band, as the drummer, Lars Ulrich, saw things, was changing.
In that same summer, the son of a Panamanian fisherman pitched for the New York Yankees' affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. He'd signed with the organization a few months before for $3,000. At 20 years old, he threw 52 innings and allowed three runs, two of them unearned.
"Up through the '80s, we were on a very progressive kick," Ulrich explained. "A lot of our songs were very long and very kind of complicated and very all over the place. We made a conscious decision the summer of 1990 to write shorter songs. 'Enter Sandman' was the first song that we wrote."
Quiet and respectful, Mariano Rivera showed uncommon grace and self-assurance on the mound. Better, as far as the Yankees were concerned, his stuff blew GCL hitters away.
The Yankees were changing. In the same summer in which they began to develop Rivera, they drafted Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Derek Jeter would come two drafts later. Primarily a reliever in his first professional season, Rivera became a starter, and remained so for the next five years. He started 10 games in his rookie season in the major leagues, resumed his relief role in 1996 and, in '97, became the Yankees' closer, a job he'd hold for 17 years.
The forefinger and middle finger of a hand, extended and held beside one another with the thumb of the same hand curled a few inches away and beneath them, is a simple feat of human dexterity.
Executed with the right hand it is the structure of Mariano Rivera's cut fastball, and with his guile and fearlessness and precision, the foundation for a late fall night at Yankee Stadium, the bullpen door swinging on its hinges, the man himself stepping across the threshold and into the light.
With the left, gripped firmly around the neck of a Stratocaster, those very fingers on the A and D strings above the second fret, and with verve and drama and precision the guitar bristling an E-minor, it is the very first chord of the metal anthem that carries Rivera over that threshold.
Since 1999 in the Bronx: the opening riff on James Hetfield's guitar, the E-minor distorted by a wah-wah pedal at Kirk Hammett's foot, the bass carried by Jason Newsted, and then Ulrich hard and fast on the drums, it has meant – far more often than not – victory at Yankee Stadium. Enter a place of spectacle, of passion, of idolatry.
"Say your prayers little one,
Don't forget my son,
To include everyone,
I tuck you in,
Keep you free from sin,
‘Til the Sandman he comes."
"Sleep with one eye open."
It's been blared at a Triple-A ballpark in Louisville, at Virginia Tech football games, and at Ultimate Fighting events, cranked up for rugby teams and hockey teams, blown through a roller coaster in Valencia, Calif., blasted at NASA and piped into prisoner's cells during America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Metallica has performed it live across the world more than a thousand times, including, once, at Yankee Stadium during a 2011 concert.
But, for baseball fans, especially for Yankees fans, "Enter Sandman" is Mo's song. And became so when a member of the scoreboard production team brought to the park the CD from his personal collection. "Enter Sandman" grew into Rivera's victory song, even before he took the field. His retirement song, the one he'll take with him at the end of this season. And the soundtrack for a hardball era in New York that brought championships, dignity and soulfulness.
"We have to retire too, that's in the contract," said a smiling Hetfield, the band's front man.
The fact is, the members of Metallica prefer the Giants. The album sold 30 million copies, so it didn't need the nightly play out in the Bronx to push sales. But, that said, it's unmistakably cool to hear the first notes of their song, to see the crowd rise, to see him emerge from the bullpen gloom. And it's insignificant that the song hardly registered with Rivera himself.
"To have a song that's so relevant to kind of getting the energy going and people fired up, that's really special," current bassist Robert Trujillo said. "That doesn't happen. It's really a rush and a thrill to feel you've been part of a body of music that's inspiring [people.] It's really special."
Hetfield called it, "An amazing ride."
"I love the fact that we inspire some next level of performance," he said, "because that does it for us, too. We love playing it and it shows."
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Asked if he'd ever sat in Yankee Stadium – either Yankee Stadium – and seen the show that is "Enter Sandman" and Rivera, Ulrich chuckled.
"No," he said. "I've not watched a ballgame at Yankee Stadium. But I've played Yankee Stadium."
Which is better, of course. Much better. He laughed.
"When that song was being born, as you called it, which I like, you generally just think, 'Is this good enough to make the record?' " he recalled. " 'Is this good enough to even be a contender?' That's a generalization. I will say, and I'm not just saying this because I'm talking to you, but I always kind of had a hunch that 'Enter Sandman' was going to be a special song."
Ulrich knows baseball enough. He likes the game. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Giants game Friday, threw an accurate if loopy strike, and then embraced his catcher, Sergio Romo. And while he may not have realized it, it's possible that Mariano Rivera and "Enter Sandman" have more in common than a few bars on their way into a save situation. They were built in a similar manner.
Rivera drew a Hall of Fame career from a single pitch, with a singular focus. While other pitchers attempted to master three, four and five pitches, Rivera took one and became the best at it.
"Enter Sandman"? Metallica's departure from "complicated" and "all over the place"?
"Generally," Ulrich said, "the biggest songs are the ones that are the simplest. But they're also the hardest to write. Anything that's simple is usually very difficult to put together. Because simplicity is something you can end up over-thinking and it kind of bites you in the ass."
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For the son of a Panamanian fisherman. For the man who has done more with one inning, night after night, than any man in history. For the cutter, with a grip in E-minor. For him, there could be only one song.
Ulrich shook his head and grinned.
"Written in the basement of my house in Berkeley Hills in the summer of 1990 in an afternoon," he said. "Who woulda thought?"
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