The Day The Yankees Tried to Trade Mariano Rivera


Here’s a story from the November 17, 1997, Seattle Times that’s making the rounds:

Not even the New York Yankees’ offer of reliever Mariano Rivera, rated one of the American League’s top closers, could entice the Mariners to give up Randy Johnson. …

And the story goes on:

Three clubs have made trade offers, and outside of the Rivera offer, the return for Johnson so far has been paltry. Asked about the Yankees’ bid, Seattle General Manager Woody Woodward did not confirm it directly but said: “We need a starting pitcher back in any deal for Randy. If we don’t get one, if we don’t get what we are looking for, then we are fully prepared to go into the season with Randy on our team.”

A Mariner official also said there are concerns about Rivera’s arm. There were suspicions the 27-year-old right-hander had shoulder trouble late in the season. Rivera had 43 saves, appeared in 66 games and was 6-4 with a 1.88 earned-run average.

While the Yankees dangled Rivera, they might have refused to consider a Seattle request for left-handed starter Andy Pettitte.

I don’t know who uncovered this, but it’s all over the internet and I find it utterly fascinating. I had no idea the Yankees had ever offered to trade Mariano Rivera for anyone, even Randy Johnson, no matter who else would have been involved in the deal. Imagine how much different Yankee history would have been had someone pulled the trigger on that trade.

Imagine, also, how much different Yankee history might have been if Casey Stengel had been born, oh, sometime around 1936 and been the Yankees’ manager in 1996 when Mariano was the set-up man for closer John Wetteland — that is, Casey Stengel in 1996 knowing what he knew back in the 1950s. Back then there was no such word in baseball’s vocabulary as “closer.” The term was “fireman,” because no one called on them to pitch unless the other team had something going.

Casey would sometimes bring in his best relief pitcher with the score, say, 4-2 in the sixth inning with the opposing team having the bases loaded and let’s say, no outs. Conversely, he wouldn’t hesitate to load up on his pinch hitters relatively early in the game if he thought he had a chance at a blowout. When asked why he would so this, he would answer, “Because I want to win the game.”

Watching Mariano record his 600th career save Tuesday night, I was jumping out of my chair and applauding like everyone else. I just couldn’t help but wonder how much more valuable he’d have been to the Yankees if the category of saves had never been invented.

On Bronx Banter, there was a (mostly) lovely tribute to Mariano by Hank Waddles:

Grumpy statisticians have dismissed the save as a misguided attempt to quantify the contributions of an overrated position, a pitcher who doesn’t get the most outs, simply the last handful. But more than any player on the roster, a closer is completely dependent on his teammates. A dominant starting pitcher can rise above poor hitting or shoddy fielding to lead his team to a win, but a closer can’t even get into a game unless the rest of the teammates have performed well enough to put the team in position to win. Equally important, the team cannot be successful in the end unless the closer gets those final, most precious outs.

I think part of Waddles’ column is slightly misleading — Bill James has been telling us for years that saves are overrated, and I would hardly call Bill “grumpy.” (Occasionally truculent, perhaps, but never grumpy.) But how many times over the years have we seen Mariano wasted in so-called save situations where the Yankees had a three-run lead, or even a two-run lead?

Yes, it’s dead certain that the Yankees would have lost some of those save situations over the years had Mo not been there to close them out. But how many more games might they have won had he come in in those old fireman-type situations where the other team caught up and broke the game open in, for example, the sixth or seventh inning — you know, he traditional witching hour for Yankees starters over the past 15 seasons — and preserved the lead for someone else?

All I’m saying is: Who’s to say that the Yankees didn’t have it right back in 1996 when Mariano was the “hold” man and sometimes came in in the seventh inning to relieve the starter, and John Wetteland, a lesser closer than Mo but still pretty damn good, was brought in in the ninth to mop up?

We’ll never know that, of course. Saves, a statistic that wasn’t even around before 1960, caught on because it was the first and still the only valid number that relief pitchers could quickly be measured by. It’s still the only one you can go into contract talks with — try arguing with a GM that you deserve $10 million because you lead the league in “holds.” Saves is the most dramatic statistic there is for pitchers for obvious reasons. And yet, how much has the idea of saves diminished the very role of relief pitcher in terms of importance?

Mariano Rivera is, without question, the greatest closer in baseball history. I just wish it could be said with more certainty that he is the greatest relief pitcher. There’s no doubt in my mind that he is. I just wish that back in the 1950s when Casey Stengel was trotting out Joe Page — the first player I know of to be referred to as “Fireman” and also as “The Gay Reliever” for a reason my research team has never been able to discover — and Tommy Byrne to snuff out enemy rallies that he had taken the time to invent some kind of all purpose stat to measure the value of “fireman.”