We forget it now, but they ran neck-and-neck for a while in the ’90s, each trying to outspend the other, each making the playoffs every year, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the Yankees became imperial and the Braves began to recede. It wasn’t until Mariano Rivera settled in as closer that the Pinstripe People lapped the field.
Watching last night at Turner Field, watching Rivera work a four-out save with all four outs being strikeouts, I was reminded of how much difference one man can make. The Yankees found their Rivera and have been winning ever since. (No, not always titles, but winning nonetheless.) The Braves never quite found theirs, and they paid the price.
Postseason baseball comes down to bullpens, and the Yankees always out-bullpenned everyone else. First Rivera was the set-up man to John Wetteland in the 1996 championship run, and the next year he became the closer. That was 12 years ago, and he’s still as great as he ever was, which means he’s still the all-time best.
He wasn’t quite perfect. He blew an ALDS game against Cleveland in 1997, and his wild throw on a bunt undid the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 7 in Phoenix in 2001 or those Bombers would have won five titles in six seasons. But he was as perfect as it gets in the imperfect realm of sports, and his perfection was simplicity itself. He threw one pitch.
Actually, he throws one pitch two ways. He throws a straight fastball, and he throws a cut fastball. The cutter, according to Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, moves from off the plate to on it or from on to off, depending on Mo’s whim. (The Yankees have always called Rivera “Mo,” you should know.) Said Pendleton: “You start out swinging and it’s on your hands, or you let it go and it breaks over.”
With better relief, the Braves might have won two or three more World Series. Think Jeff Reardon against Ed Sprague in 1992, Mark Wohlers against Lenny Dykstra in 1993, Wohlers against you-know-know in ‘96, Kerry Ligtenberg against Ken Caminiti in 1998. Eventually the Braves found someone almost as automatic in John Smoltz, but by then their moment had passed.
Put Rivera on the Braves of the ’90s and the Braves of the ’90s would have been the Yankees of the ’90s. Try as they might, the Braves could never find their Mo. The Yankees found him, and they have him still.