In bullpen, teammates see lighter side of Mo
Legendary closer all business on mound, but joins in the fun with relievers
NEW YORK -- The fifth or sixth inning is when most of the Yankees' relievers start preparing. They gather their equipment, get focused on what they have to do and wait for their chance.
They're not always getting ready to pitch, though. Often times, they're getting ready to throw.
The fifth or sixth inning is when Mariano Rivera usually makes his way from the Yankees' clubhouse to the bullpen beyond the wall in right field. And when he arrives, every reliever pelts the legendary closer with pieces of gum.
"Most people would think, 'Whoa, you throw gum at Mariano Rivera?'" reliever Shawn Kelley said. "Well, he does it to us, too."
It's all part of life in the bullpen with Rivera, the future Hall of Fame closer who will retire at the end of the season. Rivera has more saves than any other player in baseball history, but he's not treated like baseball royalty when he steps into the Yanks' bullpen. He's just one of the guys.
"He's just Mariano Rivera," setup man David Robertson said. "He's a teammate, he's a friend and he's a guy we have the utmost respect for."
That personality is what makes Rivera so special, Robertson said. Rivera has established himself as the greatest closer in baseball history, but he's very humble on the field, off the field and in the clubhouse; he's always in a good mood and he never gets down, and it shows when he's out in the bullpen during games.
"We talk some. We joke around, he'll tell us stories, we'll him stories -- it's a very good mesh out there in the bullpen this year, and it has been the past few years," Robertson said. "And part of it is having him out there, because he's kind of like our captain in the bullpen. We follow his lead.
"He's just a likeable guy. Everyone loves him."
That doesn't mean the Yankees' relievers won't have some fun at Rivera's expense. That's where the gum-throwing comes in. Because of Rivera's final-season farewell tour, fans sitting near the bullpen at opposing ballparks have been giving him standing ovations when he comes out to warm up.
But as Rivera waves to the opposing fans, a group of his 'pen mates are standing behind him, firing pieces of Bazooka his way.
"He laughs, thinks it's funny," Kelley said. "He's trying to wave at the fans and tip his cap, and we're throwing gum at him. Then he comes in and throws it back at us. It's fun. It's just one of those things that we do."
It's all part of keeping the atmosphere in the bullpen light, said former reliever Jeff Nelson, who pitched for the Yanks from 1996-2000 and in '03. Relievers always had their heads in the game, Nelson said, but they also had ways of passing the time and having fun at a distance from the action on the field.
The relievers on those late-'90s Yankees teams would take part in silly games when they weren't pitching -- burning each other's shoes, sticking gum in each other's hats, throwing water at one another or flicking sunflower seeds around the bullpen.
Rivera and some of the other relievers were so good at flicking seeds that Nelson said he once went to a hardware store and bought welder's goggles for everybody so "nobody got smoked in the eye."
"We were grown men down there playing kids games," Nelson said. "It just takes away from the everyday grind. You can't be thinking about baseball all the time. We know exactly what's going on, but at the same time, we have to mess around."
Rivera, then in his mid-20s, didn't always take part, though. He didn't come out to the bullpen until around the seventh inning, Nelson said, so the other relievers had their fun before he got there. And when Rivera was there, he was "very business-like, very quiet."
It wasn't until the Yanks got into a blowout that the lighter side of Rivera showed. As soon as New York got a big enough lead that he knew he wouldn't pitch in the game, Nelson said Rivera was right there goofing around with everybody else.
"You saw him smile," Nelson said. "And then he lets loose. Then he'll do the little reindeer games, whatever it is, rag on each other or flick seeds and do whatever everybody else is doing to kind of pass the time. It was almost like, 'I'm not getting in today, so I can smile and let loose.'"
Now the elder statesman of the bullpen, the 43-year-old Rivera will take a little more part in the fun. He doesn't start many of the jokes, reliever Adam Warren said, but he definitely joins in. Rivera will chime in on conversations and he'll get on guys if he has to. Warren also said Rivera and bullpen coach Mike Harkey are always calling each other names and having a good time.
"It's kind of fun to see them banter back and forth," Warren said.
"He's always smiling," Robertson said. "He's always laughing and joining in our conversations, and it's great that he does that. He's a legend, and you don't want him to not be a part of everything else that's going on."
Of course, he's also still the same Rivera he was in the late '90s. Kelley said Rivera is reserved, quiet and focused when he comes out to the bullpen, and he spends a lot of his time watching the game, paying attention to what the other Yankees pitchers are doing and studying opposing hitters.
Rivera is also a teacher and a mentor, especially to the team's younger relievers. Rivera has pitched 1,281 1/3 innings over 1,114 games in his career, and he's faced more than 1,000 different hitters over the last 19 years, so he has plenty of baseball knowledge he can share with his teammates.
"He's really helped me grow as a pitcher out of the bullpen," said Warren, who had pitched exclusively as a starter in the Minors before joining the Yanks as a reliever. "He's done a good job with me as far as helping me understand how to pitch out of the bullpen, what pitches to throw, how to set up hitters, if hitters may be sitting on certain pitches, that sort of thing."
"You learn from him how to handle yourself in any situation, how to play this game the right way, how to do it with class, with dignity," Kelley said. "The best players are the players who are even keel; winning or losing, good or bad outing, you're the same guy. … He's the perfect example of probably anyone who has ever played this game that does that. Everybody can tell you to do that, but when you see a guy that's played 19 years do it, it's kind of like, 'Wow, that's how you're supposed to handle yourself.'"
Rivera is baseball's all-time leader with 652 career saves. His 0.70 ERA and 42 saves in the postseason are the best marks in Major League history. Rivera has recorded at least one save in a record 18 seasons, has a record-tying nine 40-save seasons in his career and he's the only pitcher in baseball history to make more than 1,000 appearances with the same team.
But when he's sitting with his teammates in the Yankees' bullpen, he's not legendary closer Mariano Rivera. He's just Mo.
"It's almost like he's a father figure to me, in some sense," Robertson said. "He's always watching out for me, because he genuinely wants me to do well and wants everyone in the bullpen to do well. He wants the team to do well.
"He's been one of the greatest guys I've ever had the pleasure of playing baseball with."
Josh Vitale is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.