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From humble start, Rivera closes as baseball great

Saturday - 9/28/2013, 6:07pm  ET

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, SEPT. 28-29 - In this Sept. 22, 2013 photo, New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera (42) throws to first on a pickoff move in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in New York. Now a baseball icon, Rivera will walk off the mound for the final time this weekend with one more record to set: highest percentage of a Hall of Fame electee. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

RONALD BLUM
AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Herb Raybourn first came across Mariano Rivera in 1988, when he scouted a youth tournament in Panama and saw a slim 17-year-old playing shortstop. Raybourn wasn't interested at all.

"I didn't think he would be able to hit in the big leagues, as far as the long ball," he recalled last week. "I just couldn't project him playing in the big leagues as a shortstop, so I just gave up on him."

Raybourn returned in February 1990 for another tournament, by then the director of Latin American operations for the New York Yankees. He was unpacking in his hotel room when he received a phone call from Claudino Hernandez, the catcher on the Panama Oeste team, who told him he had to see a certain pitcher.

Raybourn didn't know Rivera had switched to the mound. So he arranged a workout behind Rivera's home in Puerto Caimito.

"It didn't even have a mound. It was just a slope," Raybourn said. "He threw nine pitches. I saw enough at nine pitches."

And with that, a star was born. Or in the making, anyway.

Rivera agreed to a minor league contract with the Yankees -- Raybourn says the signing bonus was $3,000; Major League Baseball records say $2,500 -- left home and reported to their complex in Florida.

Best money the Yankees ever spent, at least since anyone can remember.

Two months shy of his 44th birthday, the man called Mo will finish his big league career this weekend as the Yankees complete a disappointing season with a series in Houston, the end of a farewell tour launched in March when he announced this would be his final season.

He's met with team employees and fans in every city the Yankees have visited, received enough gifts to stock his own museum; a chair of broken bats presented by the Minnesota Twins might have been the most clever.

The closer it's gotten to the end, the more emotional it's been for the closer with first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials.

With Metallica playing a live version of his "Enter Sandman" theme music, New York retired his No. 42 last Sunday during a 50-minute ceremony. And tears flowed Thursday night when he got four straight outs in his final Yankee Stadium appearance -- the 465th perfect outing of his big league career, including the postseason.

His 652 regular-season saves are a record, as are his 42 in the postseason. But Rivera isn't defined by numbers. His smile remains infectious, his voice soft, his demeanor calm. Fame didn't cause flakiness. Fortune didn't lead to flamboyance.

He became the Yankees' security blanket. When he was in the bullpen, the manager's dugout telephone might as well have had a sign reading: "In Case of Emergency Break Glass." At the slightest sign of trouble, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi reached for Mo. The temptation could not be overcome.

"Not too many people worked 12 years for George Steinbrenner, especially as a manager, at least in one stint," Torre explained. "I can honestly say that it would not have been possible unless he was around."

And the Yankees almost let him go.

Rivera needed surgery in 1992 to repair a damaged elbow ligament, an operation that slowed his development. When he finally made his debut with the Yankees in 1995 -- he struck out the Angels' Tony Phillips to start his first appearance -- he struggled to a 5-3 record in 10 starts and nine relief appearances. He bounced back and forth between the Bronx and the minors; Rivera and Jeter were demoted together after a loss to Seattle that July 11.

Still, he caught the attention of manager Buck Showalter.

"We used to play pickup games on Sundays. The pitchers used to play against each other to break up the boredom," Showalter recalled. "He was always the best athlete."

Gene Michael, now a special adviser and then New York's general manager, says that when the Yankees were interested in trading for Detroit's David Wells that summer, Rivera's name was included on a list of eight prospects the Tigers would accept.

"No way that was going to happen," Michael said.

But when Jeter got off to a slow spring training in 1996, Steinbrenner pushed for a deal that could have sent Rivera to the Seattle Mariners for light-hitting infielder Felix Fermin. Current GM Brian Cashman, then an assistant to Bob Watson, said the baseball staff met with Steinbrenner for 1½ hours to talk him out of a deal.

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