- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2004


There were two Latin American relief pitchers who suffered devastating blows on the baseball field in American League postseason play in 1997. Both, in the early stages of their careers, gave up key home runs that led to their teams’ exit from the playoffs. The defeats took their toll on both of these young, talented hurlers.

One had a new manager the next year who didn’t particularly like him and did little to help him recover from the emotional damage the loss inflicted on him. The other had his manager return and do everything he could to help him get over the shame of the defeat.

And those differences might explain why the paths of Mariano Rivera and Armando Benitez went in such different directions.

Rivera’s gutty performance in coming back from the tragic electrocution of two family members in Panama and closing out Game1 of this American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox showed mental toughness that wasn’t necessarily always there. He once gave up a home run to Sandy Alomar in the ninth inning of Game4 of the Yankees’ 1997 Division Series loss to the Cleveland Indians.

The Yankees were about to finish the Indians off when Alomar’s homer tied the game at 2-2. Cleveland went on to win 3-2 and then took the series in Game 5.

Yankees manager Joe Torre, marveling at Rivera’s composure in the postseason, recalled that home run as a key moment in the development of the reliever.

“He had trouble dealing with that,” Torre said. “It wasn’t easy for him. I think at that point in time, you find out something about your closer and these pitchers, or players, for that matter, when they go through stuff that doesn’t turn out very well.”

Rivera didn’t go through it alone, though. He had Torre, somewhat of a father figure to that young core of Yankee players (Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams) who have been here throughout his successful managing tenure.

“[Rivera] came back the next spring, and we did a lot of talking about it,” Torre said.

That was Rivera’s first year as the Yankees’ closer. People forget that when this string of postseason appearances started for New York in 1996, John Wetteland was the closer and Rivera the set-up man.

“He had a tough time realizing then that there wasn’t somebody behind him,” Torre said of Rivera in ‘97. “I told him he was going to get the ball every time there was a situation. Good, bad or indifferent, he was our closer, and we made that commitment.”

The rest, as they say, is history: 32 postseason saves going into Game 3 of the ALCS last night and 336 over Rivera’s brilliant career.

Fate hasn’t been as kind to Benitez. In 1997, he alternated between closing and setting up Randy Myers as the Baltimore Orioles were breaking him in to replace Myers in 1998.

After the Indians disposed of Rivera and the Yankees in the Division Series that year, they did even more damage to Benitez. He gave up not one but two damaging home runs that allowed the Indians to defeat the Orioles and go on to the World Series. First was a three-run homer to Marquis Grissom in Game 2 that evened the series at 1-1, and then there was the 12th-inning homer by Tony Fernandez in Game 6 that gave the Indians the 1-0 clinching victory.

“It was a learning experience,” Benitez said after the game. “Hopefully, I will learn from this season and come back better next year.”

He didn’t. There was no Joe Torre to guide him through the experience. His manager from the previous two years, Davey Johnson, had quit, and although Ray Miller had been his pitching coach in 1997, he was not suited for the job of guiding an emotional young pitcher through this important stage of his development.

Benitez was never the same after that. He was dealt to the Mets in the offseason, where the problems he experienced in 1997 were only exacerbated under the New York glare, which he was hardly equipped to handle. After 4 years with the Mets, where his reputation for surrendering the big hit only grew, he was dealt to the Yankees and then in turn to the Seattle Mariners in the 2003 season.

It was only perhaps this year that Benitez finally realized the potential that was there in 1997. Closing for the Florida Marlins, he saved 47 games and had a 1.29 ERA.

Benitez and Rivera have two different dispositions. Rivera is low-key, Benitez clearly more high-strung. So there is no telling if the former Orioles reliever would have been much different had he enjoyed the nurturing Joe Torre offered Rivera.

Davey Johnson was no Dr. Phil, but he did know how to handle different personalities and particular pitchers. If owner Peter Angelos did not insist on engaging in a war with Johnson that ultimately led to his resignation, perhaps fans would be singing the praises of Armando Benitez instead of Mariano Rivera today.

Then again, a lot of things might have been different if Angelos had not engaged in anything to do with his baseball team except write checks.

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