Joe Girardi reflects on 19 years of "The Sandman"

09/26/2013 11:36 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Joe Girardi was able to appreciate Mariano Rivera in more capacities than most.(AP)
Thursday marked the final game Mariano Rivera will ever play at Yankee Stadium, a farewell coming more than 18 calendar years after he made a somewhat-unmemorable Bronx debut on a Tuesday night in June 1995.

A lot has happened since that crowd of less than 20,000 saw Rivera allow seven runs over four innings against the Athletics. Mo has gone from call-up spot starter to dominant set-up man to the greatest closer of all-time -- doing the bulk of it thanks to one often-unhittable pitch.

Joe Girardi first saw Rivera as a catcher in 1996, and over the last 17 years, he has seen Mo in literally every capacity -- from teammate to coach to broadcaster to manager, and even opponent -- and had nothing but positive reflections on "The Sandman."

"For me, personally, it's just been a lot of fun to be around him. It's been special to be around him," Girardi said. "To be able to catch someone who was so dominant, I can't even tell you how fun that is for a catcher to be back there when he's doing his thing. As a young man in 1996 he was a sixth inning guy, and all of a sudden, he really took over a bullpen and made it lights out for the other team if we had a lead after the sixth inning. It was a lot of fun being back there."

One of Rivera's best traits, according to Girardi, was his ease.

"I don't really miss catching a whole lot, but he's one of the guys I do miss," Girardi said. "I could probably still do that if I throw some glasses on, because that's how easy it was to catch him."

As time evolved and Girardi transitioned into various off-field roles, Rivera evolved into the greatest closer of all-time -- and a weapon the now-Yankees skipper was overjoyed to have when he took over in 2008.

"As a manager, it's really comforting to have him, because you knew that he was prepared, he was never overwhelmed, the emotions would never get the best of him, and he would do his job," Girardi said, "and you could ask him to do more than what was maybe expected sometimes. A lot of fun, and a real comfort."

Rivera's durability was perhaps his other signature trait. Before the knee injury that cost him most of 2012, Mo had made 60 or more appearances in nine straight seasons and 14 of 16 total. He will finish his career fourth all-time in games pitched, just a handful behind third-place hurler John Franco.

And that trait, Girardi said, is one that Rivera never took for granted, which is why he was able to maintain it.

"I think it shows you how hard he's worked during his career, and I don't think he ever took it for granted," Girardi said. "I think sometimes younger players can take their health for granted, and then all of a sudden it starts to sneak up on them and it might be too late, or you might cost yourself a couple years on the back end because you physically didn't do what you should've done. Mo never did that; he never took for granted what he had, and that's why I think he's had such a long career."

Alas, that career ends Sunday, and come 2014, someone will be tasked with the job of replacing the irreplaceable -- and, as the skipper notes, having to take on that job might be even harder than his task of figuring out who will do it.

"You can call him a security blanket, a safety net…that's not an easy guy to replace," Girardi said, "and for the guy that's going to try next year, every time something goes wrong they'll say 'well, that wouldn't have happened to Mo' -- but it did happen to Mo from time to time."

It didn't in his finale, as Mo got two outs in the eighth and two more in the ninth before Girardi sent Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter to get him. That kicked off an ovation and a thank you that no one may ever top, and when it was all said and done, an emotional Yankees manager put the finishing touches on a career he's seen from more angles than anyone.

"The best way to put it is that I loved to see him come in the game. As a player, it was fun, and as a manager it was easy. It's not hard to pick up that phone and decide who you want when Mo is down there. I think as a manager, the only temptation that you have to guard against is not bringing him in in the sixth and asking him to get 12 outs. But it was fun."

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