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How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever

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How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever

Mike Borzello understands how Mariano Rivera is wired. Borzello knows that the money and the fame and the pressure never changed the bulletproof closer for the New York Yankees.

Borzello was there before Metallicas Enter Sandman became an anthem at Yankee Stadium. The Cubs staff assistant worked there for 12 seasons, primarily as a bullpen catcher, from 1996 through 2007, and took part in four World Series celebrations.

So Borzello had to be philosophical after hearing last week that Rivera collapsed onto the warning track at Kauffman Stadium and tore an ACL in his right knee.

Its difficult to think thats the way hes going to go out, Borzello said. But being with Mo for all those years, one thing he always did was shag in center field. It was the same every day and he used it as his conditioning. It was just an unfortunate thing that happened.

But we always used to joke that he was our best defensive center fielder.

The Cubs will have bullpen questions when they open a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday at Miller Park. Carlos Marmol has a 20 million contract, but no defined role other than be ready to pitch.

Kerry Wood was frustrated enough the other night to throw his glove and hat into the Wrigley Field seats. James Russell and Rafael Dolis appear to be taking over the endgame.

But its like that for just about every team in the majors. Relievers are notoriously difficult to project from one year to the next. Thats what made Rivera such an outlier as he piled up 608 career saves, plus 42 more in the postseason, where he has a 0.70 ERA.

Without the 42-year-old Rivera who just found out that he also has a blood clot in his right calf the Yankees wont be able to play an eight-inning game anymore. Like everyone else, they will have to deal with the uncertainty.

Answers can come out of nowhere. Borzello was there at Tiger Stadium in 1997 when that magical cutter revealed itself out of thin air. Rivera, a religious man, has compared it to divine intervention.

It just appeared, Borzello recalled. The first two years (of his career) he was just a four-seam fastballslider guy. (One) day he started warming up in Detroit (and) the first couple fastballs were cutting.

Hes throwing at the time back then 95 to 98 mph and the last few feet its cutting. And Im like: Whats going on? And then Im checking the ball and he doesnt know whats going on either.

So he switches balls and then finally hes just kind of worried, like: What is going on? I cant throw the ball straight.

Rivera wound up saving that game, but had no idea how it happened. He had been a long man and a setup guy for the Yankees as he broke into the big leagues. No one could have been thinking Hall of Fame at that point.

The man who would become the all-time saves leader was just trying to gain traction as a closer.

We came back the next day and its the same thing, Borzello said. Now hes really worried because he couldnt command it. Hes like: I dont know where its going. I can throw it at the plate, but I cant put it where I want.

It just kind of went from there. The rest is history, I guess. He learned how to basically locate it to both sides of the plate. He would elevate it. He could go at your hands if youre left-handed.

It just became this weapon that weve never seen before, and probably wont see again.

If that was a physical gift, Rivera was also blessed with the emotional intelligence to handle closing in New York.

When Wood was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Yankees at the 2010 deadline, one of the things that struck him was the sense of calm in the bullpen.

(Rivera) knows how to slow the game down, Borzello said. Hes never going to rush. The games going to wait for him. Hes not going to change his routine to accommodate the game.

A lot of guys are like: Oh my God, I got to get ready, get down and theyre firing, firing. It just turns into chaos and it sometimes carries out into the game. It was never that way with him.

That mental toughness is essential. Rivera blew the save that allowed the Boston Red Sox to begin their epic comeback in 2004 and make Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England.

Rivera also shook off a Game 7 loss to Bob Brenlys Arizona Diamondbacks in an emotional World Series after 911.

It generated almost universal respect. Last summer at Wrigley Field, Marmol approached Rivera and asked him to autograph a jersey he wanted to frame and hang in his home in the Dominican Republic.

From Day 1 that I was ever with Mariano Rivera, from spring training in 96 until the last day I was with (the Yankees), he was the exact same, Borzello said. Youll see guys get nervous as the innings get later and its closer to their time. The phone rings and you see the nervousness or you see this antsy-ness about most guys.

Mariano was always just the most relaxed (guy), confident in what he knew he was capable of doing. He was that way from Day 1. It didnt take a lot of success, and then he became more comfortable. He was comfortable from Day 1. And it was fascinating to watch.

So Borzello has this sequence in his mind. It could have been bases loaded at Fenway Park, but it didnt really matter where the Yankees were playing.

Rivera would get up from his seat, grab his glove and lift a weighted ball. Rivera liked throwing three balls with Borzello standing up, and then would have the bullpen catcher crouch down to finish warming up his arm.

That sense of routine had the greatest closer of all-time running around during batting practice in Kansas City, just before the fall.

You cant tell people to stop being baseball players, Borzello said. If anyones going to come back from that, even at his age, it would be him. Hes in great shape and hell do whatever it takes. If he wants to continue playing, I dont doubt him at all.

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into question.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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