• Sal Maiorana

Once again, Ruben Rivera plays the role of the hero

NEW YORK (Sept. 18, 1996) – A little less than two months earlier, Ruben Rivera’s future in the Yankees organization could not have been more perilous.

The 22-year-old outfielder had been up with the Yankees early in the season when Bernie Williams and Tim Raines were both on the disabled list, but after a three-week dalliance during which he appeared in 17 games, he was back at Triple-A Columbus and lamenting his plight.

When informed that he was going back down in June, his attitude rubbed Joe Torre the wrong way. “I thought he was bothered more than he should have been when he was sent down,” Torre said. “If you’re going to play this game or live life, you’ve got to put up with stuff you don’t agree with.”

A month after his demotion, Rivera’s bubbling emotions overflowed. In a game against Norfolk, Rivera didn’t agree with an umpire’s decision and it led to him briefly losing his mind.

After being called out on an attempted steal of second base, he angrily returned to the dugout and threw his helmet against a wall, then went into the clubhouse to clear out his locker and left Cooper Stadium in the middle of the game.

He came back the next morning with his tail between his legs, but the Yankees suspended him seven days without pay and told him he’d better get his head on straight. “It was an organizational decision,” general manager Bob Watson said. “When you have an infraction as such, this is the price you pay. We hope it’s a lesson taught. He’s still a fine young player, that hasn’t changed.”

With that thought in mind, Watson gave Rivera another chance when he recalled him following the trade of Gerald Williams to Milwaukee. Now, for the second time in a week, Rivera stood in the clubhouse – all of his gear in place – speaking of the unexpected hero’s role he had played in a huge Yankee victory.

“I never dreamed of a situation like this happening,” Rivera said after he had scored the game-tying run on Bernie’s RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning as Paul O’Neill’s pinch runner, and then stroked a two-out game-winning single to right in the bottom of the 10th to give the Yankees a 3-2 victory over the Orioles.

“He’s won two games for us and we weren’t sure a few weeks ago that he’d even be here; unbelievable,” Torre said, pairing this game with Rivera’s remarkable catch in Detroit which had saved a game in which, had the Yankees lost, their lead over Baltimore would have shrunk to 1.5 games.

This come-from-behind victory stretched New York’s lead to four games with 12 remaining. “Yeah,” said Mariano Duncan, “this was the biggest game of the year for us.”

Tension was thick from the outset and a crowd of more than 40,000 at Yankee Stadium was fully engaged in the pitching duel that transpired between Andy Pettitte and Scott Erickson.

Baltimore struck early when Brady Anderson led off the game with a double and scored on a groundout by Todd Zeile, but after he struck out the side in the second it was clear Pettitte had settled in.

The Yankees tied it in the fifth when Duncan doubled and scored on Wade Boggs’ fielders’ choice grounder, but Baltimore regained a 2-1 lead when Pettitte gave up three straight hits to Anderson, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray to start the seventh.

Torre stayed with him and Pettitte escaped further damage thanks to his starting a superb 1-6-3 double play that prevented Ripken from scoring, and then retiring Mark Parent on a grounder as the crowd roared with delight.

Erickson left in the eighth and was in line for the victory when closer Randy Myers came out for the ninth, but O’Neill and Cecil Fielder drew back-to-back walks before Bernie’s tying single. Myers stranded the winning run on third, but after Mariano Rivera mowed down the Orioles in the 10th, Baltimore’s Alan Mills could not match and Ruben Rivera sent everyone home happy.

Rivera had looked terrible swinging and missing at two sliders, and that’s the pitch Mills tried to get him out on, but Rivera changed his approach and poked it over second baseman Roberto Alomar’s head.

“The first couple of swings, I tried to hit the ball hard,” Rivera said. “I got fooled by those two pitches. Once I had two strikes, I cut down on my swing and tried to put the ball in play. I was trying to make contact. I was nervous because I wanted to have a good at-bat and help the club win.”

As soon as he reached first base the Yankee dugout raced en masse to mob him. “I was very excited the way the guys took me and held me and let me know how much they appreciate me being the hero tonight,” Rivera said. “Never in my life have I felt like this. I’m so happy.”

His cousin, Mariano, who earned the victory with 1 2/3 innings of flawless relief, said of Ruben’s incident in Columbus, “When you’re in the minors, when you’re young, some of those bad things happen. Once you get here, everything changes. It’s been changing for him … I feel tremendous for him.”

So did Torre.

“I was so happy for the kid and so happy for us,” Torre said. “I think the combination of the catch last week and the hit this week shows that he’s a big part of this. If we lose that game in Detroit, who knows where we are? We went 6-1 on the road trip after that.”

Where they were now was the same place they’d be at the end of play the next night when they managed to split a doubleheader to remain four games up on Baltimore with 10 left to play.

“I’d rather have the six-game lead,” Torre said after the Yankees blew a 6-1 lead in the nightcap. “But, with the way we’re playing, I think we’ll win the required seven games or get the combination before this ends.”

NEXT post on May 27: Derek Jeter comes up clutch to beat Red Sox.