Special Book Excerpt: The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle (3 of 3)
Author Barry Sparks has a great new book, The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle. With permission from his publisher, Sunbury Press and the author, we share this special excerpt. This is one of three excerpts we are sharing here at SSTN.
RUBEN RIVERA THE COLOSSAL MYSTERY
Of all the next Mickey Mantles, none had the full quota of God-given talent to bring an entire ball field of players, coaches, and scouts to attention the way Ruben Rivera has.
There’s the Mystery of the Great Sphinx, and then there’s the Mystery of Ruben Rivera.
Both have baffled experts. While Egyptologists wrestle with the age of the Great Sphinx, why and how it was built, baseball men are puzzled how a five-tool player, who was once compared to Mickey Mantle, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds, and Ken Griffey Jr., failed miserably at the big league level. Instead of achieving predicted greatness, Rivera batted .216 in a nine-year, trouble-filled career, playing for five teams.
Rivera spent more time playing soccer than baseball as a youth in Panama. The New York Yankees signed the 17-year-old in 1990. There are two versions of how Latin American scouting director Herb Raybourn signed the youngster. One says Chico Heron, the Yankees area scout, alerted Raybourn to Rivera. After watching Rivera in a private tryout, Raybourn signed him for $3,000, plus $70 for a missed day of wages on a fishing boat.
The second version is less likely to be true. Raybourn returned to Panama seeking more talent after he signed Mariano Rivera, Ruben’s cousin, who was four years older. He asked Mariano if there were any other good players. He replied, “Yes, my cousin. He can play.”
Rivera spent his first two seasons with the Gulf Coast Yankees in the Rookie League and Oneonta in the New York Penn League, where he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. He broke out in 1994 as a 20-year-old with Class-A Greensboro in the South Atlantic League and Class-A Tampa in the Florida State League. In 139 games, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound right-handed hitter bashed 33 homers, drove in 101 runs, and batted .281. On the negative side, he struck out 163 times. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the South Atlantic League and a finalist for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award.
That fall, he played for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League, where he was the consensus best prospect. Rivera appeared on the December 25, 1994, cover of the over-sized Baseball America magazine with the intriguing question: “Yankees’ Ruben Rivera: The Next Mickey Mantle?” The publication rated Rivera as the Yankees’ number one prospect, ahead of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, his cousin.
Javelinas manager John Stearns, a former New York Mets catcher, showered Rivera with unbridled praise.”The Yankees haven’t had a talent like this guy since Mickey Mantle,” he exclaimed. “He does more things than (Andre) Dawson could do at this age and more things than a young (Dave) Winfield could do. Winfield hit between 20 and 30 homers. Rivera could hit between 40 and 60 homers. Winfield has a good arm; Rivera has a great arm.”
In an interview with Bill Madden of the NY Daily News, Stearns added, “Ruben is the best player I’ve seen in my 22 years in baseball. He is the total package, including 40-homer power.”
Stearns admitted Rivera was not yet ready for the majors, saying he needed another 500 to 1,000 at-bats. But, he predicted Rivera would be a number three hitter like Mantle when he made it to the majors. After all the praise, Stearns offered one important disclaimer: “He has yet to do it.”
Stearns wasn’t the only one impressed with Rivera. Madden wrote, “Of all of the next Mickey Mantles, none had the full quota of Godgiven talent to bring an entire ball field of players, coaches, and scouts to attention the way Ruben Rivera has.”
Yankee great Reggie Jackson enthused, “Looking at him is like looking at Secretariat as a one-year-old. He looks bigger and better than anyone else on the field. A blind man could see his skills. He’s got everything.”
When a reporter asked Rivera if he felt any pressure to live up to the legacies of Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, the youngster shyly admitted he didn’t know who they were. He asked, “Were they as good as Ken Griffey Jr.?”
Although the Yankees agreed with Stearns’ assessment, they were much less vocal about it. Stearns, a member of the Cincinnati Reds organization, wasn’t concerned about putting too much pressure on the potential star. However, Bill Livesey, Yankees vice president of player development, said, “The next DiMaggio or Mantle tag will only put undue pressure on the kid.”
The Yankees invited Rivera to their 1995 spring training camp. He impressed manager Buck Showalter with his outfield speed and arm strength. He was assigned to Class-AA Norwich in the Eastern League. He started slowly and didn’t show some offensive pop until after 50 games.
In May 1995, Baseball America listed Rivera as its number two minor league prospect, behind Seattle’s Alex Rodriguez. The list included Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Shaun Green, Charles Johnson, Norma Garciaparra, and Andruw Jones. Actually, Baseball America listed Rivera among its Top 10 prospects from 1995 through 1997.