Mariano Rivera to the Mariners? Almost happened in spring of '96

TAMPA, Fla. -- Had Yankees baseball men Bob Watson, Gene Michael, Brian Cashman and Joe Torre been a little less adamant, closer Mariano Rivera may have written his legend in … Seattle?

Absolutely, and in case you don’t know how close that came to fruition:

It was the spring of 1996 and New York’s plan was to break in a kid named Derek Jeter at shortstop. Problem was, Jeter was not having a good spring, infielders Tony Fernandez and Pat Kelly were hurt and, as so often happens, it was producing panic in Yankee-land.

“The Mariners came knocking,” Cashman recalled. “They wanted to move Felix Fermin, and they wanted either Bob Wickman or Mariano Rivera.”

The late George Steinbrenner was in no mood to go with an untested shortstop to begin the 1996 season, especially one who had scuffled all spring.

But the baseball folks -- Watson, Michael, Cashman, Torre -- were committed to Jeter. They finally won the argument with Steinbrenner, but only after a long and testy meeting.

“It was a fight to get the Boss to stand down,” Cashman said.

Rivera had yet to develop his cutter, and he had had a poor rookie season in 1995, going 5-3 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 games (10 starts).

During that ’95 season, the Yankees had a chance to deal Rivera to the Tigers for David Wells, “but I don’t believe that ever got close,” said Cashman, then Watson’s assistant GM.

The Mariners deal for Fermin did get close.

“It felt like the press was lined up down the hall waiting for the door to open,” Cashman said of that fateful meeting with Steinbrenner.

He likened it to “waiting for the papal smoke to appear” to anoint Jeter (which maybe isn’t too far from the truth).

“The life of the Yankees,” Cashman said, “could have changed drastically.”

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