With big shoes to fill, Robertson trying to be himself
From 'Enter Sandman' to 'Sweet Home Alabama,' familiar face taking to new role
TAMPA, Fla. -- The worst-kept secret in any big league camp finally became a reality for David Robertson this month when a member of the Yankees' coaching staff officially referred to him for the first time as Mariano Rivera's successor.
There was no great coronation for the man who is succeeding baseball's all-time saves leader, though it also is not as though there was any great suspense in the air. The remark came in an off-hand comment from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, solidifying what had been widely assumed all spring.
"Larry said it to me in the bullpen about two weeks ago: 'It's you this year,'" Robertson said. "It's nice to hear it, but until we start Opening Day, then I'll know for sure. I think they know that I know. We all know. It doesn't need to be talked about. No need for added pressure; just try to get the job done."
It is the opportunity that Robertson has been hoping for since at least the moment he packed his bags following last season's game No. 162 in Houston. He said that he avoided reading the offseason rumors about the closer's role, not wanting to pollute his preparation for the upcoming season.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner anointed Robertson the closer in January, a headline that -- at least for Robertson -- fell under the category of "wait and see." The Yankees ultimately passed on the crop of free agents who might have come in to compete, and manager Joe Girardi says now that he is "very comfortable" with handing Robertson the job.
"We said all along, with the people that we had, it was basically his job," Girardi said. "But sometimes through free agency people are added and then it changes the dynamic. You never commit to someone completely until the offseason is over, but he's our closer."
As Robertson puts it: "When I showed up and there was no one else here, I thought, 'I guess now it's my turn.'"
After a 162-game schedule that doubled as Rivera's farewell tour, the cherry came during last weekend's visit to Panama. Before the first game against the Marlins, Robertson caught a ceremonial first pitch from Rivera, which Rivera called a "passing of the torch."
"My wish and my prayers are that Robertson can do the job," Rivera said. "Hopefully he has some help in the bullpen and he can do that."
Robertson, who made his big league debut with the Yanks in 2008, has had time to prepare. He said that during those nights he shared a bullpen with Rivera, he would try to focus on watching what Rivera did leading up to the ninth inning, rather than what was said.
"I can't put my finger on one thing," Robertson said. "I feel like he always told me, 'Be you out there.' I just watched how he did it himself, how he was so consistent and never let what happened in the game affect him.
"He was just Mr. Consistent. I think there was one stretch last year where he had three blown saves in a row, and you couldn't tell the difference when he came in. He was still the same exact guy."
Robertson has experienced some rough stretches himself over the years, including one blown save in May 2012 -- shortly after Rivera's season-ending knee injury -- that seemed crushing at the time.
That night, when Robertson inherited a one-run lead and allowed four to the Rays, he couldn't resist logging onto his Twitter account (@drob30). Pleasantly surprised by the lack of vitriol, he tweeted a message to the fans and thanked them for their support.
"That's the hardest part. It comes with time," Robertson said. "That was a couple of years ago now. Now, I can go home, I can get sleep about it, see the family, return the next day and be ready to go. You may have got me yesterday, but I'm going to get you today."
Robertson was a closer at the University of Alabama and had a smattering of experience in the role coming up through the Yankees' Minor League chain, but this will be his first extended opportunity in the big leagues. He was 5-1 with a 2.04 ERA and three saves in 70 appearances last year, and while his track record of 8-for-18 in save chances does not pop off the page, Robertson explains those numbers as a small, quirky sample size.
"You lose a game or you lose the lead, any game with a lost lead, it's a blown save," Robertson said. "In actual save opportunities where I've come in for the ninth, I've got three or four in a row. There's not a lot of ballgames to work with. It's the same thing. You've got to get outs; got to make pitches. It's still the same game, just a different inning."
About the only area where Robertson is prepared to cede a victory to Rivera comes in the music department. Rivera's entrance to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" was an iconic all-timer, and no one will ever think of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" as an intimidating, ominous tune.
"I'm going to stick with it for a while," Robertson said. "Let me get some saves under my belt before I start thinking about changing it. I like my song. It relaxes me, mellows me out, and it reminds me of where I came from and how I got here."
Though the Yankees hope that it won't be necessary to interrupt Rivera's retirement so soon, it is comforting to know that his wisdom will be only a phone call and a short drive away in New York's Westchester County.
During the Panama trip, Robertson said that the Yanks were bombarding Rivera with autograph requests, trying to snare keepsakes for family and friends -- and maybe just one last piece for themselves. In that madness, Robertson was able to sneak a few words in.
"I told him, 'Come by the clubhouse. Come hang out,'" Robertson said. "'If I start stinking, come give me a pitching lesson. Show me what I'm doing wrong.' I expect him to show up once a month or so. He should. I think he'll get bored."