Bay Area Baseball

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March 9, 2013
Yankees' Rivera left mark on relievers Kontos, Proctor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Giants reliever George Kontos was drafted by the Yankees in 2006 and invited to his first big-league camp with New York in 2009. Early that spring, the then-23-year-old Kontos made a point of seeking out the Yankees' veteran closer, Mariano Rivera.

"I introduced myself and I asked him for an autograph," Kontos recalled Saturday.

Rivera graciously agreed.

"I had him sign two (baseballs) and of course I still have them," Kontos said. "I'm never getting rid of those, ever."

Rivera, whose 608 career saves are the most all-time, announced this morning he intends to retire at the end of this season. The 43-year-old is returning this spring from a torn ACL he suffered last season shagging balls in the outfield during batting practice.

Kontos, who watched as Rivera announced his decision at a televised news conference, said the times he got to work alongside Rivera -- several spring trainings and a late-season call-up in 2011 -- were valuable experiences.

"I was just kind of picking his brain on how he gets ready, how he plans for hitters and just how he prepares," Kontos said. "Watching him when I was there in 2011, getting ready for games, how he'd stretch out, how he'd go about warming up, and when he was in the game how he went about approaching hitters.

"The biggest thing he was able to convey to me was just being able to watch hitters' swings and read their swings. That's the one thing he does really, really well. He throws a pitch and he's watching how they're swinging. And if he sees something, he can adjust his game plan accordingly."

Kontos said he tried to pick up that habit. "For me it's more of a see-the-glove, throw-to-the-glove thing," he said. "But that's one thing that I definitely have tried to work on is to be able to read swings and kind of change stuff in the at-bat, if need be."

Kontos appeared in seven games for the Yankees late in 2011. One was the first game of a double-header against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 21. Kontos entered in the fifth and pitched 2/3 of an inning. Rivera later pitched a scoreless ninth to save a 4-2 Yankees win. It was Rivera's 603rd career save -- coming two days after he broke the previous record of 601 -- and it clinched a playoff berth for the Yankees.

"I remember that like it was yesterday," Kontos said.

Veteran reliever Scott Proctor, a non-roster invitee in Giants camp this spring, was also a teammate of Rivera's with the Yankees from 2004-07. Proctor recalled Rivera taking him aside several times for "doing something that he didn't see was the right way," but that he "never did it in a disrespectful manner." He said Rivera became a mentor.

"(His advice was) just trust your stuff. Be yourself," Proctor said. "Be able to look in the mirror and be happy with the way you played the game, be happy with the way you've led your life. It was more than just baseball, it was about life.

"A lot of times that's what he'd pull you aside (about). He did it with me numerous times about just off-the-field choices that I was making. He thought I could be making better ones. But it was all just out of caring."

Proctor chuckled when asked if he ever tried to learn Rivera's signature cut fastball.

"Oh yeah, I tried," Proctor said. "I tried. He'll always refer to it as his 'blessed pitch.' There's only one Rivera cutter, though. That's all I can say. No matter how much you try, no matter how much you try to learn from him, there's only one Rivera cutter."

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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