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THESE DAYS, IT DOESN'T PAY TO PITCH SETUP

Between them, The City's two tabloids produced more than 100 pages of baseball copy Saturday morning, breathlessly advancing a World Series opener that wound up being washed out by the persistent wind and rain.

Aside from the Series, there was one other local baseball development. John Franco, the veteran reliever of the Mets, signed a two-year contract for a total of $6.1 million.

Now, I don't have anything against Franco. He has more saves than any left-hander in history. But I've never understood the money they pay these "stoppers" for pitching the ninth inning a couple of times a week.

Franco pitched 54 innings this past season. He hasn't pitched more than 55 innings in a season in six years. If he can command $3 million a year, how much is Mariano Rivera worth?

One thing is certain. Rivera is worth a lot more than the $131,125 the Yankees paid him this year. If you ask me, he's worth more than Franco, or the Yanks' John Wetteland, or any of the game's overpaid legion of closers.

Rivera isn't a closer, but he was the best reliever in the game this year. The Panama native was 8-3 with a 2.09 earned-run average. He had five saves. He had 130 strikeouts and 34 walks. He allowed just one home run (one!) in 107 2/3 innings.

That last figure -- the 107 2/3 innings -- is the one that jumps out at you. It's almost unheard of for a reliever to throw that many innings nowadays. Rivera was the only reliever in the American League to do so.

Rivera redefined, or should we say rediscovered, the role of the long reliever. He gave baseball's narrow-minded thinkers a radical new concept to ponder -- the setup man as superstar.

For years, the closer has been the acknowledged star of the bullpen. It's become customary for closers to pitch only the ninth inning. The problem, in an age of exploding offense and unreliable starters, is what to do from the sixth inning to the ninth.

The answer is to have someone like Rivera to blow people away in the seventh and eighth, to do for two innings what a typical closer is asked to do for only one.

There is no one else like him in the game, however. It's hard to understand why. But after seeing what Rivera did this season, you can bet more and more teams will be trying to develop power pitchers with the endurance to pitch 100 innings in relief.

It's hard to imagine where the Yankees would be without him. With New York's rotation unsettled by injuries (David Cone's aneurysm, Jimmy Key's elbow, Kenny Rogers' shoulder), it was nice to know you were virtually home-free if your starter survived the sixth.

People here are calling him the Yankees' most valuable player. One columnist even suggests he should be the AL MVP. I wouldn't pick him, but he'd be in the top 10.

And to think, the Yankees nearly traded him before the season.

Last winter, George Steinbrenner heard the hated Orioles were trying to get David Wells from the Reds. He jumped into the bidding. The Yanks made Cincinnati an offer that included Rivera in the package.

But the Reds eventually traded Wells to the O's for two minor-leaguers. The Yanks kept Rivera, and they're glad they did.

Who could have imagined he'd be this good? Rivera, 26, says he never did. He was just hoping he'd make it to the big leagues after undergoing career-threating elbow surgery four years ago.

"I was kind of shocked," he said. "I went to a lot of docs. They said this Frank Jobe was the best. But nobody tells you, 'Mariano, you gonna be all right'. They say, 'Maybe in a couple years you'll be back. Maybe.' "

Rivera was on and off the disabled list for three years. He seemed like an average prospect. Then, midway through the 1995 season in Columbus, it suddenly came together.

"He'd never hit over 93 (mph) on the radar gun," said former Yankees general manager Gene Michael. "Mostly he was between 89 and 92. But then they started telling me he was 94, 95, 96. I asked if the gun was screwed up. They said no."

"Something happened," Rivera said, "but I don't know how. I think I'm getting stronger. What? Why? I cannot even say."

Opposing hitters have things to say, but they're not printable. As a group, they hit .189 off him this season. Right-handers hit .157.

You wonder where his power comes from. Rivera is 6-3, 168 pounds. He delivers the ball with a smooth, graceful motion, like a boy skimming stones onto a pond. But his ball explodes to the plate.

Hitters want to lay off the high fastball, but can't help themselves. Rivera has marvelous control. When his slider is on, he is unhitable. And he makes it look easy.

"You think this is easy?" he said. "You think pitching in the big leagues is easy, pitching in the playoffs? Maybe I make it look easy, but it's not. Ain't nothing easy about it."

If it were easy, more pitchers would do it. If it were easy, more teams would have great setup men who can pitch two innings at a time.

The fact is, there aren't many of them around. Just wait, though. Baseball men are great imitators. After what Rivera has done, everyone will be sending out scouts to find young pitchers who can be great long relievers.

Finding money to pay them will be another matter. They can start by taking some away from the closers.