On February 17, 1990, New York Yankees director of Latin American operations Herb Raybourn had to decide — could a fluid, effortless pitching motion outweigh a subpar fastball, dinky frame, and nearly total lack of mound experience?

In the case of young Mariano Rivera, Raybourn decided the chances of the answer being “yes” were good enough that he risked the enormous sum of about $2500 — the bonus New York paid the man who would become known as Sandman to sign a minor league contract.

It was, by all accounts, an amazing turn of events.

Just two weeks earlier, Rivera had taken the mound for the first time ever, replacing his team’s starter in a pinch during a playoff game for his amateur league team in Panama. Prior to that day, Rivera had been an infielder, and Raybourn had actually seen him play shortstop in 1988 — the Yanks’ talent evaluator came away unimpressed.

But a year and change later, and with a fresh contract in hand, Rivera flew to Tampa and suited up with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast Yankees.

If you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the future Hall of Famer on the field that spring and summer, you might have thought you were looking at a Little Leaguer … at least until he threw a couple of pitches.

Because, though he wasn’t on anyone’s “prospect” list by then, Rivera dominated in the Gulf Coast League, tossing 52 innings across 22 games, allowing just one earned run and three runs total for a ridiculous 0.17 ERA.

All that was supported by 58 strikeouts against just seven walks allowed.

Around the time all that was happening — if you were a diehard collector or diehard Yankees fan or hardcore speculator or just happened to be in the right place at the right time — you just might have caught your first glimpse of young Mariano on cardboard, in Tampa pinstripes …

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That 1990 Diamond Cards Tampa Yankees issue of Rivera’s might not have inspired visions of future greatness, maybe not even if you knew what he was doing on the field.

And you might have been more impressed with the confident smile of Mariano’s teammate, Carl Everett.

Or, a year or two later, with the hype surrounding Ricky Ledee.

Both ended up being fine Major League players.

And Shane Spencer, also in this set, had a breakout debut with the Yanks in 1998 at age 26 and played parts of seven seasons in the majors.

But the gem of the set and of the Yanks’ farm system, already, was the young man swimming in his Tampa cap and looking more like he was studying for his driver’s license test than preparing for a big league career.

And not just *a* big league career — by most standards, Rivera turned in the greatest lifetime showing by any reliever, ever.

Fittingly, it all started with a relief appearance, unexpected as it may have been.

Hobby Wow!

As the only unanimous Hall of Fame choice — ever — it’s little surprise that Mariano Rivera is a supremely popular figure among collectors. Who wouldn’t love to own some Mo swag like this eBay lot offers up?

That’s a signed, game-used Rivera jersey from his rookie season in 1995 … and the listing features some pretty neat photo evidence of provenance.

Check out the listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).

1990 Topps Baseball Cards VG Condition $0.99 EACH

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