Not Done Yet
Joe Torre finishes huddling with reporters in the dugout shortly before the first pitch of a spring training game. One writer lingers to ask a quick question.
The Los Angeles Dodgers manager prefers not to offer quick answers regarding Mariano Rivera, the celebrated Yankees reliever who helped Torre collect four World Series rings in the first five years of his tenure on the New York bench.
“Wait here. I don’t want to rush this,” says Torre before joining his players on the field for the national anthem. Moments later, his team is batting as he leads the reporter down to the clubhouse for a discussion on the greatest postseason pitcher in history.
No one under heaven is flawless, however, and the topic eventually turns to a night in the Arizona desert when Rivera appears perfectly human. It’s the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, and the slim right-hander inherits a 2-1 edge against the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning. He promptly strikes out the side, pulling the Yankees within three outs of their fourth consecutive title.
In the bottom of the ninth, Rivera gives up a looping single to leadoff batter Mark Grace, then fields a Damian Miller bunt and throws the ball into center field for an uncharacteristic error. Jay Bell follows with another bunt, but Rivera throws out the lead runner at third base.
“That told me this kid is special. He’s not afraid to fail,” Torre remembers thinking. But Rivera surrenders a game-tying double by Tony Womack and hits Craig Counsell with a pitch to load the bases.
Luis Gonzalez steps up with one out. Rivera breaks his bat on the second pitch with his trademark cut fastball, but the ball sails over drawn-in shortstop Derek Jeter for a hit that deprives the Yankees of another championship trophy.
“The fact that we’re playing on the road dictated that we had to play the infield up because not too many guys hit the ball hard enough to even think about getting a double play with this guy,” Torre says. “So what would have been worse than the blooper that Gonzalez hit would have been a ground ball to the shortstop that you try to get a double play on, and the World Series ends on a force play. They didn’t hit the ball hard, and you can only control so much of it.”
Former Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams thinks the rare miscue by Rivera, who did not commit a single error in his first six seasons, likely was the difference.
“Otherwise, I don’t know if we’d ever be able to beat him,” Williams says. “He’s been the premier closer in the game for years and years and years with one pitch. That’s pretty remarkable as far as I’m concerned.”
Rivera, who had converted 23 postseason save opportunities in a row, quietly departs with his first blown save in a Series game. He explains his faith in God enables him to respond to such a bitter defeat with the same class he exhibits in victory.
“I don’t act upset because I understand it happened for a reason,” he says. “Yes, I get upset. I don’t like it, but His ways are not my ways, and His thoughts are not my thoughts.”
Life After Baseball
Rivera, who turns 41 on Nov. 29, doesn’t know how much longer he will work off a mound, but he intends to pitch Christian values until his final breath.
“If it’s up to me, I might do it until my arm falls,” he says. “But I don’t want to do my will. I want to do His will, and He will lead me to the right path. If it’s only one more year, or after this year, I don’t know. I’m praying for the good Lord to direct me and help me to continue playing baseball and make my decision.”
Rivera also will seek divine intervention regarding life after his playing days. He might resurface in Tampa, where he made his professional debut in the rookie Gulf Coast League with a 5-1 record and 0.17 ERA in 1990. He has a heart for young Latin players and has considered making it his ministry to guide them down a straight and narrow path toward the majors.
“It’s a hard road in the minor leagues, the process from the minor leagues to the big leagues,” says Rivera, who had 546 career saves and a 2.21 career ERA at this year’s All-Star break. “During that process there are a lot of things that can take you to other ways that are not the way that you came to do it. Therefore, I’d like to work with the guys to make sure they understand why they came here and what their goals and their rules are.”
Rivera, who has helped the Yankees win five World Series titles in seven attempts, including last year’s victory against Philadelphia, will one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But he is not waiting for that platform to spread his faith.
“It’s what you do now for God because tomorrow is not promised to anybody,” he says. “I try to do as much as I can to please the Lord. That is the most important thing in my life.”
Florida Marlins pitcher Nate Robertson remembers listening to Rivera share his testimony at an outreach near the Yankees’ spring home in Tampa.
“Whenever you put yourself out there like that, now you’re held to a different standard of how you live your life and the decisions that you make,” Robertson says. “And all eyes are on you. People look to you to walk the walk.”
From the mound, Rivera has set a standard for pitchers with a cutter that mysteriously entered his life in 1997. He was playing a game of catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza when he suddenly lost the ability to throw straight. Several days later in Detroit, Rivera was pitching his four-seam fastball to bullpen catcher Mike Borzello with similar dipping and darting movements around the plate.
Rivera now is certain of the origin of his signature pitch.
“It came from the Lord. Nobody taught me that but Him,” he says. “It’s been tremendous since the first time that I used it. It’s been effective, so I thank God for that.”
Rangers slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton is on the same page.
“It is a gift,” he says, “and when you get a gift from the Lord, you try to do the best you can to shape it and form it to be the best you can with it. He‘s done a great job of that.”
Rivera, an 11-time All-Star, reached the midway point of this season with a 2-1 record, 20 saves and a career-best 1.05 ERA. He is on pace to supplant Brewers right-hander Trevor Hoffman atop the all-time saves list next year.
Rivera doesn’t dwell on personal achievements.
“Those things are not my thing. I’m a team player,” he says. “Those things might come along, but I won’t pursue a record or anything like that. I’m happy with what I am and what I’m doing. The rest is in the Lord’s hands.”
Fellow believer Mike Sweeney admires Rivera and Hoffman on and off the field.
“They’re totally different pitchers, but they’re very similar in who they are as men,” the Seattle Mariners designated hitter says. “Mariano is a one-pitch guy. He’s a cutter. He’s going to throw it to either side of the plate. He’s a power guy. Trevor has very good command, but he’s known for his Bugs Bunny changeup. They are hands down the best two closers to ever play the game. And they’re both godly men.”
Rivera wants all the praise to go heavenward.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, and I cannot move without his direction,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that I’m a perfect man. Now I wish I could tell you that I’m perfect, but I’m not. But I’m always trying to please the Lord, and that’s my goal.”
By Bob Bellone
This story was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. Bob Bellone is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.