Mariano Rivera: The believer
Faith also makes him the greatest, least understood player of his generation
EIGHT YEARS AGO, on the night of Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003, the New York Yankees recorded their last defining, signature victory over the Boston Red Sox. The night, highlighted by Aaron Boone's pennant-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th inning of the seventh and deciding game of the American League Championship Series, represented the last major victory for the Yankees at the old Yankee Stadium and ended eight decades of the hammer-and-nail relationship between the two teams. The next season, a new chapter and a new concept -- two virtually equal superpowers that would dominate baseball economics and the AL standings -- would be introduced. That night stands as seminal and powerful images of the oversized personalities that defined the rivalry remain from that surreal, intense evening:
• As Boone's ball sailed over the left field fence, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and assistant GM Jean Afterman leaped and danced and hugged in the Yankees' skybox. Cashman turned and hugged Reggie Jackson. Behind him Randy Levine, the Yankees' fierce president, brandished a fist toward the field and roared, "Take that, you 1918 pieces of [expletive]!"
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• Before Boone hit the pennant winner, Derek Jeter told him to believe in the history and the mystique of the Yankees. "This building has ghosts," he told him.
• A busted water main flooded the Macombs Dam Bridge, preventing access to scores of motorists, first baseman Jason Giambi among them. Yankees manager Joe Torre punished Giambi for being late by batting him seventh. Giambi hit two home runs off Pedro Martinez.
• Mike Mussina crying in the Yankees' clubhouse, the Stanford man unable to formulate a sentence, while down the hall in the visitors' clubhouse, the Yale man, first-year GM Theo Epstein, with tears in his eyes, saying quietly, "They got this one. We'll win it next year."
• David Wells, drinking from a brown paper bag in front of the Stadium and relieved that the eighth-inning home run he'd surrendered to David Ortiz did not seal losing the pennant, bathed in the championship afterglow as frenzied Yankees fans chanted his name.
• The old man, George Steinbrenner, walked out of the Stadium slowly, dark sunglasses covering his eyes, a thin smile across his lips. As he passed the Boston team bus, he turned and said merrily, "We win again!"
One image of that night went unnoticed, and it may just be the most telling, the most lasting and certainly the most important: As Boone approached home plate with his teammates running to meet him amid delirium, the winning pitcher, Mariano Rivera, sprinted not toward Boone and home plate and the crush of victory but to the middle of the infield, where he reached the pitcher's mound, sank to his knees and collapsed onto the soil. He lay there for several moments exhausted and sobbing, his fingers clutching the dirt.
"I was thanking the Lord. It was a tremendous experience. I went there because all of my job took place there," Rivera said. "I was praying the whole night, and the whole next morning for it all to develop like that. There's only one reason, only one thing -- God -- could make that happen. There were no miracles, no ghosts. Just God. God did this. Do you want to know what I was doing? I was thanking Him."
At 41, Mariano Rivera has reached the twilight of his career by performing admirably, still dominant with a season highlighted by becoming baseball's all-time saves leader, entering the playoffs for what could be a last run at a sixth World Series title. He is the greatest player at his position on the most visible, most historic team in professional sports, and yet he might easily be the least known great player of his time.
Rivera is at once vexed and comfortable with being overshadowed by Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and a host of other stars before him with bigger personalities. The reasons for the distance at once easy and difficult; Rivera does not energize a room with a self-elevating charge, the way superstars in New York have in the past. He shuns most opportunities for self-promotion and laughs mildly at his appearance in a new Arrid XX deodorant campaign. The theme is titled "cool under pressure."
"It's OK. I'm very selective about what I choose to do. I don't talk about myself, I don't call you over here to tell you what I did," Rivera said. "But I don't shy away from who I am. If you want to know me, I'm right here. If you don't want to know, that's OK, but I'm not hiding. I'm right here."
He is a serious man, not given to clowning or many aspects of a ballplayer's life. Rivera has been a Yankee for 16 years, and while it is unclear which, if any, teammates he would consider lifelong friends, he has never been considered aloof, like Bernie Williams, or unpopular, like Kevin Brown. "He's always engaged, like an everyday player," says former teammate Tino Martinez, "but he's a popular loner." He is classic in dress and definitive in attitude. Conversations with Rivera are intense and purposeful. He is aware of his place in the game and his responsibility as a legend in his native Panama.
But the biggest reason Rivera seems to stand a layer apart is his faith. Religion, in general, makes for a squirrely conversation in the big leagues and it is central to understanding him. Faith also allows him to believe in the strength and efficacy of his signature pitch, the world famous cut fastball.
Two weeks after solidifying his reputation as the best closer in the game's history by recording his 602nd save, and with the Yankees in Florida for a season-ending three-game series with Tampa Bay, Rivera sits in front of his locker at Tropicana Field and suddenly is laughing, broadly and spontaneously, at the suggestion that the roots of his greatness are the standard athlete's fare: a combination of the gift of a powerful right arm, consistent work ethic, tremendous, historic control and a fighter's will.
"It's faith," he said. "Faith isn't something that you decide to have. You don't wake up and say, 'Today, I'm going to have faith.' It's a process. I would never, ever be here in the big leagues without my faith. Ability, you have to have ability and you have to have talent, but I'm telling you, my talent wasn't enough. God brought me here.
"One year in the minor leagues I was throwing 88-89, and then I was 95. Who can explain that? What happened? I don't know. No one knows."
Rivera does not pinpoint the moment that changed his life. "I was born Catholic, but I wasn't raised Catholic because we never went to church," he says. Rivera says it was not one clean, singular event that brought him to his spirituality, but a feeling that is generally indescribable.
"I was unhappy with the direction of my life, of where it was going. I had to do something. I was in my 20s. I was 21, think," he says. "I gave my life to Him."
He feels the deep connection between faith and pitching. It is also willpower, the willpower to execute a pitch or have the stamina to win more games in the playoffs or to be tougher than the player he is facing.
Rivera recalls when he was unhittable, such as in the minor leagues when he had given up just one earned run in his first pro season, to his peak in the late 1990s and early part of the decade. He absorbs the failures -- against the Red Sox in 2004 and beyond, when it seemed that Bill Mueller was on every pitch he threw and it appeared the Red Sox had finally solved the great Rivera -- and returns to the difficult space: faith and purpose.
"I have to believe that every pitch I throw is the right pitch and is a great pitch, and the next one will do the job. Always, always. When I talk about the Lord, I'm not talking about praying to him for him to give you what you want. People always pray for something they want. He's going to give you what you need. That doesn't mean you're going to win the game. It really has nothing to do with baseball."
At a time when virtually everything appears available to be commercialized, Rivera's trust in his faith, he insists, is not contrived or zealous. His faith is internal.
"He has never gone out of his way to initiate a conversation about religion," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said. "He does not put you down or push his beliefs in your face. It is more an exchange. What I enjoy about him is that he doesn't bother you. He doesn't tell you what will or what won't happen to you if you don't subscribe to his beliefs, and I really appreciate that. It is more that he is one of those people who will answer what you ask him, and if you are receptive to that, he is willing to continue. And if you're willing to listen to what I have to say, then that can be productive."
I don't talk about myself, I don't call you over here to tell you what I did. But I don't shy away from who I am. If you want to know me, I'm right here. If you don't want to know, that's OK, but I'm not hiding. I'm right here.” -- Yankees closer Mariano Rivera
Invocations of faith and God have, cynically, become as much a part of sports cliché as taking each season one game one at a time, falling victim to the law of diminishing returns -- the more religion seems gratuitous, the less impact the conversation. When the Red Sox lost to Baltimore on the final day of the regular season and moments later were eliminated from playoff contention after the Rays beat the Yankees, Boston first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said his team's demise was not the result of losing 20 games in 28 days but the will of God.
"I'm a firm believer that God has a plan and it wasn't in his plan for us to move forward," Gonzalez said. "God didn't have it in the cards for us."
Rivera is consumed by his faith. He believes he is being touched by the hand of God. There was a time, before Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when Rivera invoked the word of God before a pregame speech. Rivera said the Yankees lived on God's side, and that that would carry them to victory. Tino Martinez recalled the speech being a "good one, even though in the end it didn't work out the way we wanted it to."
"I talk a lot about the Lord, but you don't often hear me talk about religion," Rivera said. "I believe in the Lord. I believe in the spirit. I believe you have to give to it. You have to believe. That doesn't mean that you're always going to get what you want. You're not. That's not what it is, and it has nothing to do with the other team.
"All my career, you think I would have 602 saves? I don't talk about religion. I talk about relationship. I know that Christ is my savior. God is my father."
The depth of Rivera extends beyond spirituality to self-determination, the second of the difficult conversations that create his distance from the sporting life while he excels within its parameters. He has long been an elder statesman to younger Latino players, but he does not coddle. He wants them to learn English in order to survive in a game that is dominated by what is for Latino players often a foreign language. He also wants something in return: for American journalists to learn Spanish.
"That's what he wants and you can't blame him, can you?" said Tony Pena, the Yankees' bench coach. "Do me a favor: Go to a foreign place and have people ask you questions in Spanish and have you answer in Spanish. Would you feel comfortable doing that? Do you think you would be understood? All he's saying is meet him halfway. If you try to understand him in his language, he'll give you everything he has."
These conversations of faith and self-determination are difficult ones to have. Rivera is serious because he has his own personal code, but he is not political about it. "This is important," he says. "Do you want someone to speak for you or do you want to speak for yourself? You have to learn English because it gives you power. It helps you, but at the same time, if you want to understand the people that you talk you, you should try to learn our language, just to show that you understand we have culture and we come from a place, too." Rivera owns a leader's comportment but do not expect him to run for a seat in the Panamanian government. When reaching into the mind of Rivera seems too difficult, the safe road is to talk about pitching.
THE CRAFT IS THE EASY PART with Rivera. The numbers stand there on the page, for today and posterity, so far distant from his peers and contemporaries. Where there is similarity -- Rivera has 603 saves, Trevor Hoffman 601 -- anecdote creates the separation. Hoffman was good, great even, but he was no Rivera. At 41, the sport du jour is to investigate signs that the great one has finally given into age. Torre, his former manager, used to wonder with incredulity what That Day -- the day Rivera becomes hittable, fallible, fails -- would look like. Quite likely, it will look the same way it did for Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson and Dennis Eckersley and Bob Gibson, the way it does when time eventually devours them all.
I talk a lot about the Lord, but you don't often hear me talk about religion. I believe in the Lord. I believe in the spirit. I believe you have to give to it. You have to believe.” -- Mariano Rivera
The Rivera watch has become a sport inside a sport. When the Red Sox began scratching away at him, it was seen as the first sign of his decay. In 2007, Rivera posted a 3.15 ERA, his highest since his rookie season in 1995. That was the moment. He was human.
Rivera then followed his apparent demise with four consecutive seasons with an ERA under 2.00. He has posted a sub-2.00 ERA in eight of the past nine seasons. His innings are lower, and left-handers have begun to give him more trouble, but he is still the difference between the Yankees and every other team.
The man is the harder part, particularly during a time and culture of total commodification, ostentatiousness and bluntness -- where anger is a commodity and routines are mimicked and sold. In a sport where players constantly advise to remain on an even emotional level due to the length of the season, the closer is the only high-energy, voluble position in the game.
"Tommy Glavine used to tell me, 'Never let 'em see you sweat.' And I said, 'Why the hell not? This isn't chess,'" said Al Leiter, a former pitcher and teammate of Rivera. "I wanted to pitch with rage, with an anger that was going to help me concentrate, help me not give in. I would shout into my glove, get fired up.
"With Mariano, first check his pulse. I guarantee you it isn't racing. You wouldn't know if he was pitching in Game 7 of the World Series or on the back lot in spring training. And the thing with him is that he was going 93-98 miles an hour. It wasn't like he was trying to trick you. He was throwing gas. He was confrontational, coming right at you."
Rivera approaches the game with a button-down professionalism that stands in contrast to the high-octane histrionics of his peers in Boston (Jonathan Papelbon), Detroit (Jose Valverde) and dozens of others, past and present. In the ESPN, 24/7 television world, Rivera is not performing.
ON THE LAST DAY of the season, before the Yankees and Rays would play their part in one of the greatest regular-season baseball finales in memory, Tino Martinez reflected on Rivera.
"No disrespect to the other guys, but all that jumping around and dancing told me you weren't sure you had what it took to get the job done, and when you did, you were surprised," said Martinez, a core member of the four Yankees championship in 1996-2000. "What Mo is saying is that there's no reason to jump up and down because I'm only doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that's win."
Comportment is another part of his personality tied to faith. "I believe that every pitch is going to be a good one. Not this one but not the next one. Every one," Rivera said. "When I pitch, I don't hope. And yes, every guy out there says they believe in the pitch, but even when things go bad, you have to. Especially then."
"He's always been a simple guy, a regular guy who takes his business seriously, but the thing I would say most about Mo is that when we had a lead, we knew it was over. The other team had no chance, and they knew they had no chance.
"Look, we're all replaceable. Baseball can replace a first baseman, a shortstop, a third baseman. But you can't replace him. When he's not there, it will all change. He's the single individual in the game where everything will be completely different without him. The way you approach the Yankees will be different. Everyone is wondering what that will be like."
Rivera is not worried about his second act, because the first one is not yet complete. He is not worried about success or failure, if this season will end with a sixth title or if, like in 2001, the season will end with an ending not to his liking.
"I don't know what is next. I never allow anything that I do to interfere with who I am. It doesn't define who I am," Rivera said. "I won't be better. I won't be worse. God has put me in a special place to talk about Him. That's what I meant when I said it was impossible for me to talk about myself. It really has nothing to do with baseball. I'm here to talk about Him. Him alone."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.