He honed his aim with target practice on iguanas, found the cut fastball by accident, and got a visit to the mound from God—read highlights of Mariano Rivera’s The Closer.
Legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera retired last year after 19 seasons, five World Series titles, and a Major League Baseball record 652 saves. The son of a Panamanian fisherman and one-time aspiring mechanic, Rivera charted an unlikely path to the big leagues, sculpting a storied career out of perseverance, fortuity, preternatural talent, and, according to him, God’s grace.
Now, Rivera has stepped off the pitcher’s mound and picked up the pen, writing a new memoir called The Closer. He recounts his journey with humor and humility; here are the highlights.
Target practice with iguanas
Growing up poor in the small village of Puerto Caimito, Panama, Rivera learned to play baseball with makeshift equipment. “We have no bat, so we find an old piece of wood or saw off a branch of a tree,” he writes. “We have no ball, so wrap up a rock with fishnet and tape. We have no baseball gloves, but it’s amazing what kind of pocket you can make out of a cardboad box or a six-pack carton, if you know how to fold it.”
Rivera also worked on his arm by launching rocks at iguanas, or “chicken of the trees,” which happened to be one of his favorite foods. “Most times I’d have a direct hit on the first try, then pick it up and sling it over my shoulder to bring home for dinner.”
Rivera’s Yankees tryout came after his first-ever game pitching
Rivera was originally a position player, or rather an any-position player, suiting up at shortstop, right field, or catcher for the Panama Oeste Vaqueros in the country’s top league. During a playoff game in which his team’s best pitcher was getting smacked around, the manager unexpectedly signaled for Rivera. “Why is he looking at me? I think. He can’t mean me. I am not even a pitcher,” he writes.
With no experience, Rivera ended up throwing seven-plus innings of scoreless ball, and two of his teammates subsequently arranged a tryout with the local Yankees scout. Rivera threw a total of nine pitches at that audition, but they were impressive enough to score a follow-up. About a week later, he signed a $2,000 contract with the Yankees.
Rivera prefers starting to relieving
Despite being the best relief pitcher the sport has ever seen, Rivera admits that he would still rather be a starter. (Rivera’s time in the minor leagues was spent as a starter—a pretty darn good one—and he didn’t move to the bullpen until 1996.) “I guess if you put me against a wall and force me to answer, I’d say I slightly prefer starting,” he writes, “but whatever the club needs, I will do my best.”
Rivera’s signature pitch was an accident
Much of Mariano Rivera’s greatness stems from his cut fastball, a nasty pitch that no major leaguer seems able to hit. But Rivera discovered his cutter by accident, in 1997.
One day, he was having a catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, using his standard four-seam fastball grip, and the ball developed a “mind of its own,” Rivera recalls, “moving late, on a horizontal plane.”
“I do not spend years searching for this pitch. I do not ask for it, or pray for it. All of a sudden it is there, a devastating baseball weapon.”
Rivera was racially profiled when he went to buy a Westchester home
A few years into his pro career, Rivera and his wife, Clara, went to look at a house for sale in suburban Westchester County, just outside New York City. As Rivera tells it, “It’s an 8:00 a.m. appointment, and it’s such an early hour that we don’t dress up for it; I am in sweatpants and a T-shirt, and Clara is dressed the same way.
“We ring the doorbell and a woman opens the door. She looks aghast at the sight of us. The look on her face, and her manner, suggest that she thinks we are drug dealers, or maybe gardeners who are playing a joke.”
Rivera chalks it up to being racially profiled, and the woman completely changed her attitude when she found out that he was a Yankees star.
Rivera was visited on the mound by the Holy Spirit
Rivera’s Christian faith plays a large part in The Closer. At every turn, good and bad, whether he’s winning the World Series or tearing his ACL, Rivera gives credit to God and reiterates his belief in God’s plan.
And on a “hot Friday night” in July 1999, just after Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” plays for the first time as the closer’s new walk-out music, Rivera says he was visited on the mound by the Holy Spirit. He believes that he had “gotten a bit too big for my closer’s britches, and that I need to be reminded that He is the one who is all-powerful, not me.”
Emotionally shaken, Rivera then gets roughed up by the Atlanta Braves, blowing the save and the game, calling it “about as bad an outing as I’ve ever had.” After that moment, Rivera says he recommitted himself to religion, prayer, and humility, and he gave up one solitary run for the rest of the season.
Now, his faith has become his second career, as he and Clara run a church in New Rochelle called Refuge of Hope.
Fear of flying
According to Rivera, he has flown millions of miles over the last 25 years. And he has been terrified every airborne second. He copes by maintaining the same routine during each trip: “I sit in Row 29, in the middle seat, with my red leather Bible in my hand and Christian music in my earphones.”
Rivera once bet owner George Steinbrenner on the World Series outcome
It was 2000, and the Yankees were locked in the Subway Series with the Mets. Rivera encountered Steinbrenner in the clubhouse, and the owner asked the closer whether they were going to win.
“We are going to win, and I am so sure I will make you a bet, Mr. George,” Rivera remembers himself saying. “If I am right and we win, you’ll fly my wife and kids and me to Panama on your private jet. If I am wrong, I will take you out to dinner at the restaurant of your choice.”
Steinbrenner accepted the bet, the Yankees won, and he promptly paid up.
Rivera tried to play hooky
In 2007, Rivera asked manager Joe Torre if he could skip a trip to Colorado to attend his eldest son’s middle school graduation. Since Rivera had dropped out of school, he found it important to celebrate his children’s educational milestones. Torre, unsurprisingly, said no, explaining that it would set a bad precedent for the rest of the team.
In a rare moment of insurrection, Rivera threatened to stay behind, even without permission. Fortunately, he rethought his stance and ultimately traveled with the team.
Pedroia over Cano?
Although Rivera has incredible respect for his longtime second baseman Robinson Cano—“without a doubt, Robby is one of the greatest players I’ve ever played with”—he writes that if “I have to win one game, I’d have a hard time taking anybody over Dustin Pedroia as my second baseman.” Pedroia, of course, plays for the Yankees’ archenemies, the Boston Red Sox.
A-Rod: The Greatest Sideshow on Earth
In The Closer, Rivera’s attitude toward performance-enhancing drugs is somewhat inconsistent. He vehemently decries their use, saying “it robs the game of integrity and legitimacy.” He also writes that he wishes “it would go away, and that almost everyone who ever cheated would go away, too.”
At the same time, he refuses to turn his back on his PED-using teammates, the most famous being Alex Rodriguez. Upon appealing his 211-game suspension and rejoining the Yankees, A-Rod turns the clubhouse “into a full-blown nuthouse,” but Rivera says that he’s still “happy to have him back.”
In the religious spirit of judge not, Rivera writes that “you don’t cast aside a family member because he has made a mistake, or even many mistakes.” Throughout the book, Rivera is critical of Rodriguez’s self-destructive and “spotlight-seeking ways,” but he remains laudatory of A-Rod’s talent and passion—and hopeful that he will one day learn “the beauty and the benefit of keeping things simple.”