One of base­ball’s great re­liev­ers gets a look

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

THE CLOSER: MY STORY By Mar­i­ano Rivera (with Wayne Cof­fey)

Mr. Rivera re­cently wrote his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “The Closer: My Story,” aided by New York Daily News sports jour­nal­ist Wayne Cof­fey. This book, much like its im­pres­sive sub­ject, is free from scan­dal and in­nu­endo. Rather, it’s a deeply per­sonal tale about hard work, per­se­ver­ance and an un­bri­dled pas­sion for base­ball. Pitch by pitch, and sea­son by sea­son, we wit­ness Mr. Rivera’s trans­for­ma­tion from a mere mor­tal into a base­ball gi­ant.

His ini­tial route to pro base­ball was almost com­i­cal.

Mr. Rivera played for the Panama Oeste Va­que­ros at age 18. He fa­vorite po­si­tion was right field. His man­ager asked him to pitch one day, some­thing he hadn’t done “since I threw a few in­nings for the provin­cial team when I was four­teen.” He took the mound in the sec­ond in­ning, throw­ing the ball “prob­a­bly no more than eighty-five miles per hour,” but he was “get­ting ahead of every­body, hit­ting cor­ners, pitch­ing quickly. We wind up win­ning the game.”

After this im­pres­sive per­for­mance, which he thought would be a “one-day fling,” Mr. Rivera re­turned to his usual sched­ule. Two team­mates, Emilio Gaes and Claudino Her­nan­dez, showed up at his house two weeks later to in­form him they’ve ar­ranged a try­out with the New York Yan­kees. His first thought? “Do you re­ally ex­pect me to be­lieve this?” Yet it was true. They had rec­om­mended Mr. Rivera to part-time Yan­kees scout Chico Heron on the the­ory “if you re­fer a player to the Yan­kees who winds up sign­ing, you get a finder’s fee of two hun­dred dol­lars.”

Mr. Rivera pitched three in­nings for Panama’s na­tional team. He struck out five bat­ters, and al­lowed one hit. “I prob­a­bly don’t throw more than thirty or thirty-five pitches,” he re­called, “almost all fast­balls with one or two prim­i­tive change-ups mixed in.” Yan­kees scout Herb Ray­bourn was suit­ably im­pressed, and signed him to a mi­nor-league con­tract and $2,000 bonus. The rest, as they say, is his­tory. Mr. Rivera learned early on to “feel no pres­sure, just want to go out there and be me, and play the game I love.” His first World Se­ries in 1996 brought him great joy, “To be in that pile and cel­e­brate after we had to come back again to beat a team as good as the [At­lanta] Braves is an in­de­scrib­able feel­ing.” His re­li­gious faith was the per­fect com­ple­ment to his pow­er­ful arm in the 2003 play­off vic­tory over the Bos­ton Red Sox, “I am on my hands and knees, kiss­ing the [pitcher’s mound] rub­ber, say­ing a prayer to the Lord, cry­ing in the dirt.”

Yes, he made mis­takes on the field. A stun­ning game-win­ning home run to the Cleve­land In­di­ans’s Sandy Alo­mar Jr. in the 1997 Amer­i­can League di­vi­sional play­offs was “the great­est fail­ure of my young ca­reer.” Mr. Rivera was de­ter­mined to do “all I can to make sure it doesn’t hap­pen again.” With only a few ex­cep­tions, he did just that.

Plenty of space is also de­voted to his wife, Clara. “Mar­ry­ing her was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he wrote un­der a cap­tion of their wed­ding day in Novem­ber 1991. She’s the se­nior pas­tor of an evan­gel­i­cal Christian Church they founded sev­eral years ago. In Rivera’s mind, she’s the “mother of our three sons and a woman who is the real su­per­star of the fam­ily.” You can’t re­ceive much higher praise than this.

For base­ball fans, and ca­sual ob­servers, Mr. Rivera’s 19-year ca­reer is a mar­vel to be­hold. Ev­ery page of “The Closer” re­veals another layer of this sur­pris­ingly hum­ble man with an in­cred­i­ble tal­ent he only dis­cov­ered in adult­hood. Yan­kees fans like me are eter­nally glad that he did, and thank him for all the won­der­ful mem­o­ries he gave us. Michael Taube is a contributor to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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