The rope that launches from the Panamanian waters to lash Mariano Rivera in the chest feels like a “braided bazooka.”
It is close to 4 a.m. one morning around 1988, when the fish-finding sonar on Rivera’s father’s hulking commercial sardine boat, Lisa, blinks red, according to the pitcher’s 2014 autobiography with Wayne Coffey. They hit the jackpot for fishing in the Gulf of Panama, their nets bursting with a haul of about 80 to 90 tons of sardines. But his father, known as “Captain Mariano,” and the crew want more. “We had to fill the boat up,” Rivera told the New York Daily News in 2013, saying the boat could hold between 110 and 112 tons.
Working in darkness, Rivera — an 18-year-old who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to work six days a week on his father’s boat, NJ.com reported — is standing a few feet away from his uncle, Miguel. Unbeknownst to the nine-person crew, one of the pulley flaps that control the ropes to reel in the sardines is not secured. When Rivera tells a crew member to let go of his rope, the line shoots off from a hydraulic mechanism at a scary clip. The motion is instantaneous, leaving the crew with no time to get out of the way.
Scraped up with bruised ribs and a missing tooth, Rivera, who is only working on his dad’s boat to make $50 a week for mechanic school, comes out of the accident mostly unscathed. The same could not be said of Miguel, as the rope “[knocks] the 240-pound man across the ship as if he were a palm frond,” leaving him crashing face-first into a metal edge on the boat.
“His face is split open, blood gushing everywhere. He is badly hurt. He is screaming in pain,” Rivera says, according to “The Closer.” “It is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen."
“Stop! Help! Miguel is hurt!" Rivera recalls people yelling. “Call for help! Quick! He’s hurt bad!”
His father, Mariano Rivera Palacios, says the fateful trip steered Rivera further away from fishing and closer toward a hobby that involved a glove made out of cardboard: baseball. “From that moment, I think he became fearful,” Rivera Palacios told the Associated Press in 2013. “From then on he began to practice more and go to the stadium.”
On Tuesday, Rivera, the dominant ex-closer for the New York Yankees, became the first player in history elected unanimously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The vote highlights again his humble roots in Puerto Caimito, a small, poor village in Panama that depends largely on sardine fishing. “This was just beyond my imagination,” Rivera, 49, said on a conference call Tuesday, according to ESPN. “Just to be considered a Hall of Famer is an honor, but to be unanimous is just amazing.”
The most constant smell of Rivera’s life was more likely to be that of the sardines of Panama than the Kentucky bluegrass of Yankee Stadium. While Rivera’s selection in his first year of eligibility was something of a foregone conclusion, the unanimous election for the player who has been called the greatest closer of all-time was celebrated by many, including a congratulatory tweet from President Trump. “Not only a great player but a great person,” Trump said.
But three decades earlier, there was terror on the Lisa. Rivera remembers his father, the boat’s captain, racing from the upstairs cabin to see “his brother looking as if he’d taken a machete to the face,” according to “The Closer.” Rivera couldn’t believe this could happen to the uncle who helped make sense of his father’s violent discipline toward him.
“An unfastened flap, an out-of-control rope, and seconds later, an uncle I love — the man who gently explained to me why my father is so strict and quick with the belt — seems about to die before my eyes,” Rivera says. "I wish I could do something. I wish I could do anything.”
When the Coast Guard responded minutes later that morning, Miguel, a diabetic, was taken to the nearest hospital. But his injuries were too severe. A month later, Rivera’s uncle was dead. Hundreds attended his uncle’s funeral and burial in Puerto Caimito. “It is the first time I remember seeing my father cry,” Rivera says in his book.
Yet, on the final day of mourning, the crew returned to the water, abiding by the mantra Rivera Palacios lived by as a sardine-boat captain: The nets don’t make money on the boat. They only make money in the water.
In the years that followed, Rivera’s fishing’s influence on his future in baseball was crystallized. Coming home smelling of sardines every night, Rivera would make baseballs out of “fishing net wrapped with electrical tape,” according to NJ.com. If the makeshift balls weren’t available, he’d fling stones along the shore in between boating excursions, the New York Times reported.
Fishing was never meant to be Rivera’s life, a notion that was confirmed not just that early morning on the water but also one year later, when his father’s boat capsized. “A wave of water soaks me as I hang on to the side of the boat,” Rivera said in “The Closer.” “Do I want to drown to death, or get eaten by a shark? Nineteen years of age, and these are my options.”
That near-fatal excursion allowed him to play baseball even more, according to his autobiography. (He never got to mechanic school.)
“On the boat I liked looking at all the different fish, but my father’s life was not for me,” Rivera told Sports Illustrated in 1997. “There’s no future in fishing.”
Near the end of his son’s career, Rivera Palacios didn’t wonder what could have been if the fisherman’s son turned into the fisherman. Instead, he was just proud his fishing could be a minor detail for one of the most decorated pitchers ever.
“Sometimes when I’m in Yankee Stadium, I’m watching from the stands and I say to myself: ‘Look where Mariano has come from — from Puerto Caimito, a town full of mud and a stinking fish meal plants,' " he told the AP. "But this is what feeds us.”