In 1990, Mariano Rivera was 20 years old, a high school dropout working on his father’s fishing boat and playing outfield for an amateur baseball team in his native Panama. When the squad’s starting pitcher sputtered during an important playoff game, the manager walked to the mound and pointed to Rivera in right field.
In this engaging memoir, Mo (as he is universally known in Baseball World) describes the scene: “Why is he looking at me? I think. He can’t mean me. I am not even a pitcher.” He does mean Rivera. “I know you aren’t a pitcher,” the manager tells him, “but we’re in a bind, and all we’re looking for is for you to throw strikes.” Mo replies, “Well, I’ll try, but I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
Turns out he did. Rivera’s catcher immediately sensed his talent and contacted a local scout, who arranged a tryout with the New York Yankees a few weeks later. Mo spent the morning mending fishing nets and took two buses to reach the field where the tryout was taking place. He showed up in “old green pants, a frayed shirt” and with a big toe poking out of his baseball shoes. The other players were “pointing and laughing” at him, but a week later the Yanks signed him to a contract. His bonus was $2,000, plus a new glove and a pair of cleats.
Five years later, Rivera was pitching for the Yankees. The next year, 1996, he helped them win the World Series, the first of his five championships. In 1997 he became the team’s full-time closer, the relief pitcher who comes in to seal a victory at the end of the game. Last year he retired as the best closer in baseball history, a surefire Hall of Famer.
Yes, I am a lifelong Yankees fan, and I have a Rivera jersey hanging in my closet, but his tale transcends team loyalties. It even transcends baseball. It is the story of a humble man of deep faith doing great things under enormous pressure. “I am an imperfect man on an imperfect journey,” he writes. And what a journey it’s been.
His home town had one paved road. His house had no indoor plumbing. He learned to play baseball on muddy flats when the tide was out. The players fashioned bats from tree branches, balls from fishing nets, gloves from cardboard boxes. Flying to the Yankees’ camp in Florida was his first time on a plane. He could not understand the signs in the Tampa airport, but at least there were a lot of Spanish-speakers around.
By the next year Mo was playing in Greensboro, N.C., a Spanish-free zone, and feeling totally lost, “like a sardine out of water, tangled in a net with no chance of escape. It feels really bad, completely overwhelming. I start to cry.” The fisherman’s son from Panama didn’t need English when he was throwing baseballs, however. He explains his rise through the minors this way: “I can do one thing better than just about anybody else: Put the ball exactly where I want.”
Then he got even better. In 1997, Rivera’s third season with the Yanks, he was playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza, another pitcher from Panama. Out of nowhere, Mo’s toss to Mendoza suddenly “breaks about a foot right when it is on top of him and . . . he almost misses it completely.” Rivera had accidentally discovered how to throw a cutter, perhaps the most devastating pitch ever devised. And he was astounded at his good fortune. “It is as if it is dropped straight from the heavens,” he writes, “as if I were out on my father’s boat and a million pounds of fish just swam into our nets.” That pitch brought Rivera not millions of sardines but millions of dollars.
The best part of this book charts his path to Las Grandes Ligas, the Big Leagues. Once he gets there the narrative, like a tiring pitcher, loses some of its zip, but he remains an insightful observer. Finishing baseball games is one of the hardest assignments in sports, and to Rivera a closer’s head is more important than his arm. “I am convinced that being fully committed to the moment, without any worries about the past or projections into the future, is the best attribute a closer can have,” he writes.
Mo strongly criticizes players who use drugs, including his teammate Alex Rodriguez. He resents guys who don’t hustle all the time, like another teammate, Robinson Cano. And he is candid about his own failures, especially in the 2001 World Series. He came in to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning of the seventh game and blew the save. “I have let the team down,” he admits.
Sport is always an “imperfect journey” filled with flaws and frustrations, and this is an imperfect book. It lacks a chart showing Rivera’s career statistics. And repeated references to his religious faith slow the story down. Still Mo’s credo is central to his character and career. He believes firmly that his talent is a “gift from the Lord,” and “He wants my pitching to help spread the good news about the Gospel of Jesus.” That gospel remains a critical part of his post-baseball life.
Rivera and his wife, Clara, have started an evangelical church and social service center, Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope, in the suburbs north of New York City. The name carries a touch of irony. For 19 years, major league batters who faced Mo Rivera never had much hope.
By Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey
Little, Brown. 280 pp. $28