Three months into his final season, Rivera’s hagiography is already being written. He has, for seventeen years, been the Yankees’ closer, the specialist who arrives in the ninth inning to protect a tight lead, and at this he is better than anyone else who has ever played the game. With 21 saves so far this season, he is pitching as well as he ever has, at an age when other ballplayers have long since withered, and after a long winter recovering from surgery for a torn ACL, an injury that cut short his 2012 season and has ruined many players much younger than he. His teammates speak of him as a giant, and they express gratitude for the privilege of merely being able to walk in the clubhouse where he has walked; atop the Yankees’ Olympus, populated by Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Mantle, there’s already a name tag on Rivera’s throne. Sportswriters see him as a mystery, for while other closers have had brilliant seasons, even stretches of three or four, no one else has ever been as good for as long, not nearly. In trying to explain his unprecedented and ruthless two decades of dominance, they’ll cite Rivera’s natural athleticism and the simplicity of his mechanics and they’ll mention the advantages of having been tutored and coddled during his long career by the rich, paternalistic Yankees organization. Rivera acknowledges these things with gratitude—all true, he says. But in his view, his greatness has no earthly source.
“Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through him I have accomplished everything,” he tells me as we sit shoulder to shoulder in the Yankees dugout on a temperate, breezy spring day last month. “Not because of my strength. Only by his love, his mercy, and his strength.” It is the first of several conversations about God I have with Rivera, over several weeks, and in each meeting I find myself struck by how eager he is to put baseball aside and speak openly, and at length, about his faith. Even as Rivera denies that his talent belongs to him, I steal a look at his magic right arm. “You don’t own your gifts like a pair of jeans,” he says.
By that reasoning, I venture, you might say that even the cutter doesn’t belong to you.
“It doesn’t,” he answers, nodding emphatically. “It doesn’t. He could give it to anyone he wants, but you know what? He put it in me. He put it in me, for me to use it. To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”
[Photo Credit: Martin Schoeller]