For the first time in history, the 425 voters of the Baseball Hall of Fame elected a Major League Baseball player, Mariano Rivera, by a unanimous vote. Rivera’s latest accomplishment is just as much a testament to the man as to his career.
Mariano Rivera was born in Panama. Known for his athleticism, he was drafted by the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher in the early 1990s. It was around this time that Rivera became a born-again Christian. Moving his way up to the Major Leagues in 1995, Rivera did not achieve great success as a starter, but, late in that season, began pitching very well out of the bullpen and helped lead the Yankees to their first postseason appearance since 1981. The Yankees lost the 1995 postseason, sometimes blamed on not using Rivera enough, but came back with a purpose with Rivera serving as the two-inning set-up man on the 1996 World Series team. He became the closer for the Yankees the next year and accidentally discovered his famous cutter pitch while playing catch. The cutter was not a natural pitch for Rivera and he actually tried to eliminate it for a month before deciding the dipping movement on this special fastball was a gift from God. The rest is history.
Armed with just a single pitch, his cutter, and a pitching glove inscribed with Phil 4:13 (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me), Rivera helped the New York Yankees to further World Series championships in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009. Over 19 seasons, Rivera became the all-time major league baseball saves leader. Yet, he was even better in the postseason. His 42 postseason saves and Earned Run Average of 0.70 are also major league records.
What makes Rivera’s accomplishments all the more remarkable is that he came to success during the Steroid Era without having partaken in the substance at a time when it would have been most tempting for a young rookie to do so. However, to cheat was not in Rivera’s character. Winning was important to him but decency, sportsmanship, and true friendship meant more. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident in what many consider to the greatest World Series ever played, the World Series of 2001 held shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The New York Yankees had been baseball’s dominant team in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, baseball eventually resumed and the Yankees found themselves in the World Series again.
If there was ever a World Series that the nation wanted the New York Yankees to win it was in 2001. The remnants of the World Trade Center were still burning and President George W. Bush was cheered by a Yankee Stadium crowd in New York City as no president has been before or since while America’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani cheered on his team with a Yankee hat emblazoned with the initials of the New York City Police and Fire Departments. Rivera’s Yankees had to win the World Series. It was not to be.
With the Yankees leading 2 to 1 in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 and Rivera on the mound, the greatest postseason pitcher in history uncharacteristically blew the lead and the Yankees lost the World Series. This heartbreaking defeat did not seem understandable to many Yankee fans but Rivera took it in stride and said later he was glad that the Yankees lost the Series. If the Yankees had won, his teammate and friend Enrique Wilson would have remained in New York and been on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in New York City on November 12, 2001.
In victory, and in the rarest of defeats, Rivera established himself along with a select few major league players known for not only record-breaking accomplishments but also their tremendous character such as Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, and Jackie Robinson. Ironically, Rivera was the last player allowed to wear Robinson’s No. 42 on his uniform after Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number in 1997 (all players wearing 42 at the time of the number being retired were grandfathered). When Rivera retired in 2013, many tributes poured into him from not only his fellow Yankees but also other teams. Two tributes were especially poignant. The first was a touching and often humorous tribute from the rival Boston Red Sox and their fans. The second was from the Yankees traditional National League rivals, the Dodgers. During the Dodger tribute to Rivera, Robinson’s widow Rachel spoke to Mariano, the last Major League ballplayer to wear hear husband’s number as his own.
While his Hall of Fame balloting results are a tremendous, record breaking accomplishment of their own, Rivera would likely be the first to tell us that the glory does not belong to him and that what matters even more than life on the field is life off the field.
Since retiring from baseball Rivera has spent much time with his wife and three sons and is involved in church, church planting, schools, and other interests. He is a philanthropist and businessman, living just north of the city of New York where he first entered the American stage.
Keeping faith in these middle innings of his life, Mariano Rivera should continue to be a shining example for all time as to what you can accomplish if you work hard and give God the glory regardless of the circumstances. Closers finish well and like another great Yankee named Mickey Mantle, who found Jesus in his last days, Rivera’s greatest innings may be yet to come.