Tom Kelly, manager of the Minnesota Twins, seemed to best sum up how opponents felt about Mariano River, the legendary closer who pitched for the New York Yankees from 1995 to 2013.
“He belongs in a higher league, if there is one,” Kelly said. “Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal.”
Rivera is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. His cut fastball was notorious – even though batters knew what was coming, they still couldn’t hit it. During Rivera’s 19-season career, the Yankees advanced to the postseason 17 times and won five World Series titles. In 2019, Rivera became the first player unanimously voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mariano Rivera’s Early Life
Rivera was born in 1969 in Puerto Caimito, Panama. He grew up in a two-room shack with no water or electricity. Despite living in poverty, Rivera said his childhood was a relatively happy one. He played baseball using balls made of wound-up fishing nets and tree branches for bats. He also competitively played soccer for a while, but gave it up when he injured an eye during a match.
He played as a utility player for the Panamá Oeste Vaqueros, a local amateur baseball team. The manager put Rivera into a game to pitch after the regular pitcher struggled in a playoff game. River had no experience as a pitcher, but did well. The coaches were impressed by his natural ability on the mound. Just two weeks later, he went to a Yankees tryout camp in Panama City. The Yankees eventually signed him to a free agent contract.
Rivera moved to the United States in 1990 to play in the minors. These next few years proved difficult, as Rivera didn’t know English and struggled to learn the language. What’s worse, he injured his elbow in 1991 and had to undergo surgery. His doctor, Frank Jobe, is famous for developing Tommy John surgery. Rivera didn’t need anything that drastic, but he had to have bone fragments removed from a ligament.
The Yankees didn’t see Rivera as much of a prospect, not at first. But as the season went on, Rivera’s fastball crept up from around 90 miles per hour to close to 100. That got the attention of the big club. Rivera made his major league debut with the Yankees on May 23, 1995.
Mariano Rivera’s Major League Career
Rivera began his career as a starter – he started 10 games in 1995 – but quickly shifted to a reliever role. In 1997, Rivera made his debut as a closer, which is where he truly began to shine. This was the year he developed his unbeatable cutter. In the words of Mike Sweeney of the Kansas City Royals, “You know what’s coming, but you know what’s coming in horror movies, too. It still gets you.”
Rivera’s cutter is attributed to his unique throwing style, bolstered by his incredibly flexible fingers. Rivera, a deeply religious man, attributed his cutter to God’s blessing. Rivera built up an entirely earned reputation as a dominant closer, and with it, several nicknames. He was known as “Mo” or “the Sandman.” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” would become his unofficial theme song.
In 2012, during batting practice at Kauffman Stadium, Rivera tore his ACL and developed a blood clot in his calf. This almost ended his career, but the legendary pitcher made a full recovery and returned to pitch one more season. He pitched his final game on Sept. 26, 2013, at Yankee Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays. Four days earlier, on a day the mayor of New York declared “Mariano Rivera Day,” the Yankees held a 50-minute pregame tribute to him, and Metallica even put on a live performance of “Enter Sandman” in his honor.
Over the course of Rivera’s career, the Yankees won five World Series: 1996 against the Atlanta Braves, three in a row from 1998 to 2000 against the San Diego Padres, Braves, and New York Mets, and in 2009 against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Of the 96 postseason games Rivera appeared in, he saved 42 of them, only blew five saves, and has one single loss—a notorious one, against the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, one blip on an otherwise astonishing record. Overall, Rivera has an impressive win-loss record of 82-60 and 652 saves. The 13-time All-Star holds the MLB record for most games finished (952). He spent his whole career playing on a Yankees team that featured some of the best players of the era, including shortstop Derek Jeter. Rivera and Jeter share a record with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker of the Detroit Tigers for the longest time teammates have played together.
Rivera and his wife live in Westchester, New York, and run a church, the Iglesia Refugio de Esperanza. He is an active philanthropist, working to help impoverished families in both the United States and Panama. In 2018, he was appointed to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, and in 2019 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts.