Legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera retired last year after 19 seasons, five World Series titles, and a Major League Baseball record 652 saves. The son of a Panamanian fisherman and one-time aspiring mechanic, Rivera charted an unlikely path to the big leagues, sculpting a storied career out of perseverance, fortuity, preternatural talent, and, according to him, God’s grace.
Now, Rivera has stepped off the pitcher’s mound and picked up the pen, writing a new memoir called The Closer. He recounts his journey with humor and humility; here are the highlights.
Target practice with iguanas
Growing up poor in the small village of Puerto Caimito, Panama, Rivera learned to play baseball with makeshift equipment. “We have no bat, so we find an old piece of wood or saw off a branch of a tree,” he writes. “We have no ball, so wrap up a rock with fishnet and tape. We have no baseball gloves, but it’s amazing what kind of pocket you can make out of a cardboad box or a six-pack carton, if you know how to fold it.”
Rivera also worked on his arm by launching rocks at iguanas, or “chicken of the trees,” which happened to be one of his favorite foods. “Most times I’d have a direct hit on the first try, then pick it up and sling it over my shoulder to bring home for dinner.”
Rivera’s Yankees tryout came after his first-ever game pitching
Rivera was originally a position player, or rather an any-position player, suiting up at shortstop, right field, or catcher for the Panama Oeste Vaqueros in the country’s top league. During a playoff game in which his team’s best pitcher was getting smacked around, the manager unexpectedly signaled for Rivera. “Why is he looking at me? I think. He can’t mean me. I am not even a pitcher,” he writes.
With no experience, Rivera ended up throwing seven-plus innings of scoreless ball, and two of his teammates subsequently arranged a tryout with the local Yankees scout. Rivera threw a total of nine pitches at that audition, but they were impressive enough to score a follow-up. About a week later, he signed a $2,000 contract with the Yankees.
Rivera prefers starting to relieving
Despite being the best relief pitcher the sport has ever seen, Rivera admits that he would still rather be a starter. (Rivera’s time in the minor leagues was spent as a starter—a pretty darn good one—and he didn’t move to the bullpen until 1996.) “I guess if you put me against a wall and force me to answer, I’d say I slightly prefer starting,” he writes, “but whatever the club needs, I will do my best.”
Rivera’s signature pitch was an accident
Much of Mariano Rivera’s greatness stems from his cut fastball, a nasty pitch that no major leaguer seems able to hit. But Rivera discovered his cutter by accident, in 1997.
One day, he was having a catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, using his standard four-seam fastball grip, and the ball developed a “mind of its own,” Rivera recalls, “moving late, on a horizontal plane.”
“I do not spend years searching for this pitch. I do not ask for it, or pray for it. All of a sudden it is there, a devastating baseball weapon.”
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