As anyone who follows baseball knows, Mariano Rivera has built his career on one pitch. A cut fastball, or “cutter,” it travels at 90 or 92 miles an hour, and then, a few feet before it reaches home plate, it moves half a foot off course, a trick of physics that looks like telekinesis. Rivera’s cutter is virtually unhittable, by consensus and by the numbers, but the wasteland of broken bats that litter the plate when he is on the mound is all the proof anyone needs. A Rivera inning has thus been compared to a horror movie: The excitement is sharpened, not dulled, by the fact that everyone—the players, the ticket holders, and Rivera himself—knows exactly what’s coming. Consistency and predictability may be the dullest of virtues, but in Rivera, the anchor reliever for a nearly two-decade Yankees dynasty who will retire at the end of this season at 43, consistency itself is manifest as a superpower.
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.”
Sportswriters often discount athletes’ religiosity as a sideshow, and the secular viewers of cable TV may prefer the bloodless scrutiny of slo-mo video than to give credit to divine causes, but the full story of Rivera’s career is unmistakably a story about faith. On the mound, Rivera is implacable, a warrior with the Buddha’s face. But talking about faith with Rivera is like opening a bottle; years of feeling come out. He speaks less like a theologian than like an enthusiastic believer, channeling all his considerable charisma, curiosity, and preternatural seriousness into the conveyance of passion. His is not a questioning faith but a conviction, invulnerable to attacks from skeptics and doubters, and so his answers to existentially vexing questions can sound to some uncomfortably neat. But Rivera isn’t worried about rationalist complaints because it is in certitude that he finds his strength.
Baseball is full of nutters and head cases, and closers are among the nuttiest of them all—the game’s wildest men and drama queens, the gloaters and the long-haired fist pumpers. Closers employ all kinds of mental tricks to shut down the voices in their heads: They pretend they’re back in the minors where nothing really counts, or they visualize blondes behind home plate. But Rivera doesn’t need tricks. His eye is on a bigger prize, which is to say Heaven, and that has a way of placing more quotidian anxieties about stats, standings, and contract deals into perspective. “At the end!” he says with so much suppressed excitement I think he might explode. “That’s where I want to become a giant. That’s where it counts. It doesn’t matter now.” The certain knowledge that God is at his side, even on the mound, gives Rivera a kind of mental equilibrium that most players (and most people) can only yearn for, a profound mixture of fatalism and personal responsibility best captured by the AA mantra, the “Serenity Prayer”: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Rivera likes to win—“everybody does,” he says—and he believes that giving his life to Christ puts him on the right team. “As long as you cross the [finish] line with the Lord, you’re a winner.”