I ask Rivera how it felt to lose the 2001 series, and he answers that God was in charge that day as he is on all others. “I did my best. I did everything within my power. I did everything within my power to win that game for us. Guess what? Didn’t happen. And you think I’m going to start like a child, Oh oh oh, I be crying? No, I did my best. My best wasn’t enough that day. I looked my boss into his eyes, and I said, ‘Boss, I did my best and my best wasn’t enough today.’ I can sleep comfortable and move forward.”
From his spot in the shade, Rivera contemplated the ancient story of David as he gazed upon the field, where his teammates were beginning batting practice. He had to go to work—bosses matter to him, as do punctuality and politeness.
There are those who feel that America’s pastime is like a religion, its parks, cathedrals, and its players like actors in a Passion play. “I don’t think that way,” Rivera says. “You get paid to play this game, and you have to produce, otherwise you won’t get paid. So it is a job.” When asked about his impending retirement, a crisis point in the life of any pro athlete, he says, “I can’t wait.”
When the season ends, after what he hopes will be his sixth World Series win, Rivera will devote himself to working in an actual church—his church, the wreck of a long-ago Presbyterian congregation purchased from the City of New Rochelle in 2011 and renovated, he says, at a cost of $2.5 million. It doesn’t look like much now—a stone shell with a shingled roof surrounded by heaps of dirt—but Rivera says it will be open for business in a month or two. New stained-glass windows were recently installed, he says, and inside the sanctuary, “that church is glowing, a kind of yellow-goldish color because the sun hits the stained glass and it looks, oh my God, fantastic.” The church is named Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope. Clara, Rivera’s wife, will be its pastor. She is not yet ordained, but then that is not so unusual for a church like this one.
The Riveras already have a Christian-Pentecostal congregation waiting in the wings, a group of several dozen people who have been worshipping weekly at their home in Purchase for years, an organic outgrowth of an informal Bible study they started with a few other couples. “My house is kind of small,” he explains. “We only fit like 50 people, 60 people tops. Forty, average. We have whites, we have blacks, we have Hispanics. We’ll have all kinds. It don’t matter. As long as you love Christ, we in it. And if you don’t love him, we will work with you so we put you on the right path.” During the season, Rivera often worships in a Sunday-morning “Baseball Chapel,” led in the clubhouse by pastor George McGovern, but he comes to Clara’s services when he can, according to friends, sitting in the back row with his hand in the air, tears streaming down his cheeks.
But when Rivera says “church,” as in “My plan after baseball is to focus on church,” he means something much bigger than a new space to pray in. What he has in mind is a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of Christ, a spiritual and material outreach without boundaries, giving help to whoever needs it wherever they are, in the form of school supplies, haircuts, hot meals, Thanksgiving turkeys, toys at Christmas, college scholarships, bed sheets and bath soap for Sandy victims, and on and on. (The Mariano Rivera Foundation already donates between $500,000 and a million dollars each year.) He wants to keep funding church start-ups, as he’s already done in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, California, and Florida, not to mention New York. “In Panama, we have done I don’t know how many,” he says. Here, he wants to buy the building next to the church in New Rochelle and make it into an after-school program for at-risk kids. He and Clara are even talking about starting a seminary. Refuge of Hope, then, is more than a bricks-and-mortar retirement hobby; it’s a dream of a network of congregations and charities and pastors of the kind that used to be called, quaintly, a denomination.
This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Rivera is part of a huge, transnational religious movement, in which Latinos are turning away from religion in its institutionalized, hierarchical forms, especially Catholicism, and embracing the more intimate, do-it-yourself Pentecostal church. Like the vibrant tent revivals of the nineteenth-century American frontier, this is a grassroots phenomenon, fueled by transient populations of migrant workers, who are seeking a more emotional and immediate connection with God than what’s on offer in more established congregations. House churches like the Riveras’ are commonplace, and so are women pastors. Pentecostalism puts its focus on the Holy Spirit, the part of the Trinity that dwells within people and acts like an inner guide; it’s an emotional faith. At a typical Hispanic Pentecostal church you won’t see congregants passively listening to a minister sermonize, and you probably won’t see the lyrics to a hymn printed on a drop-down video screen. You’ll see lots of people underlining in their Bibles, and when they sing, they’ll be on their feet, praying with their whole body. Pentecostals tend to believe in healing, visions, and miracles, and some describe being baptized by the Holy Spirit, known as “speaking in tongues,” which looks to an outsider like nothing more than a protracted orgasm, with keening and babbling and uncontrolled shuddering or twitching. “I haven’t been baptized with the Holy Spirit,” Rivera says. “But I have seen it, and it’s beautiful. That’s what I want.”