Rivera hears the spirit talking to him “all the time,” he says—in dreams, in songs, and through the Bible. He also hears the spirit in prayer. When he reaches the mound, he always turns his back to the catcher for a minute and gazes down at the ball in his hand, and at that moment, he’s praying “that God watch not only me but my teammates. That no one get hurt,” he says. “The key is your heart,” Rivera says. “God don’t hear words.” Here he brings his hands up near his ears and, with his famous long fingers, makes jabbering mouth motions. “He goes direct to your heart and sees what is there.”
At one of our meetings, as sports reporters milled about the Yankees dugout, we found ourselves discussing Saint Augustine’s Confessions—the testimonial, written around 400 A.D., of a wayward young man who, weeping under a fig tree, hears a voice commanding him to read the Bible, a moment that changes him forever. “Saint. Saint,” Rivera repeated. “What is that?” Rivera was pretending not to understand: He has a reformer’s disdain for Catholicism’s hierarchical embellishments, including its catalogue of saints, which, he says, encourages men to worship other men. “When I read the Bible, I read that the Lord is jealous. He’s alone.” But when Augustine wrote his Confessions, I say, the Catholic Church was the only game in town. No, Rivera says. There was a church before that: the church of Jesus.
Like many Evangelicals, Rivera knows the Bible backward and forward, but he doesn’t use it like a hammer. His presence in the clubhouse is light and teasing—protective of younger pitchers, flirtatious with older women, warm with the numerous Yankees serfs who hang around waiting to fetch water and pack bags—and he sees it as his job to guide others, not to force them. “He’s not one of those people,” says Posada, who is Catholic. “If you sit down with Mariano for a long time, you’re going to hear a lot of quotes and a lot of things that the Bible says, but he doesn’t preach.” He does, however, believe the Bible is the Word of God, which makes him inflexible on certain matters. According to the second Book of Samuel, David had a best friend, a soul mate, whose name was Jonathan and whose love he treasured “passing the love of women.” Did you know, I asked Rivera during our first interview in the dugout, that some modern scholars argue that David and Jonathan may have been lovers?
“Lovers, meaning, lovers what?” he asked.
“Sexually,” I said.
Rivera threw his head back and laughed. Well, he said, the Bible doesn’t say that. Men can love each other, he said, looking out at his teammates on the field, and even lay down their lives for each other, without it being a sexual thing. On the question of homosexuality in sports, he gave a politician’s answer, accommodationist-sounding but firm in its conviction. “You want to be that, hey, you be it. If that’s going to make you happy, you be it. I do respect that. But I don’t share it,” he said. “If it’s the right thing to do—the Bible doesn’t tell me that.”
The next day, the locker room was dim and quiet, and I found Rivera sitting on a folding chair, tying his shoes. From behind, he looked like a movie still: the shaved head, the lanky frame, the No. 42 emblazoned on his back. When he turned around, he gave me his famous high-school-boyfriend smile, shook my hand, then ran off somewhere. I dawdled around his locker and wondered what it must be like, for a man like him, in a locker room like this, full of egotists and sinners, some of whom likely tolerate his saintliness and the adulation of the press only because of his extraordinary human ability. About steroids, Rivera says, “God has given you everything you need. ”
Rivera believes, along with most conservative Evangelicals, that the only way to Heaven is through Jesus. But what about the Jews, the atheists, the hedonist rookie, the lapsed journeyman, and the agnostic reporters who worship Rivera but not his God? Within minutes, Rivera unexpectedly came bouncing back and I ask: Would a loving God really condemn good people for not believing in him?
God doesn’t accept excuses, he says. “Someway, sometime, you’ve heard about Jesus. Even if you live in China, you would have heard. The Bible says we’re all going to be judged.” About his teammates in particular, Rivera says, “Christ came for the sinners, not for the saved. You don’t go to the doctor if you’re healthy.”