Every converted Christian has a once-was-lost-now-am-found narrative, and Rivera is no exception. Most stories about his early years draw on a kind of romanticized poverty, in which he learns from his father working on a fishing boat about respect and determination and in his spare time plays baseball, using a mitt improvised from a milk carton (in one version I heard, from a minor-league friend, it was the crushed cardboard from a case of beer). In truth, back then, Rivera loved soccer much more than baseball and when asked recently could not name a single major-league pitcher from his boyhood.
Rivera hints at a dark period during his late teenage years, about which he will say very little: “I was doing the wrong things. It was just bad. If I kept going that way, I would have been dead,” he says. “The crowd I was hanging with wasn’t the right crowd. And with that, I’ll leave it like that.” It was around that time his cousin Vidal introduced him to the idea of an unmediated faith, which spoke to him in a way his childhood Catholicism had not. “He started talking about Christ and relationship and what he did for us on the Cross, and I said, ‘Wow.’ I was intrigued. I started reading the Bible and searching and find out who Christ was and is.”
When he was 20, the Yankees signed Rivera for $3,000, and he commenced the vagabond life of a minor-league player, living in Tampa, Greensboro, and Columbus over the next five years and traveling home to Panama in the winter to see his family and Clara, whom he knew from childhood and married in 1991. In those years, Rivera may have had his distractions, but to those around him, he seemed already completely focused on getting to the major leagues. Wherever Rivera sat on the bus was the quiet section, remembered his occasional roommate in the minors, Ron Frazier, and when the other guys went out after games to drink and play pool and chase girls, Rivera stayed in and got his rest. “I was one of those guys who drank beer and played pool,” says Frazier, now a high-school teacher on Long Island. “He would talk to me. He would say, ‘You got to keep your priorities straight.’ I just knew then and there he had it right.”
Nothing about Rivera’s major-league start, however, portended his awesome career. He had an operation on his elbow in 1992, and a full recovery was uncertain. And even though his fastball gained tremendous velocity in 1995, reaching around 95 miles an hour, he was far from a sure thing. He was called up that spring, when he was already 25 years old, an age at which many pitchers are beginning a decline they can only forestall with pitcherly savvy. “Another shabby outing by another young pitcher,” wrote Jack Curry in the New York Times in June. Even Rivera’s voice comes down through the decades as wavering, the sound of a rookie trying to act brave. “When I got in there, I had to be in control. I tried to be in control,” he told reporters in September after facing off against the A’s. Today, Rivera has disdain for the word trying, a verb he thinks indicates a less-than-total commitment. During one of our conversations, I was fiddling with my voice recorder and apologized for making him wait. “Don’t say, ‘Sorry, sorry,’ ” he told me, teasing. “Just get it done.”
In 1996, he earned a permanent spot in the Yankees bullpen, and the team won the World Series; by the next year, he was working full time as their closer. But off the field, life was a work-in-progress. He still had not given himself to God. “The commitment level as a younger man sometimes is a little bit different, a little bit difficult,” says Pettitte, who was Rivera’s peer in the minors and has watched his faith mature. “Sometimes you’re a little more distracted and not as focused on what you want your walk to be.” And maintaining a long-distance relationship with his wife and children (the oldest of three sons, Mariano Jr., was born in 1994) was tough on the family. While he played in the minors—and for his first several years in the majors—Rivera thought of himself as “living” in Panama with a job that took him frequently out of town, almost like the migrant workers who share his faith. For Clara, coming from a close-knit Panamanian family, Westchester, and the world of professional baseball, was an entirely alien universe. “I won’t say she was lonely,” Rivera says. “But we didn’t have no one here. No one.”