One day, soon after Rivera’s debut, from their apartment in New Rochelle, Clara reached out to a woman she’d heard about through relatives, a leader in a Pentecostal denomination called the Church of God of Prophecy. This woman and her husband became Clara’s American support system, and soon Mariano’s as well—they prayed together, read the Bible, and even helped the Riveras set up their house. Rivera calls them “his spiritual parents”; the wife he calls “Mami.” It was Mami who eventually brought Mariano to God. “It was personal. Beautiful,” Rivera says. Today, whenever the Riveras go on vacation, they do so with 40-odd people, including parents both biological and spiritual. “I’m always with my family,” Rivera says. “Where I go, my family goes.”
We are sitting together during our final meeting, once again huddled in the Yankee dugout. I had come to see these conversations as a kind of Bible study, but this time, he seemed distracted. It was nearly a hundred degrees in the sun, and the season had settled into the long, hot stretch when opening day is long behind you and the playoffs are still more than a hundred games away. “I’m tired,” he said as he scooched up next to me on the bench, then inched rightward to get a better view of the opposition while they took their practice swings.
When I ask him what brought him to God, he says that, like everyone, he’s vulnerable to temptation. “When we’re still alive, when we’re still breathing, we will go through temptations,” he told me. “The thing is how we’re going to get through it. Again, we all fail. We all fall short.” But his view of his own born-again experience isn’t transactional: A person gives himself to God because he understands at his deepest core that he needs salvation. “Lord, here I am” is how he describes the moment. “I’m a sinner. I’m a sinner. Guess what. I’m surrendered to you. I don’t want to do it no more—whatever I’m doing that doesn’t please you, take it away from me. I surrender to you. Come, dwell in me.”
Rivera found his cutter shortly after being born again, and this, he says, is no coincidence. The story has been told before, but it bears repeating here. In the spring of 1997, Rivera was a conventional fastball pitcher, hurling heat straight at the plate and mixing that up with breaking and off-speed pitches. But during pitching practice one day, he suddenly found that he could not make his fastball stay on course. He had been having a tough spring, he says, thinking too much and feeling pressure to always be perfect. And here was this ball, out of nowhere, seemingly with a life of its own, and Rivera completely unable to control it. The bullpen catcher thought he was messing around, and the mystified pitching coach worked with Rivera for weeks, trying to help him get the ball to settle down. But he couldn’t. Or it wouldn’t. And so finally, according to Sports Illustrated, Rivera said, “I’m tired of working at this, let’s let it happen.” To me, he said only this: “In God is purposes.”
As part of his farewell tour, Rivera has been visiting with small groups of people connected with opposing ball clubs on the road—thanking hot-dog vendors and the group-sales guy for working hard. I saw him do this at Citi Field, on Memorial Day, before the first game of the Yankees’ series against the Mets. “It’s an honor and a privilege,” he began.
For seventeen years, Rivera has been perhaps baseball’s humblest hero, always thanking God in an understated way. He’s not in the news for beating up his model girlfriend or falling out with his agent—in fact, he’s hardly in the news at all. He doesn’t bad-mouth the people who write him checks. He has off days, but never slumps.
And now, in this victory lap, his discomfort with the spotlight shows. It is easier for him to be history’s greatest closer than it is for him to reveal himself, because he sees that making a display of his humility puts that all-important humility in doubt. Having lived in New York for nearly twenty years, he knows, on some level, that the fans, and even his teammates, are drawn more to his superstardom than they are to his innermost thoughts; the beliefs are of interest only because he’s so great. “I don’t want people to think that I do [church work] because I want attention,” he told me. “I don’t ever want that. I do it because it comes from my heart and not for the publicity.”
At Citi Field that day, the event had a staged feeling; it was heartfelt but also for show. The Mets returned the honor the following evening, asking him to throw out the first pitch—an exceptional, gracious gesture for an active pitcher on an opposing team. Later that night, he entered the game to pitch for real, with the Yankees ahead 1-0 in the ninth. The lowly Mets struck quickly, getting three consecutive hits off Rivera and stealing the game. It was the worst outing of Rivera’s career. And it was humbling. It may have been part of God’s plan, but with reporters later that night, the pitcher took full responsibility.