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Rivera, in the bullpen of the old Yankee Stadium, 2006.  

His faith does not relieve the pitcher of his responsibilities; he is no puppet, and God isn’t calling the pitches, Rivera tells me, laughing at the suggestion. The fact that his gifts come from God increases his obligation to honor them with the hard work and discipline for which he is famous, he says. When Rivera botches a save, it’s his failure—but it’s also part of God’s mysterious plan. “You have to do your part,” he says. “And he will do everything else. You have to be there. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but it doesn’t mean that he’s not in control. Sometimes it doesn’t go my way. I have lost the World Series. I have lost games in the regular season. I have lost games in the playoffs.”

It’s a two-tiered system, in which God controls ultimate outcomes from Heaven while down in the stadium Rivera takes perfect aim to win. Too many people claim a religious faith only when it’s convenient, Rivera says, when they want something or when they’re in a particular bind. “When you’re talking about the Lord, it’s your creator. Everything. Your lord. Your master. Your owner. Your everything. I do believe that if you call God our Lord, it means he rules over you. And sometimes we don’t let him do that. We don’t let that happen. We call him Lord, yes, but on circumstance. Not on everything. And how come if he’s our Lord, we don’t allow him to rule over everything?” The question is rhetorical. “Sometimes, we want to take charge, and that’s when everything goes wrong. I can tell you. When you think, Oh, I have it. I’m in control. Guess what? You are not.”

“God allows me to perform without putting too much stress on myself,” says Rivera’s teammate and fellow Christian Andy Pettitte. For Rivera, more crucially, his faith in a perfect, ordered universe permits him to fail. Jorge Posada, the former Yankee catcher who is one of Rivera’s closest friends, believes that Rivera’s mental agility in the face of disappointment is the best evidence of the strength of his faith—better than the tattered Bible he carries with him always or the Bible verse (Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) the folks at Nike have embroidered discreetly on his cleats (so discreetly that even up close I have to strain to see it). “People have to fail, and through his faith he’s able to do that a lot better than most,” Posada told me. “It’s so hard in the game of baseball, you are failing a lot. He’s a freak of nature. He’s able to put his failures behind him so quick.” Posada is thinking of two spectacular failures in particular, when Rivera lost the lead in the fourth game of the 1997 division series against the Indians and blew the seventh game of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I asked him, ‘How did you bounce back from ’97, how did you bounce back from 2001?’ ” Posada marveled. “I can’t do that. I still think about the mistakes we do in life.”

Rivera loves the Gospel, but when it comes to baseball, he takes an Old Testament view. If winning is an honor to God, then perhaps creating a paralyzing fear in opponents is an even greater one. In the Yankee dugout, I ask Rivera what part of the Bible he likes the best. He answers immediately: He relates to the Hebrew Bible’s King David, the poor shepherd boy who saved his people by throwing a rock at the head of a monster. He was, Rivera says in his quiet, Spanish-inflected voice, “a killer.” David grew up into the rich and powerful King of Israel, a man who was a lover, a poet, and a warrior, who pleased God, the Bible says, even as he failed to live up to his commandments. “This was a man, yes, who made a lot of mistakes, but he always knew who his source was,” Rivera tells me. David fell in love with Bathsheba as he spied her bathing and then, wanting her, sent her husband, Uriah, into battle, knowing he would meet his death. The illicit union produced a son, and God expressed his disapproval by making that baby sick. When the baby was ailing, the great king wept and fasted. But when he died, David stopped grieving, to the surprise of his servants, got up, and went back to work. “The baby dies,” Rivera says. And King David? “Wakes up. Wash it off. Shave. Eat. Get ready. And move forward. Never look back. Never ask once again.”