Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Closer

To batters, there was no mystery he was good. But people wondered what made Mariano Rivera so good. In his new autobiography, Rivera says it was God.

Assessing Rivera’s life story, it doesn’t look like luck played much of a role.

RK1_0889.JPGThe pitcher known as the Sandman grew up in a poor family in Puerto Caimito, Panama that didn’t have enough money to buy a real baseball. He practiced his bullpen trot to the pitching mound by running to the family outhouse.

Rivera’s childhood wasn’t charmed. In his new book, The Closer, Rivera admits to dropping out of high school at age 16. He had a difficult time with his fisherman father, who once rammed his son’s head into a pillar. Not surprisingly, Rivera rebelled. He hung out at clubs and once chased somebody down a street wielding a machete. A young woman named Clara became the love of his life and helped him change his life direction.

Rivera gave up fishing after escaping from a capsized sardine boat. He thought he would do better as a mechanic, a tough job, but with less chance of drowning.

The young Rivera played sports for fun. His first love was soccer, but he gave it up after several ankle injuries. He turned to baseball. His initial position was shortstop, an interesting choice for a kid whose first glove was made out of cardboard. A Yankee scout in Panama happened to see him play, but didn’t see much promise.

A year later, Rivera offered to replace a pitcher having a really bad day. He was so impressive that a fellow teammate encouraged another Yankee scout to take another look. The scout saw Rivera’s raw, yet smooth, effortless delivery and signed the  small, skinny kid with holes in his baseball shoes to a contract for $3,000. He was now the property of the New York Yankees.

Then a starting pitcher, Rivera kicked around in the minor leagues for five years, including a rehabilitation stint for elbow surgery. The Yankees, never known as a patient master, thought about putting Rivera on the trading block until the night in Columbus when he pitched a no-hit shutout, throwing fastballs captured on radar guns at up to 96 mph, which was faster than he ever had thrown before. Rivera credited God for his newfound velocity. The Yankees called him up to The Show.

In his first start after the call-up on July 4, 1995, Rivera pitched eight scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox. He wasn’t anywhere that good the rest of the season and the Yankees decided to move him to the bullpen. The rest is history – 652 career saves, the most ever in Major League Baseball history.

Rivera’s ascendancy coincided with three other fabled Yankees – Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter. They became the Core Four – the nucleus of  Yankee teams that seemed perpetually in the World Series, where Rivera was even more deadly.

By the time Rivera became a closer, he had accidentally discovered how to throw a split-finger fastball – a devastating pitch that dived into the wrists of left-handed hitters and away from the barrel of bats of right-handers. Rivera credited God for the fortuitous accident. Batters were more profane in describing his splitter.

While marquee players, including teammate Alex Rodriguez, were unmasked and suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, Rivera made headlines on the field and no ripples off the field. His career was scandal free. Outside of baseball, he was known as a loving husband, a doting dad and a contributor of time and money to causes in which he believed. His final season in 2013 was a genuine farewell tour in every city and every stadium the Yankees played – even in Boston.

The CloserRivera confessed in his new book that he was nervous whenever he took the mound. But he also said his faith allowed him not to fester over painful losses, such as giving up a broken-bat single by Luis Gonzalez that drove in the winning run and gave the World Series trophy to the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks.

“It’s all about faith — not only in baseball, but just normal life,” Rivera explained to NPR’s Robert Siegel. “My faith in the Lord is everything. … That’s why I was able to walk out of circumstances like losing Game 7 of the World Series. I was fine. You know why? Because I gave everything that I had. And if wasn’t for me that day, well, it wasn’t. But I wasn’t going to second-guess my faith or ability.”

Then there was the night fans in Fenway Park heckled him in the bullpen about deaths in his family. Rivera blew a save that night, but never blamed anyone. Wayne Coffey, a sportswriter who worked with Rivera on The Closer, said as a pitcher, Rivera possessed an “almost supernatural ability to focus and block out everything.”

Of course, Rivera would give the credit for that to God.


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