- - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE CLOSER: MY STORY
By Mariano Rivera (with Wayne Coffey)
Little, Brown, $28, 280 pages

In the book of New York Yankees lore, a special chapter will always be reserved for Mariano Rivera.

He’s one of the greatest relief pitchers in Major League Baseball history. Mr. Rivera holds various personal records, including career saves (652) and lowest earned-run average (0.70) and saves (42) in the playoffs. A 13-time All-Star, he helped the Yankees win five World Series. His uniform was retired in 2013.

It’s an amazing story, especially when you consider Mr. Rivera’s background. He grew up dirt poor in Puerto Caimito, a tiny Panamanian fishing village. He wanted to be a soccer star like Pele. He had never heard of baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. When he boarded a plane for the first time in his life to play pro baseball, he couldn’t have guessed the incredible journey he was about to take.

Mr. Rivera recently wrote his autobiography, “The Closer: My Story,” aided by New York Daily News sports journalist Wayne Coffey. This book, much like its impressive subject, is free from scandal and innuendo. Rather, it’s a deeply personal tale about hard work, perseverance and an unbridled passion for baseball. Pitch by pitch, and season by season, we witness Mr. Rivera’s transformation from a mere mortal into a baseball giant.

His initial route to pro baseball was almost comical.

Mr. Rivera played for the Panama Oeste Vaqueros at age 18. He favorite position was right field. His manager asked him to pitch one day, something he hadn’t done “since I threw a few innings for the provincial team when I was fourteen.” He took the mound in the second inning, throwing the ball “probably no more than eighty-five miles per hour,” but he was “getting ahead of everybody, hitting corners, pitching quickly. We wind up winning the game.”

After this impressive performance, which he thought would be a “one-day fling,” Mr. Rivera returned to his usual schedule. Two teammates, Emilio Gaes and Claudino Hernandez, showed up at his house two weeks later to inform him they’ve arranged a tryout with the New York Yankees. His first thought? “Do you really expect me to believe this?” Yet it was true. They had recommended Mr. Rivera to part-time Yankees scout Chico Heron on the theory “if you refer a player to the Yankees who winds up signing, you get a finder’s fee of two hundred dollars.”

Mr. Rivera pitched three innings for Panama’s national team. He struck out five batters, and allowed one hit. “I probably don’t throw more than thirty or thirty-five pitches,” he recalled, “almost all fastballs with one or two primitive change-ups mixed in.” Yankees scout Herb Raybourn was suitably impressed, and signed him to a minor-league contract and $2,000 bonus.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Mr. Rivera learned early on to “feel no pressure, just want to go out there and be me, and play the game I love.” His first World Series in 1996 brought him great joy, “To be in that pile and celebrate after we had to come back again to beat a team as good as the [Atlanta] Braves is an indescribable feeling.” His religious faith was the perfect complement to his powerful arm in the 2003 playoff victory over the Boston Red Sox, “I am on my hands and knees, kissing the [pitcher’s mound] rubber, saying a prayer to the Lord, crying in the dirt.”

Yes, he made mistakes on the field. A stunning game-winning home run to the Cleveland Indians’s Sandy Alomar Jr. in the 1997 American League divisional playoffs was “the greatest failure of my young career.” Mr. Rivera was determined to do “all I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” With only a few exceptions, he did just that.

Plenty of space is also devoted to his wife, Clara. “Marrying her was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he wrote under a caption of their wedding day in November 1991. She’s the senior pastor of an evangelical Christian Church they founded several years ago. In Rivera’s mind, she’s the “mother of our three sons and a woman who is the real superstar of the family.” You can’t receive much higher praise than this.

For baseball fans, and casual observers, Mr. Rivera’s 19-year career is a marvel to behold. Every page of “The Closer” reveals another layer of this surprisingly humble man with an incredible talent he only discovered in adulthood. Yankees fans like me are eternally glad that he did, and thank him for all the wonderful memories he gave us.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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