2:54pm

Tue May 6, 2014
Sports

With Faith And Focus, Mariano Rivera Became Baseball's 'Closer'

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 9:04 pm

Mariano Rivera has been called baseball's greatest closer. He was the relief pitcher the New York Yankees called in from the bullpen to get the final outs, typically when they held the lead. If the lead was small — and the Yankees won — Rivera was credited a save. In fact, he retired after last season with more career saves than any pitcher in Major League Baseball: 652.

He is revered for what he did and didn't do. He didn't behave scandalously, pick fights, take drugs, throw at batters' heads or chase big contract offers to other cities.

Rivera has now written a memoir about his life called The Closer, which he co-authored with Wayne Coffey. He tells NPR's Robert Siegel that he grew up very poor in Panama — and might have had a dramatically different life without baseball.

"I wanted to be a mechanic. So I would have saved all the money that I make to open my own shop," he says.


Interview Highlights

On handling the pressure of being a closer

It was not easy; you have to know who you are and your abilities and how to block all these things that are thrown at you. ... You don't pay attention to that. That's why you are a professional and why you do it, because you have to be able to block out all this stuff and pay attention to what you have to do.

On growing up poor

Kids here have gloves and bats and shoes and all that kind of things. I didn't have those things. We had enough for my father to bring food to the table. But at the same time, I was happy because I didn't have nothing, but I had everything — meaning we didn't have money to buy a baseball, so the kids in the neighborhood and I, we cut pieces of net or old clothing, and we'd wrap it up with tape. That was our baseball. And our gloves were cardboard.

On the importance of faith

It's all about faith — not only in baseball, but just normal life. 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.

On other players that point to the sky after a big play

I don't know who they're acknowledging. ... You have to shine in the middle of the adversity. You still have to point to the sky and say, "You know what, Lord? Thank you for this moment, because you permitted it."

On retirement

Retirement is wonderful. I'm happy. I'm doing what I wanted to do: serving the community, being involved in church and helping as many people as I can. I don't pretend to change the world — I wish I can do it. But if I change or touch someone's life, you don't know how many lives that person can touch or change. So I'm happy with that.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Mariano Rivera was baseball's greatest closer. He was the relief pitcher the New York Yankees called in from the bullpen to get the final outs, typically when they held the lead. If the lead was small and the Yankees won, Rivera was credited with a save. In fact, he retired after last season with more career saves than any pitcher in Major League Baseball history, 652.

He is revered for what he did, and for what he didn't do. He didn't behave scandalously, pick fights, take drugs, throw at batters' heads, or chase big contract offers to other cities.

With Wayne Coffey, Rivera has now written his story in a book called "The Closer." And he joins us from WFUV, which is fittingly in The Bronx.

Welcome to the program, Mariano Rivera.

MARIANO RIVERA: Thank you, Robert. Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: And I want to explain this to me. Let's say it was the bottom of the ninth in Fenway Park, you walk in from the bullpen. Thirty thousand people are screaming at you, booing you, insulting you. And you walk to the mound like it's another day at the office. How did you keep your cool all those years?

RIVERA: Well, it's not easy though. But you have to know who you are and your abilities in and you to block all these things that they throw at you. You know, tell you how worse you are and...

SIEGEL: They're saying terrible things to you as you're out there.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERA: My God. You don't even - you have no idea what they say. But it's a good though. As long they didn't throw things at you, it's OK with me.

SIEGEL: As long they don't throw things at you, you're saying.

RIVERA: Yes. Yes. That occasionally sometimes happens.

SIEGEL: But you've got to hear them. You've got to hear what people are yelling.

RIVERA: But you have to.

SIEGEL: You're only a hundred feet away from them.

RIVERA: Where I am, it was maybe 10 feet.

SIEGEL: In the bullpens. In the bullpens.

RIVERA: In the bullpens. But you don't pay attention to that. You just focus on it. That's why you are a professional and why you do it, because you have to be able to block all that stuff and pay attention to what you have to do.

SIEGEL: Which is more important: a pitcher's arm, what he's got in his arm, or what he's got in his brain?

RIVERA: More is what you got in your brain. You know, because I mean, well, you need the arm, too. Don't get me wrong. And both make a dangerous person.

SIEGEL: You mean dangerous for hitters, is what you're saying within...

RIVERA: Yeah. Yeah, dangerous for hitters. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, talking about baseball. No dangers with something else.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: I think you don't, you don't consider yourself a dangerous person outside of the ballpark.

RIVERA: No. No. No. No. A peaceful, peaceful person.

SIEGEL: Peaceful person.

RIVERA: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: You, Mariano Rivera, grew up a fisherman's son on Panama's Pacific Coast. If I ask you to explain to people who watched you all those years with the Yankees, how poor were you growing up, how would you answer that? How do you describe how poor you were?

RIVERA: OK, let's put it like this. Kids here have gloves and bats and shoes, and all that kind of things. I didn't have those things. You know, we have enough for my father to bring food at the table. But at the same time, I was happy because I didn't have nothing but I have everything. Meaning we didn't have basically money to buy a baseball, so the kids in the neighborhood and I, we cut piece of net or old clothing, and we'd wrap it up with tape. That was our baseball. And our gloves were cardboard.

SIEGEL: When you were signed to the New York Yankees, I think for $2,000, was that the big bonus?

RIVERA: Yes, a lot of money. Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: Had you, did you know at that time who Reggie Jackson was? Who Mickey Mantle was? Did you know these names?

RIVERA: No. I got no, no, no, no idea about those names. I mean I love the game of baseball but I was really naive when it comes to knowing, like, techniques or names or history about the player. I could care less about that. You know, as long as I was playing baseball, I was fine.

SIEGEL: In the Minor Leagues, when you first arrived to play baseball, you didn't know any English. And, you know, we, I...

RIVERA: I don't know English now.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: All right, in that case, I'd like to bring onto the program right now the person's whose fault that is that you don't know any English.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Because I located - I happened to locate by telephone a mortgage banker in Chico, California, Tim Cooper.

TIM COOPER: (Foreign language spoken)

RIVERA: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERA: That's great, man. That's good brother. How are you?

COOPER: Good. Good. It's like the days of our lives. You know?

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERA: Amen. Amen.

SIEGEL: OK. Now, I want to explain. I want to explain that way back, was this on the Gulf Coast Yankees in 1990? Mariano Rivera, you're pitching. Tim Cooper is the third baseman.

RIVERA: Yes.

SIEGEL: And, Tim, how was Mariano's English at that time?

COOPER: It was actually non-existent. You know? And we played a lot of charades. You know, so it was a lot of acting out. But, you know, I kind of saw some something special in Mariano. And we all were kind of dreaming to get to the big leagues. And I just wanted him to, if he was ever to make, you know, to be able to communicate so everyone really would know how great of a guy he was. And so, it's beautiful to see him, you know, achieve all the success he has. But as well for people to be able to know him for who he is through English.

SIEGEL: So he was your English teacher, Mariano.

RIVERA: Oh, yeah. A good one, too.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERA: I mean in, but in Tampa, I was OK because of me. We have a lot of players that spoke Spanish. But when we phase it, we went to North Carolina and we...

SIEGEL: You went to Greensboro, North Carolina,..

RIVERA: Yeah, it was in Greensboro, North Carolina. Now I need to speak English. My God, everything was like a ton of bricks on top of me. And I thank God for Tim because he was able to teach me and I was better after that.

SIEGEL: I'd just like to ask one question of both of you, before Tim Cooper, before we lose you here, which is when you're kids, when you're, you know, 19, 20, 21, whatever and you're down in the lower Minor Leagues, and everybody is hoping to make it to the Majors, is it evident to you who is going to make it and who is not going to make it?

Mariano, did you assume Tim had just as good a chance of seeing the Majors as you did? Or, Tim, did you...

RIVERA: Oh yeah, definitely.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you did.

RIVERA: Yeah, definitely. To me, I mean, yeah. Tim was have all the potential to be a Major League player. You know, I mean and believe me, that was my hope.

SIEGEL: And, Tim Cooper, did you see in Mariano Rivera a sure shot to the Majors? And did you think you had just as a good a shot?

COOPER: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I had a great shot. But, you know, Mariano was a - we were both blue-collar players and we were both middle late round draft picks, and so we weren't kind of bonus baby, can't-miss guys. And we just had to work our way through. And I think that, you know, that boded well for both of us. I mean I learned how to work hard and earn everything that I got in life, as well as Mariano.

I think that that, sometimes it works out better. I think, I believe in his case, he knew it was going to take hard work. And I believed that, you know, him subscribing to that work ethic, you know, from his family, got him to, you know, the success that he achieved thus far. So sometimes it's OK to take the long road because it teaches you work ethics.

SIEGEL: Well, Tim Cooper, thanks for joining with us and talking with Mariano Rivera here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COOPER: Perfect. Thanks for having me. Take care, Mariano. Talk to you soon.

RIVERA: Thank you, my brother. Alright then.

COOPER: All right. Bye and God bless.

SIEGEL: So, Mariano, let's say that you had never made it to the Major Leagues. Let's say that after, you know, five seasons or so, that was - what would you be doing today? What do you think you'd be?

RIVERA: Well, I mean let's see. If I didn't make to the big leagues, I wanted to be a mechanic. So I would save all the money that I make to put my own shop and learn about auto mechanics and do that.

SIEGEL: So if you've never made it past Class A Minor League ball, high Class A Minor League ball, you might have made enough money to start Mariano's Garage somewhere in Panama.

RIVERA: Yes, sir. Yeah, definitely.

SIEGEL: And you still would have probably married Clara, right? You would have been together...

RIVERA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I was - we married in '91. Yeah, in '90, by '92, we were married already. So yeah, she would have been there. She would have been the - maybe the secretary or something.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Now, you are a very religious Christian and this is very evident in your book. And you write about the hand of God in everyday life, even in baseball. But you're very careful to note that if you came by a great pitch, discovered the cut fastball, thanks to the Lord, you would say: It's not that the Lord wears pinstripes or wants Manny Ramirez to strike out or something like that. How do you square such an intense and literal faith in God with baseball?

RIVERA: Well, it's my belief. You know, it's all about faith, not only in baseball, but just normal life. My faith in the Lord is everything. One of the things, like, I was talking about with Tim Cooper, you know, was the language. If I didn't have faith that I would be able to overcome this giant wall, I mean I wouldn't do it. Because everything is applying faith. That's why I was able to walk out of circumstances like losing the game of World Series, Game 7 of the World Series. You know, I was fine. You know why? Because I give everything that I had. And if it wasn't for me that day, well, it wasn't, you know. But I wasn't going to second-guess my faith or ability, will of the game.

SIEGEL: What does it mean to you when a baseball player, after striking out a batter for the last out or hitting a homerun out of the park, points up to the sky and somehow acknowledges God at that moment?

RIVERA: I don't know who they're acknowledging. I don't know. I don't know who they're acknowledging, you know, because if it's God or the sky or I don't know. I never have done it. You know, I know who I trust.

SIEGEL: You didn't do that.

RIVERA: No. I never did that, you know, I mean, because I mean, it's all who we are, you know. Because if you point into the sky when you did something good and then when you did something bad or you when you strike out...

SIEGEL: Yeah. I never saw a guy when he strikes out and makes the last out of the game, yeah, point up to the sky and say, yeah...

RIVERA: You curse and you're throwing things. I mean, come on, you know. So what are you doing? You're only taking the good times, but the bad times, you won't. It doesn't happen like that for me. That's where you have to shine in the middle of the adversity. You still have to point to the sky and say, you know what, Lord? Thank you for this moment, because you permitted it.

SIEGEL: So how's retirement, Mariano?

RIVERA: Retirement is great, man. You should try it. You should try it. Retirement is wonderful. I'm happy, you know. I'm doing what I wanted to do.

SIEGEL: Which is?

RIVERA: Which is serving the community, you know, being involved in church and helping as many people as I can. And, you know, I don't pretend to change the world. I wish I can do it. But if I change or I touch someone's life, you don't know how many lives that person can touch or can change, you know. So I'm happy with that.

SIEGEL: Do you follow the Yankees?

RIVERA: Yes, I do.

SIEGEL: You watch the games on television?

RIVERA: Yes, I do.

SIEGEL: Have you yet had the feeling, you know, it's in the late innings, I wish I were, you know, I wish I were in the bullpen right now and I wish they would send me in to finish this one up?

RIVERA: I always have that feeling.

SIEGEL: You always have that feeling.

RIVERA: That feeling will never go away because that's something that I love. It always will be there.

SIEGEL: Well, Mariano Rivera, thank you very much for talking with us today about your book, "The Closer: My Story." It's been great.

RIVERA: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And the Yankees sure could've used Mariano in the bullpen last night. They gave up three runs in the eighth inning to lose to the Angels four to one. To stay tuned to our program, follow us on Twitter. I'm RSiegel47 and Melissa's @NPRMelissaBlock. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is @NPRATC and if you want more on books, you can follow our friends @NPRBooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.