There is a Rochester connection with Mariano Rivera that predates Tuesday night’s appearance at the Press Radio-Club Day of Champions dinner by two decades. And it involves the Red Wings, who unwittingly played a role in a seminal moment in one of baseball’s most legendary and improbable careers.
Here’s the background. After playing a four-game set against the Wings at old Silver Stadium in the spring of 1995, Rivera and his Columbus Clippers teammates made the seven-hour bus trip down the Thruway and the Mass Pike for a series against the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. Upon arriving in town, Rivera received word that he was being promoted to the New York Yankees for the first time. The young man, who grew up in impoverished Panama using milk cartons for gloves and tree branches for bats, could barely contain his joy.
But the euphoria wouldn’t last long. After four starts—yes, the guy who would become the greatest closer in baseball history started out as a starter—Rivera and his ghastly 10.25 earned run average were sent back to Columbus, where he was promptly placed on the disabled list for two weeks with a sore shoulder. “Mo was devastated,” recalled legendary shortstop Derek Jeter, who was demoted the very same day. “We were damn near in tears.” Unbeknownst to Rivera until years later, his name also was being mentioned in trade talks with the Detroit Tigers, who were offering up veteran pitcher David Wells.
Rivera’s first International League start after returning from the DL just so happened to be against the Red Wings at Cooper Stadium in Columbus. It proved to be a career-changer. In the nightcap of a doubleheader on June 26, 1995, he threw a rain-shortened, five-inning no-hitter. But the no-no isn’t what captured the attention of then-Yankees general manager Gene Michael. What caused him to do a double take was the scouting report that said Rivera’s fastball consistently was clocked at 96 miles per hour, which was several mph faster than he had ever thrown before. Michael figured the Clippers’ speed gun had to be on the fritz, so he called a scouting friend from another team who had been at the game. His buddy’s speed gun registered similar readings.
Michael immediately put the kibosh on the trade talks with the Tigers. Within a week, Rivera was summoned back to the South Bronx, beginning a journey that in 2019 will reach its final destination: the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Current Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Rivera’s sudden velocity uptick “is one of the amazing mysteries in the history of sport.” Rivera, a devout Christian, doesn’t consider it a mystery at all, but rather “a special gift from God.” Although he wound up pitching eight scoreless innings in his next start with the Yankees following his second promotion, he continued to struggle as a starter before finding a home in the bullpen. He was a setup man in 1995 and ’96 before inheriting the closer’s role from John Wetteland. Nobody in baseball history would wind up doing a better job of saving his best for last than Rivera.
During his illustrious 19-year career—all in Yankee pinstripes—he saved a major league record 652 games, was named to 13 American League All-Star teams and won five World Series titles. Reggie Jackson was given the moniker “Mr. October,” but the true “Mr. October” is the man fans called “Mo.” In 96 post-season games, Rivera compiled an 8-1 won-loss mark and a major league record 42 saves and 0.70 ERA.
“Rivera is definitely the best at his position by a wider margin than any player at any position in the history of baseball,” said respected Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci. “There is Rivera, a gulf, and then every other closer.”
Interestingly, Rivera didn’t grow up in Puerto Caimito dreaming about becoming a baseball star. His aspirations were to become either a mechanic—because he liked to fix things—or a soccer legend: the Panamanian Pele. One thing this high school dropout and son of a commercial fisherman didn’t want to become was a fisherman, especially not after witnessing the rough seas claim his uncle’s life and almost swallow him up, too.
In addition to abject poverty, Rivera was forced to overcome ostracism from childhood peers who instigated fights with him because they said he stunk like fish. He also had to deal with an abusive father, who routinely beat him. In his best-selling autobiography, “The Closer,” Rivera wrote: “As the oldest boy, I am his favorite target. Sometimes I feel as if I am my father’s personal piñata.”
Rivera’s life would change forever when, as a 150-pound 20-year-old, he showed up at a Yankees tryout camp with a hole in his shoe and impressed the scouts enough with his pitching prowess to garner a contract that included a $2,000 signing bonus. Though regarded as a “fringe prospect,” Rivera had a strong rookie season with Tampa, leading the Florida State League in earned run average, and, slowly but surely, he climbed the rungs of the professional baseball ladder.
During his career, Rivera’s soothing demeanor became as legendary as his bat-breaking, cut fastball. He went out of his way to mentor teammates, particularly young ones who were struggling to make the jump to the big leagues like he once had. “He’s the best I’ve ever been around,” said longtime Yankees manager Joe Torre. “Not only the ability to pitch and perform under pressure, but the calm he puts over the clubhouse.” Even the opponents whom he consistently dominated admired him for his sublime abilities and quiet, dignified professionalism. “Few players,” wrote Verducci, “ever retired with more reverence from their peers.”
Rivera was the last MLB player to wear No. 42 regularly before baseball retired the number in memory of Jackie Robinson, the late Brooklyn Dodger who helped break the game’s color barrier in 1947. “Mariano carried himself with dignity and grace, and that made carrying the number a tribute to Jack,’’ said Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow. “I’ve always been proud and pleased that Mariano was the one chosen to wear that number because I think he brought something special to it.”
Rivera and his beloved wife, Clara, have long been philanthropically inclined. The Mariano Rivera Foundation donates $500,000 annually to help educate underprivileged children in the United States and Panama. In addition to funding church startups in Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, California and Florida, the Riveras opened a church in New Rochelle two years ago at a cost of $3 million. Clara serves as the pastor of the church, which is named Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope.) At a fundraiser this spring, one of Mariano’s fiercest rivals—former Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez—paid tribute, saying Rivera is “a better human being than he was a closer. I’ve always been a fan of the way he goes about his life, his charity. I love Mariano. I love his character. I love his heart more than anything.”
The modest Rivera appreciates the compliment, but doesn’t believe what he is doing is above and beyond the call of duty. “You always want to do the right thing,” he told reporters. “Just be helpful and make people happy.”
Three years after firing his last pitch in the big leagues, Rivera continues to do the right thing; continues to make people happy. Only these days, he’s delivering scholarships and hope instead of cut fastballs. These saves don’t show up in box scores.
Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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