The closer

Mariano Rivera breathes new life into New Rochelle church

In baseball, as in business, the closer is the one who seals the deal, who protects that fragile lead in the ninth and by extension, guards the tenuous, ever-shifting line between victory and defeat.

For more than 15 seasons, Mariano Rivera has been not merely the New York Yankees’ closer but baseball’s as well. The 12-time All-Star and five-time World Series champ holds the Major League Baseball records for career saves (608) and games finished (892) with a superb earned run average of 2.21.

That success led The New York Times – as stingy with its compliments as Rivera has been with runs – to describe him as “a kind of living god of baseball.”

“While his regular-season statistics are remarkable, in postseason play, where the pressure is at its highest, he is sui generis,” James Traub wrote in The New York Times Magazine’s June 29, 2010 cover story.

“Well, you look at the fishbowl in which he’s pitched, there’s no bigger stage than New York,” says Joe Torre, who managed him during the glory days of the late-1990s and the early part of this century. “The way he’s performed, the only way you can do it is if you’re comfortable in your own skin.”

Even in tough times, Torre says, Rivera never blamed teammates but instead encouraged them.

“He’d talk to the team and always it was spiritually based, because he has such a deep spirituality.”

How much longer Rivera, 44, will continue to dazzle on the diamond and in the clubhouse remains to be seen. He missed most of last season with a torn right ACL, sustained when he twisted his knee May 3 in a pregame ritual of shagging fly balls. There had been speculation that the 2012 season would be his last, but he vowed not to go out with an injury, underwent surgery and rehabilitation, inked a one-year contract for $10 million and told USA Today he is good to go for the Yanks’ 2013 season, which begins April 1 against the archrival Boston Red Sox.

Whatever happens, he will no doubt face it with the same equanimity he brings to bases-loaded situations. For all his stratospheric achievements, Mo, as he is affectionately known, has cut his deepest impression as a man who lives his faith. In an age when steroid abuse continues to haunt baseball, Rivera has been a refuge for troubled teammates, disenchanted fans and disadvantaged citizens alike.

The refuge is not merely metaphoric: Rivera, a Westchester County resident who’s married with three boys, and other members of his Pentecostal church have been working to rehabilitate the 122-year-old North Avenue Church in New Rochelle. Recently, he teamed with UHY Advisors NY for a church fundraiser at Siro’s in Manhattan, a restaurant in which he’s an investor. (See Watch in this issue.)

The North Avenue Church will serve as a house of worship, a day-care center, a food pantry, a clothing closet and a place for after-school programs.

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it is really a sport of the Americas, particularly Latin America. Rivera honed his kindness along with his baseball talent in his native Panama where he grew up the son of a fisherman. Like many who have become supernovas in their professions, Rivera was something of a late bloomer, flirting with the fishing industry, soccer and other baseball positions – shortstop, starter – before becoming the setup man for reliever John Wetteland on the magical Torre-led 1996 team that came from behind to beat the vaunted Atlanta Braves in the fall classic, restore Yankee pride after a World Series drought of 18 years and usher in a new Yankee dynasty.

Rivera, who had signed with the team in 1990, was one of the “core four” – including Derek Jeter, starter Andy Pettitte and now-retired catcher Jorge Posada – of the new dynasty, nurtured through the farm system. But it was Rivera, perhaps because of the delicacy of the reliever’s job, who came to symbolize the topsy-turvy, oft-triumphant fortunes of the Yankees. Those fortunes are encapsulated in his cutter, or cut fastball, a combo slider and fastball that breaks sharply on hitters, striking fear into the hearts of sluggers and bringing delight to the hearts of us fans.

Sportswriters have said that Rivera discovered the pitch accidentally while playing catch with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza in 1997. But to Mo it was no accident: “It was just from God.”

Becoming a born-again Christian in his 20s, Rivera has let his faith guide his pitching and his charitable work, which has included building an elementary school and church in Panama and annual gifts of $500,000 to underprivileged children there and in the United States. His glove is inscribed with “Phil 4:13,” for the fourth chapter, 13th verse of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

No doubt he has considered that inscription in moments of Kipling-esque triumph and disaster. Few fans will forget the gutsy, inspiring performance he turned in against the Red Sox in the 2003 American League Championship Series, hurling three scoreless innings in a nail-gnawing, come-from-behind win. Yet his finest hour may have come not in victory but in defeat when he blew a chance to close out the decisive seventh game of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Later, Rivera said he was glad he lost that day. Had he won, the Yanks would’ve been treated to a victory parade up Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, which meant teammate Enrique Wilson would’ve departed for his native Dominican Republic on the fateful American Airlines Flight 587 that crashed in Queens on Nov. 12 of that year, killing everyone aboard.

“It means I still have a friend,” Rivera said.

For the people of New Rochelle and the children of Panama and this country whose lives Rivera has touched, they have a friend as well.

 

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