Today, the baseball-writer in me posts...
Tragedy struck yesterday when Mariano Rivera, unquestionably the greatest closer in the history of professional baseball, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while chasing a fly ball during batting practice before the Yankees’ game against the Royals. As he ran towards centerfield, the 42 year-old pitcher’s knee buckled and he crashed into the wall, falling onto the warning track dirt, clutching his right knee as he grimaced in pain.
This freak-accident for lack of a better term, most likely ended the career of a first-ballot hall of famer who many (myself included) feel privileged to watch. To date Rivera still has the career record for saves with 608 and many believed that this year was to be his farewell season. Now it appears that his epic story has abruptly come to an end, caused by a simple misstep while shagging balls in the outfield.
Back in 2004 I submitted a short piece on “The Sandman” for a publication by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was later reprinted in Baseball-Almanac and has been quoted in a number of publications since. Titled "A Man With A Message" the gist of the article revolved around Rivera’s religious faith:
Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees’ top relief pitcher, is arguably the most effective closer in postseason baseball history, recording final outs in three Yankee world title seasons (1998, 1999 and 2000). He also owns the Major League record for most postseason saves with twenty-five, as well as most World Series saves with eight. Rivera also established the longest scoreless innings streak in postseason play with thirty-three innings pitched and was named as the World Series MVP in 1999 and the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series in 2003. He currently leads the Yankees as the club’s all-time saves leader with two hundred eighty-three and boasts an incredible Earned Run Average (runs given up by a pitcher per nine innings pitched) below 1.00 in postseason play.
With such a tremendous gift it is no wonder that Rivera is a deeply religious man who can often be seen reading the Bible in the Yankees’ clubhouse before and after games. He once joked in an interview that he thought “the Good Lord was a Yankee.” Active in the Christian community, Rivera often lends his time, talent and testimonies to numerous religious organizations that are both sports and non-sports related. Not long ago, he financed the construction of a church in his native Panama City and announced his intention to become an evangelical minister at the conclusion of his baseball career. If he retires after the 2007 season, Mariano will be eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. Although Cooperstown has been historically hesitant to embrace relievers, the consensus of most experts is that Rivera will have little trouble being elected, most likely on his first attempt.
During an interview with Sports Spectrum Magazine, a leading Christian-based sports publication, Rivera spoke about adversity and how it led him to faith. “Every time I was going through a hard time, somebody was there to help. It’s not too often when you play in the minor leagues that a coach will tell you he will take care of your son while you stay with your wife at the hospital. My pitching coach did that, and one lady from Panama-I never knew her (before)-offered to stay with my wife while I was playing. Even though I had nobody here, I was never alone. That made me accept Jesus as my Savior. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. It was the Lord putting someone there for me.”
In a sports world that is now dominated by media-hype and big endorsement contracts, players like Rivera and their traditional values provide a glimmer of hope that there are still positive role models worthy of our children’s attention. Mariano is well aware of the responsibilities that go with being a professional athlete and is constantly working to promote Christian ministries that focus on kids. Last season, he appeared courtesy of Athletes in Action at two Staten Island churches sharing his faith and his desire to be a worthy “hero”. A few weeks later over one hundred and seventy five fans participating in the Operation Blessing Back to School Challenge watched him beat the Toronto Blue Jays in extra innings. All attendees from the group were “being rewarded for pledging to say in school and off drugs while committing to excel for the Glory of God with integrity.”
Unfortunately today, many athletes do not appreciate their blessings or use their time in the spotlight for the betterment of others. Someone once said in regards to the selfishness of the modern athlete, “The players of yesterday played for the name on the front of the uniform. The players of today play for the name on the back.” Some players, like Rivera, not only exhibit loyalty to their team, but also a loyalty to their religious convictions as well. Perhaps that is why he dominates like no other on the mound and will go down in history as one of the greatest clutch performers in all of baseball.
Few athletes have dominated at their respective position (in any sport) like Mariano Rivera. He now sits aside a very exclusive group of game-changing icons that include Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. With his tragic and premature departure, both the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball will no doubt struggle to find a suitable replacement. We fans will also have to look long and hard to find an athlete of this caliber.
Thanks Mo. Get well.