By Paul Post
Jerseys of N.Y. Yankee teammates and baseballs that mark career milestones are high on the list of Mariano Rivera’s prized collectibles.
However, nothing compares to the five World Series rings he’s won while establishing himself as the greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen.
Rivera, currently out with a season-ending knee injury, talked about his accomplishments and plans to pitch again next year during a mid-August visit to historic Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“I’m definitely trying to get in shape as quickly as possible,” he said. “I want to be able to pitch next year. My rehab’s going great. I’m working hard, trying to do my best. Like I said, I want to come back as quickly as possible. But taking your time is also important.”
Rivera, baseball’s all-time saves leader, briefly pitched in nearby Albany, N.Y., while working his way up to The Bronx.
“On the way here (Saratoga), I passed by the (Albany) airport,” he said. “I have some great memories. How far is Albany from here, about 30 miles? It’s kind of like coming back home. It’s wonderful.”
This summer was an adjustment for “Mo,” the first one in nearly two decades that he wasn’t in Yankee pinstripes. On May 3, Rivera was injured while shagging fly balls in the outfield before a game in Kansas City. Falling to the warning track, he suffered a torn ACL. After waiting for the swelling to go down, he underwent a successful surgery on June 12.
What has he missed most?
“Playing,” he said emphatically. “I miss that. Playing.”
However, the layoff has allowed Rivera to devote more time to his charity, the Mariano Rivera Foundation, which annually distributes more than $500,000 to underprivileged children in the U.S. and his native Panama.
“We try to send kids to college, kids that have less than us,” he said. “We have the opportunity to give them hope. I always said, if I can touch one life, you don’t know how many lives that life can touch.
“I love to do that,” he added. “I’ve been blessed in receiving, so I believe in giving back. Doing that with the community is my mission. It’s not just about yourself. It’s about helping others.”
Rivera’s rise to the big leagues wasn’t meteoric by any means. Signed in 1990, he spent that first season in rookie ball with the Gulf Coast League Yankees, and he opened eyes by allowing only one earned run in 52 innings (0.17 ERA), mostly in relief. However, a seven-inning no-hit performance on the final day set the stage for great things to come.
After a solid 1991 campaign at Class-A Greensboro, Rivera was moved up to the “high A” Florida State League in 1992, pitching at Fort Lauderdale. While having another good year (5-3, 2.28 ERA), he suffered the first major setback of his pro career when an elbow injury brought his season to an early close. It was thought he might need “Tommy John” surgery, but Rivera rehabilitated himself without it and spent 1993 on the comeback trail.
The hard work paid off, as he quickly moved up the organizational ladder in 1994, going from Tampa (Class A-Advanced) to Triple-A Columbus with a brief stop in Albany.
Following his May 23, 1995, major league debut, Rivera helped usher in one of the greatest eras in Yankee history, a string of four World Championships in five years from 1996-2000. In ’96, he was primarily a setup man for closer John Wetteland, but Rivera took over that role the next year and has had it ever since – until this year’s freak accident.
The Yankees have reached the playoffs in all but one of his 18 seasons, and he has set numerous postseason records, including lowest earned run average (0.70) and most saves (42).
A 12-time All-Star, Rivera was MVP of the 1999 World Series and 2003 ALCS, has won five AL Rolaids Relief Man Awards and is a three-time major league saves leader.
Skipper Joe Girardi has guided the Bronx Bombers toward another AL East Division title
this year, but doing it without Rivera hasn’t been easy, and sometimes Rivera hasn’t been able to watch. In early August, New York’s first-place lead slipped a bit as the Yankee bullpen struggled.
“It is difficult,” Rivera admitted on not being able to pitch in. “Sometimes I have to walk away from the TV, especially lately.”
While in Saratoga, Rivera signed autographs for charitable causes and visited the restaurant, Siro’s Trattoria, in which he has a part ownership. The business has a sister restaurant in New York City.
Rivera said he has the baseballs from his 500th career save and No. 602 that saw him eclipse Trevor Hoffman as the all-time major league leader. Rivera broke the record on Sept. 19, 2011, by closing out a 6-4 victory over the Twins at Yankee Stadium. It was one of 44 saves in 49 chances, making him the first pitcher over the age of 40 to save at least 40 games in a season. He also finished the year with an incredible 1.91 ERA.
Among Rivera’s jersey collection, those from teammates such as Jorge Posada – his long-time batterymate – and pitcher Andy Pettitte are among the most meaningful.
Rivera, Posada, Pettitte and shortstop Derek Jeter comprised the “Core Four” that led the Yankees to their latest World Championship in 2009.
“Mo” and Jeter are sure bets to reach the Hall of Fame, but it’s doubtful they’ll share the same stage. Rivera, who turns 43 on Nov. 29, is only expected to pitch one more year, while Jeter, 38, has an outside chance of closing in on Pete Rose’s all-time hits record, if he stays healthy.
“I want to pitch now,” Rivera said. “That doesn’t mean that I will come back this year. You have to hope and keep praying that the Lord will heal me as quick as possible. But at the same time, you can’t push it and make a mistake. I have to be wise and make sure I do the right thing.”
During his Saratoga visit, Rivera toured the track’s backstretch, where horses are cared for, with jockey John Velazquez, who was inducted to the National Racing Hall of Fame, in Saratoga, the same day Rivera was there.
“Today was like school for me,” Rivera said. “I learned a lot. Johnny explained to me how they (jockeys) have to maintain their weight. I never could do that. It takes a special person.”
Then Rivera, whose cut fastball strikes fear into the hearts of opposing hitters, sparked a loud round of laughter.
“I stayed away from the horses,” he said, smiling. “I’m telling you, I’m petrified of the horses.”
Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott T. Johnson gave “Mo” a new addition for his memorabilia collection, a special proclamation declaring “Mariano Rivera Day” in recognition of his visit to the city.
New York Racing Association named one of the day’s races in his honor as well, and Rivera went to the winner’s circle to present a trophy and pose for photos as hundreds of adoring fans cheered and tried to get his autograph.
“It’s my first time here, and I’m having a great time. I definitely appreciate the invitation. Thank you for having me here and thank you Saratoga for a warm, warm welcome,” Rivera said. “In Panama, they have a lot of races, but I’ve never been there. This is my first time.”
Someone asked if Rivera had cast a winning bet. He said he’s better at pitching baseballs.
“No, no I don’t bet on horses,” he said with a grin. “Guys, I do not bet on horses. I came here for an event and to learn about horses. No betting for me.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.