As the 2015 MLB postseason begins tonight with the American League Wild Card game, the Yankees will be looking to defeat the Astros in their first postseason game since 2012. The team is much different from its predecessor of three years ago. The most notable absences are those of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, both of whom were integral in the Yankees’ playoff runs for almost 20 years.
While the Yankees have tried to move on from their legendary closer with names like David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, Rivera, too, has moved on from the majors and filled his formerly baseball-filled days by serving a call he has deemed more important: helping others by serving the Lord.
It is a side of Rivera that was evident during his playing days, but not one that was paid much attention. It has been a feature of his life for more than 20 years since before he left Panama to play in the Yankees’ minor league system, and it is now defining his life post-baseball.
Before he retired, he and his wife Clara started a congregation out of their home. It started as just prayer meetings but soon grew over the years to the point that its own building was needed. Rivera then purchased a church along North Avenue in New Rochelle, N.Y., from the city for $1. The church had been out of use since the 1970s and was more than 100 years old. He poured about $3 million into the renovations, and it opened March 6, 2014.
The Hoya was given the chance to sit down and talk with Rivera on Aug. 5, 2015, about his faith, his church and, of course, his career.
What led you and your wife to know it was time to start a congregation?
It’s a long process because we’re never ready. When you come to follow the will of God or the will of the Lord, you will never be ready. He will prepare you on the way. You have to accept it, and that’s what we did. … We were running away from the calling, because it’s hard. I wanted to just relax and travel and be with my family. I was away for 24 years playing baseball. … Well, the Lord called us and put in our hearts the desire to minister and pastor. That was a shock, but at the same time it’s amazing. Yes, we started the church in our home, and we were there for I believe five to six years, and the congregation was going. It started with a meeting of prayers only and from prayers it was expanding and expanding — we have a big group — and then the name of the church, the Lord gave us the name of the church — Refuge of Hope — and from there, now, the people that were gathering they just wanted to have more than prayer meetings, but officially kind of like being in church. We prayed about it and we waited from the Lord and we did it; that was the Lord’s will and he has supported us from that moment to now, and we’re here in New Rochelle now, and it’s amazing.
What are the beginnings of your faith?
Everything started back in Panama. I had a cousin that was Christian; I was a Catholic, but at the same time I wasn’t learning anything, I wasn’t going to church. Time and time I was in church when someone passed away, that’s when I went to church most of the time, so I had no relationship with the Lord at all. I didn’t know anything about Christ or the Lord other than he was God, that’s it. So my cousin started talking to me and giving me the word of God and preaching and I loved to hear all the stories, all the history, all about Moses, all about David; it was fascinating to me. I didn’t know much about the Bible, so that caught my attention, and then a few years after that (I think one or two years after that) I signed with professional baseball. It was a miracle for me … and then through adversities, and hard times and tough times, I understood something was going on. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I knew something was going on. That’s when I knew the Lord was calling me, so I accepted the Lord as my savior, and it hasn’t been easy, but at the same time not impossible. It’s been great. As a matter of fact I would say that was my best decision that I made, that I accepted Jesus as my savior and lord. That’s how I started. As a matter of fact, my whole career, I would say, was orchestrated by the Lord. He just opened doors for me, and the doors that needed to be closed, he did close them, and the doors that needed to be open, he did open for me. My whole career, you guys always hear me talking about the Lord and praising the Lord, not myself, because I knew that my talent and everything that I had, he brought to a different level, and that’s why I truly believe there was a reason why he brought me here to the United States. Not to play baseball, but just to speak about the Lord, knowing what he has done in my life and the gracious gift that he has given me, and the platform he has given me. So that was my beginning with the Lord, and the rest is just history.
What are you most proud about in being able to refurbish the old building and having the congregation move there?
I’m not proud of what I have done. I’m proud of what the Lord has done in our lives. Because, I mean, all I wanted to do is help others. The Lord has blessed me in amazing ways, and all I have to do, all I want to do is help others. This church was [abandoned] for so many years, and I went in there and it was ugly, yes, it was ugly — smelly, nasty. But at the same time I saw the beauty of it, and we worked hard to collect the money to bring it to the way you saw it. I didn’t do that; the Lord opened the door again, the Lord opens those doors. The money came fluidly from people and companies and donations — amazing, amazing. There is that church, but the key about that is you are maintaining a humble heart and a humble opinion when it comes to that — knowing and understanding that everything belongs to the Lord. That what we have done is we just want to be the vehicle he uses to glorify his name and to bless others. … So we are just willing to do whatever it takes to help all kinds of people, don’t matter the race, don’t matter the nationality, don’t matter the color, just there.
What has been the greatest challenge the congregation has had to overcome?
Our challenge is to go outside, to go out of those walls and go to the streets and preach the gospel, help those in need outside. Most of the time, people get surrounded in their own walls and they don’t leave the walls. … We are the church and we were sent to preach the gospel outside to those in need, help those outside of those walls. And that is our biggest challenge — to go out there, to prepare a congregation, to go out there and preach a gospel, to go out there and help as much as we can, to go out there and tell these boys and girls that, yes, with the Lord it’s possible because the world will give you nothing. The happiness of the world has limitations, but the joy of the Lord has no limitations, meaning that you can be going through tough [times] but you still have joy because the joy of the Lord is not based on feelings, it’s based because he is God and the joy of God will be in you, so it will remain and you will go through tough times and good times and the joy of the Lord will be there. The world will give you temporary happiness based on power, money, things, but it’s not joy, so that’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s our goal to go out there and win as many souls as we can win for the Lord.
Has there been one moment with any particular individual that stands out or one that has reaffirmed what you’re doing?
We did the other day an event … in Lincoln Park and a lot of people were approaching me to give me thanks for what we were doing in the park for them. And I said don’t thank me, thank the Lord. He’s the one that put it in our hearts to do it there. A lady came, she has been there more than 50 years, and she had never seen something like that. So those things are inspiration for us to continue, to continue moving forward, pushing, knowing that we are doing the will of God, we are doing the right thing because we are getting great feedback and great support from the community. So, that is satisfaction. On the other hand, also you hear people they are cursing and throwing and saying things, you will have objections, you will always have objections. But that’s what it is all about. Think about it, if everything was positive, I don’t think there would be a joy knowing you overcame something. … When you have some objections on the way, you say this is not easy, and the Lord says in the world you will have afflictions, but there is a trust because I have defeated the world, therefore yes, we will have afflictions, we will have objections, we will have people who don’t want us there, but at the same time the Lord is bigger than anything else and he is the one telling us go ahead, you can accomplish it, so we trust the Lord.
What else are you hoping to accomplish with the church?
My goal is to build a community center. A community center where we can touch all the bases: spiritual, social, sports, skills, so we can teach how to be a better individual in your community. We can have sports, food, clinic so doctors can come and help the community, and a room where we can have a computer club so we can have an after-school program. So, all that is what I want to do. … If we can accomplish that, I think we will create tremendous, tremendous opportunities for those in need that don’t have, not too many have; maybe you have a computer but you don’t have Internet. So it’s not easy, especially in that area around there, so that’s my goal to build a community center where we can really, really help and touch the community at the magnitude that we want and that will happen, God willing.
Can you talk a little bit about the Mariano Rivera Foundation and the progress it has been able to make?
Well, the Mariano Rivera Foundation started with trying to give back the community … when I was basically just a rookie in the big leagues, and I was getting a lot of money, and I said I have to create something to give back — we created the foundation, the Mariano Rivera Foundation that believes in education, strongly believes in education. We have churches, but the main focus is education. Why education? Because sports — yes, if you make it, you can have a good life, but that’s not guaranteed. In baseball, I think that for every 100 players, one makes it, so that’s a low, low percentage; I don’t want to take a chance on that. Although I did, I don’t want the kids to be thinking that they can make it because I made it because it’s not like that, it doesn’t work like that, so plus that plus injuries, you can suffer an injury and you might never play [a] sport ever. What happened if you never studied and now there’s no sport, and you have family to support. Those kids asking you for food, you better find out where you’re going get that food, so all that stuff is hard because kids don’t understand — they’re hungry and they need to eat. If you have no base, no foundation, no education you might have to start stealing, you might have to start robbing, you might have to start working jobs that you’re not supposed to — why? Because you didn’t study. So if you study and you have a background that you can work in if you don’t make it to the big leagues … that’s why I truly believe in education. That’s why the foundation was formed, to help others in need, and we have helped a lot of people, a lot of people, so they have the opportunity to graduate and look for their dream. That’s why the foundation was built. We help a lot [of] people, families, women that have been abused, kids that have been abused, but the base is education.
Has growing the congregation been your main project on a daily basis? How much time has it been taking up?
Well, what takes a lot of time is going out there and trying to raise funds to build the church, raise funds to help the community, raise funds to build the community center. So I have to be speaking to banks; I have to be speaking to CEOs of companies. I sometimes do engagements, things like signings or speaking engagements, and all that money that they pay me, I donate it to the church, so I don’t get one dollar of that. We wrote the book, all that money went to the church. I did some commercials with Acura and some other stuff and all that money went to the church. I did not get any of that stuff, because I truly believe that we can do something different, that we can help and touch someone’s life.
As it says in your book, you started playing outfield and you didn’t pitch for the first time until your team did not have its normal pitcher during a game. Quickly after that you had a tryout for a Yankee scout. It just seemed to move incredibly fast, so how were you able to comprehend all that?
That’s what I was telling you before, that’s why the Lord opened the doors for me like that. I was pitching, yeah; we were in a playoff game, big game for us, back home in Panama, and I was in the outfield. Our pitcher was, our best pitcher was getting killed. And we didn’t have more pitchers, so we gathered on the mound, and [they] say man, I pitch. I mean, every kid, every kid when you play baseball, every kid throws, throws, doesn’t pitch, throws. So I was doing the same thing. I was throwing — pitching and throwing are two different things. So it looks like I have all the ideas and the knowledge of pitching. We won the game, all this stuff. I mean, it was like the next week I think, the following week. I have my guys — the catcher and the centerfielder from the team — they were waiting for me at my house. We were coming with my girlfriend, my parents — my wife now — from the beach, and when I got there, they tell me they have a tryout for me. And they told me, and I say “For what?” — “To pitch.” “To pitch, I’m not a pitcher.” You know? But again, the Lord was opening doors for me; I went. You know, I mean, that was Sunday. Monday I went, I was working with my father, fixing the nets, for the boats, the fishing nets. So, I ask my father permission to go to practice, this tryout. The tryout was Saturday. So Monday, I went, to see if the guy liked it or not. So I went, and the guy liked it. He said, “Well, come the whole week into the main scout camps.” And I went, and I did well. Sunday, I was signed for the New York Yankees. It was like, wow. I didn’t know what happened, and in the mix of that I was real naive when it came to all that stuff. Professional or not because I wasn’t looking for that stuff, I was just playing baseball, happy to be playing baseball. So I thought that I had to stay in Panama, I thought that I just have to — I sign with the New York Yankees, yeah, but I stay in Panama playing there. It was real naive thing. When the scout called me I had to leave to go to Tampa, that’s when everything hit me. Like, wow. Never left my country before. I was 20 years old, this is for real now. So, so it was amazing. And then again, from the moment that I left Panama in 1990 to 2013, everything was done by the Lord. He made every move. He did everything, everything for me. I mean obviously, I had to do my job, run and take care of myself and all that stuff, but he did everything for me.
When you left Panama, and you got off the plane in the United States, what was that like? Especially not being able to speak English?
You have no idea. Horrible. Well, my first year was okay because we were in Florida, we were in Tampa. And, a lot of people there spoke Spanish. So I was okay, you know, dealing with my teammates. Most of them were Spanish, Hispanics: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Panamanians, Colombians, all kinds, Curacao, all kinds of people there, they all spoke Spanish. My second year was the toughest one because they sent me to North Carolina, in Greensboro, North Carolina. My teammates were like three or four guys that spoke Spanish, and they weren’t willing to help me. So I was miserable, because I couldn’t communicate with my teammates; I couldn’t communicate with my pitching coach, neither with my manager and neither for everything else that you need to speak. But I made a commitment, from now on — that was in April — from now on I’m going to speak in just English. I don’t know how to speak but I’m going to learn English. I [am] going to talk only to American players. There was a black guy there called Tim Cooper, dear friend of mine. He spoke a little bit [of] Spanish. “Hey, Tim, I don’t care how you laugh and feel with the guys. You can laugh, but please correct me if I’m wrong. Just correct me.” And they never laughed at me; they always corrected me. With Tim Cooper, I sat next to him on trips that we had: 12-, 14-, 13-hour trips. We just sat next to each other and spoke. By the end of the year, by August, I was able to communicate already. To have a conversation with my teammates and my pitching coach, I was the happiest man that I have ever been. You know why? Because I was able to communicate, and then my career just took off.
When would you say was your time during the minors when you maybe realized that you had the chance to really do well and, I guess, actually make a career out of baseball?
My thoughts were different, though. I never thought that, “oh, wow, I’m going make it to the big leagues.” I mean, I didn’t think like that. I was in Single-A. I was focused there; Double-A, I was focused there; Triple-A, I was there. Then I make it to the big leagues. When they called me to the big leagues, I was like, “ Wow, I’m going to the big leagues.” That was a big, big, big day for me. I called my mother, my girlfriend — well, actually she was my wife at that time already — my agent, it was amazing, amazing. And then, when I was in the big leagues, [I thought], “Well, if I stay there for maybe four or five years in the big leagues, you know, save some money, I’ll be okay.” See, my thoughts were honestly not, “Oh, I’m going to make so much money. Five, six years, I’m good.” I can go home, and live comfortably. Live in my hometown, yes, do something, do some business, and that’s it. I never thought that I would pitch 19 years. Never thought that I would do whatever I did. Never, never. I always was positive, though. I was always thinking positively. I don’t like to be around people that are negative. … My thoughts were positive. The Lord again, the Lord opens those doors, and the rest is history. Again, I wasn’t even looking to be the closer of the New York Yankees. And then, winning five championships, all-star games. You know, in all that, I always gave the glory to the Lord. Because I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything. Even the pitch, the famous cutter, cut-fastball, he gave it to me. So in reality, I didn’t do anything. Being there and taking care of myself and he did the rest.
What is it actually like playing in the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry? Is it different from the fan’s perspective and how the media builds it up?
Yes, you see it from the fan’s perspective, how the media builds it, but for us it’s big too because we always play our best games, always four- to five-hour games. When we play other teams, two and a half hours, two hours and 45 minutes, three at most, but Red Sox and Yankees — always four to five hours. It’s intense. We always, both teams, want to give their best. But that’s it. We may have some troubles along the way, but that’s it. After the game, we go out to dinner, and we have a good time. We go to Ramiro Mendoza’s — he was my teammate on the Yankees — David Ortiz, we go to his house, we go to restaurants to eat and that’s it. We are friends. When we are on the field, we are supporting our teams. We are giving the best to our team. Once it is over that’s it. Yeah, it’s deep, but that’s it. That’s it, once the game is over we go out and that’s it.
So, yes, it is big, but at the same time it is fun for me and great because, I mean, you see the fans with me. When I am pitching they tell me the day I’m going to die. But, after the game, they all come and say, “You know, you are good, we are proud of you,” and they respect me, everywhere. … In Boston, they respect me, but what it was in the game, it’s just like that. I did understand, I did understand, I respect that. It doesn’t bother me, but to me it is amazing, though. I always look for those games. Always. I get off on that.
Out of the five championships, is there any one that stands out the most or do they all have their own special place?
They all have their own special theme. To me, to me, 2009 because we won all those years and then we didn’t win until 2009 again and now my kids were old enough to enjoy what I was, being able to know what I was doing. So for me, seeing my kids enjoying that and really understanding my job, it was priceless. It was amazing. So to me, that was that year that I enjoyed most because of my family. But ’96 and 2000, you know, all those years, even when we lost they were special games. … We gave the New York Yankees satisfaction in knowing that we always were there to give our best and you have to beat us. You have to really beat us to win against us. For me, everything, everything, it was a growing process. Baseball has been to me and it was to me like a school. I have so many teachers, but also so many friends, alumni you know along the way that grew up together, that we saw, that we laughed, that we cried together? That amazing, amazing journey, amazing learning process, because I didn’t call it failure when we lost; I never called it failure. I call it learning process because you learn from your defeat. You learn to push every step that you make. So that’s how I did it.
What are your feelings on the old Yankee Stadium versus the new Yankee Stadium?
I love the old Yankee Stadium. To me it was like a real stadium, real baseball. New Yankee Stadium is more a luxury, it’s more business, you see people just talking and not even watching the game. You see the real fans watching the game, the guys in the bleachers watching the game. The other ones, they’re talking on the phone doing this, doing that. They don’t pay attention to the game. You don’t see that in the old stadium. You see the people that really came to watch the game. Now you have so many things that you can enjoy. So many clubs, so many bars, so many this and that. But not the game. So, I mean, for me, old Yankee Stadium was real baseball.
Along the lines of that, how do you view some of the criticism that baseball now gets? MLB put the pace of play rules in this year because they want the games to be shorter, and a lot of the criticism relates to this notion that people want things fast-paced.
Well, you can’t control baseball like that. … That is why baseball is unique. You just can’t control, you cannot tell people you’ve got to swing at this pitch, you’ve got to do this. No, you can’t. You cannot rush. You can cut maybe a little time from the hitters to step off the plate, but that’s it. You cannot tell the pitcher you’ve got to throw right now and right now, no no. Why don’t they do something about the time when we have to wait for commercials to go? Why don’t they talk about that? You know, no one says anything about that but the players talk about that. The game of baseball has been played like that for years and years and years, hundreds of years, you know what I mean? So it won’t change like that, they can do whatever and that is the only game where there’s no finish of time. You have to complete that 27th out. … I definitely believe there are some things that you can touch, but you cannot change the game like that.
Was there a particular hitter you were most afraid to face?
See, I never was afraid of hitters. Not afraid, but there was guy I didn’t want to see called Edgar Martinez. I didn’t want to see him. Until I started throwing different differently to him and then I started getting him out. And I was OK, you know, now we are back in the race. He was [a] tough one. You know, sometimes just like that you have hitter that will give you a hard time. Sometimes you have a pitcher that will give you hard time. You know, so, I mean, it’s just give and take. Sometimes you are going to get outs and sometimes you are going to get hits. It’s just part of the game. So, no, I never had that kind of mentality. I attack the hitter always the same way. Always.
Were there any other stadiums beside Yankee Stadium that you enjoyed the most?
Boston. Fenway. I love it. Love to play there because again, the dynamic, the game, the people, the rivalry, amazing, amazing.
Safeco Field is a tremendous field. I had a lot of success playing there. So, I mean, two stadiums I really enjoyed. I mean, all the stadiums I did because I love baseball, but these three stadiums were particular for me.
Are there any closers in particular that you’re impressed with now?
Well, I guess Chapman. He throws so hard. To me they all are unique and special. But it takes a special person to do that kind of job. When you have any person that you put in there to be a closer, you have to have something special. Otherwise he won’t be successful. So, I mean, in all of baseball now we have a lot of youngsters there that throw hard. But, see, that position is not defined by throwing hard. It is defined by mentality. How tough mentally you are. If you are mental, tough. Your mental toughness is good — you can throw 80 [mph], you’ll still get people out. Speed does not surprise me. Speed you can see people throw. 100-102, you throw that ball over the plate, you’re still going to get hit. But I love to see guys compete. They are tough here. They find a way to get it done. I love that.
How closely do you still follow baseball and the Yankees now?
I follow — I never followed baseball in general like that. When I was playing I never followed baseball like that. I played, did the game and that’s it. I’m going to watch baseball tomorrow again. I watched other things, perhaps soccer. But with the Yankees, I always follow; now that I’m retired, I always watch. I try to watch the most, so I watch 90 percent. I mean, I have friends on the team. The whole team for me are my family. So, I mean, if I see something that one of the players is doing wrong after the game, on the next day I call because I will say, “Check this out, you are doing this or that, I can help that way.” Every time I have change to help my team I will definitely do that.
What sort of involvement do you have now with the Yankees?
Well, nothing right now, because I don’t want to. I want to just keep doing what I’m doing right now because I want to again go back to building: build the community center. Once I do that, I will have a little bit more freedom to do whatever I want to do. To help the organization in the minor leagues: coach, help the little guys because in the big leagues everybody is already established. But those in the minor leagues are working to be established. Those are the ones that are raw. You can teach them; you can mold them. I want to be there for them.
Like a mentorship position? Full time or in spring training?
Kind of like a special advisor. Kind of just like come and go: Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A. A week here, a week there, then come back home, then go back again and watch the guys. That kind of schedule. Not be there every day. No. But, just to hit the spot where they play and make sure that they are really thinking right. … You’re playing and you’re doing well, and all of a sudden your mind starts and you are an easy target to take detours: clubs, women, parties, all that stuff and baseball will be the last. But my job is to tell them, “Hey, stay focused. You came here to play baseball. Leave the other things alone. You play baseball. When you make it to the big leagues and you’re set up already and you’re established already, whatever you want to do, you do. That’s your problem, but my problem right now, my job right now is to guide you.
How does it feel to know that so many people in baseball and so many Yankee fans say you’re one of the greatest to be in the game and the organization?
Well, you say some of the people. … I didn’t feel like that. … I had the opportunity to play the game I love. I was able, thank God, to do something special, but that’s it. I never said to myself, “Oh. I’m better than anybody else.” … I didn’t do anything. The Lord did it for me. I was just there. You know what I mean? So therefore, I always kept my head on my shoulders and stayed humble. I was blessed that I was able to do that. I needed my teammates to do that. I always said again, without my teammates I couldn’t accomplish anything. It’s not like I went there and did that alone. I had seven guys behind me. All those guys pulling for me. I never can say that I did that. That’s why I referred to you that they say. … I would never say that I’m the best. I would never say such a thing.
I was blessed to play for so many years. I was blessed that the Lord opened the door. I was blessed that he guided me through. I was blessed that he pushed me through. He gave me the tools. He gave me the pitch and again I was just thankful. Whatever happened after that, whatever history is, whatever people talk, well, they talk, not me. I feel just honored and humbled that I was able to play the game that I loved. … My pay, my satisfaction: Knowing I did the best to help my team. At every angle, every situation, every year that I was playing for the New York Yankees, I did my best. In the field and off the field. … Whatever people say that I was or I am or I’m not, that for me — it doesn’t do less or more. It won’t change me. It is what it is. Even if they would say OK or I would say OK, you’re not going to the Hall of Fame — that won’t affect me, that won’t change me. I know what I did. Yes, we want as players to be in the Hall of Fame, that’s our goal, but the Hall of Fame is something you don’t even think about. You think about the All-Star game, you think about the World Series, that’s what you think, and to have decent career, that’s what you think. That’s what your goals are, but the Hall of Fame is not even reachable, not even thinking about. … But for the player or any person to say that he did, to me, that’s unacceptable.
Did it ever feel old or was it always exciting every time running out of the bullpen and being in a full stadium?
It was amazing. It was amazing. Every chance that I had to run from that bullpen to the mound, it was — there’s no comparison. It never got old. It was just like the first time. It was just like the first time. For all those times that I did it, it always was like the first time. The adrenaline, the rushing, the sweating — everything was just perfect. … I always took it seriously. No matter where it was, no matter the situation. … It was always like the first time.
Do you ever miss it?
Right now no. I don’t miss it. I did everything within my power not to miss it. I left the game the way I wanted to. I did everything that I wanted to. So, I mean, no I don’t. I miss my teammates, the guys, because after so many years they became like family. So you miss that. But, the traveling, the competition — it’s too much. So I don’t, I don’t miss it like that. I don’t have the urge to go back and play. No, I’m done with that.
What did it feel like when your son was drafted in the fourth round?
Well, it was good for me knowing that he was happy, that he had what he wanted. But at the same time, I always was a father, always have been a father trying to always put him on the ground. Not too high, not too low — always maintain an even level. Don’t think that because you signed now that you made it already. This is just beginning. … I was happy for him because he has worked hard to accomplish that so that is a satisfaction but that is the beginning of a lot more work, three or four times more than what he has done for him to achieve what he wants. So, it was special, but you know, it was the beginning.