Call him whatever you want to—Mo, The Sandman. The Great One. The Hammer of God. No matter what name baseball fans associate him with, Mariano Rivera, no doubt, is the best to have laced the glove played the game as a reliever, that type a player who merits a special place in Cooperstown, home baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Born on this day 48 years ago in 1969, Rivera spent most of his career as a relief pitcher and served as the Yankees’ closer for 17 seasons. A thirteen-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion, he is MLB’s career leader in saves with 652, and games finished, 952.
Rivera, who like most Panamanians belong to a family of fishermen, won five American League (AL) Rolaids Relief Man Awards and three Delivery Man of the Year Awards, and he finished in the top three in voting for the AL Cy Young Award four times.
He was signed by the Yankees organization in Panama in 1990, and he debuted in the major leagues in 1995. Initially a starting pitcher, he was converted to a relief pitcher late in his rookie year. After a breakthrough season in 1996 as a setup man, he became the Bronx Bombers’ regulars closer in 1997 and immediately made an indelible mark in that position.
After only two seasons, he established himself as one of baseball’s top relievers, leading the major leagues in saves in 1999, 2001, and 2004. Rivera’s most-feared forte is a sharp-moving, mid-90s mile-per-hour cut fastball that most of the times broke the hitters’ bats, thus, earning a reputation as one of the league’s toughest pitches to hit.
Likewise, fellow players credit him with popularizing the cut fastball across the major leagues. Along with his signature pitch, Rivera was known for his precise control, smooth pitching motion, and for his composure and reserved demeanor on the field. His presence at the end of games, signaled by is his foreboding entrance song “Enter Sandman,” Rivera was a key contributor to the Yankees’ success in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
An accomplished postseason performer, he was named the 1999 World Series Most Valuable Player (MVP) and the 2003 AL Championship Series MVP, and he holds several postseason records, including lowest earned run average (ERA) (0.70) and most saves (42).
Rivera is acknowledged as one of the most dominant relievers in major league history. Pitching with a longevity and consistency uncommon to the closer role, he saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons and posted an ERA under 2.00 in 11 seasons, both of which are records.
His career 2.21 ERA and 1.00 WHIP are the lowest in the live-ball era among qualified pitchers. In 2013, the Yankees retired his uniform number 42; he was the last major league player to wear the number full-time, following its league-wide retirement in honor of Jackie Robinson.
Rivera and wife Clara have been involved in philanthropic causes and the Christian community through the Mariano Rivera Foundation. He is considered to be a strong candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame once he is eligible.
Rivera and Clara are childhood sweethearts having known each other since elementary school. They were married on November 9, 1991. The union produced three sons — Mariano III, Jafet, and Jaziel. The family lived in Panama until 2000, when they relocated to Westchester County, New York. They family currently reside in Rye, New York.
Rivera grew up in the village of Puerto Caimito, and finished high school at the tender age of 16. Without many material possessions and with a deep love for baseball, Rivera always found ways to play the game. He and his friends did not have regular baseball equipment, such as gloves, bats, or even decent baseballs to play with.
Instead, they would substitute milk cartons to shape makeshift mitts, use tree branches as bats, and tape tattered baseballs to toss and smack around.
After high school, Rivera went to work for his father, Mariano, Sr., who earned money as a fisherman. Rivera never wished to take up the profession as a career, and once described the job as “way too tough.” He once had to desert a sinking, 120-pound commercial vessel that he was aboard.
Setting out to make his dream of playing baseball come true. Rivera competed for the Panama Oeste team in 1990 at age 20. What some may not know is that Rivera was a shortstop for the Panama squad, but volunteered to try his hand as a pitcher. To Rivera’s luck, Yankee scout Herb Raybourn took notice of him at a game.
Looking at his body English, Rivera didn’t looked like a pitcher but Raybourn noticed his smooth delivery and 85-87 MPH velocity. This forced the Yankees’ hand, and they signed Rivera to a deal with a $3,000 signing bonus. A Tommy John surgery to repair nerve damage in his elbow in his early career did not hamper his spirit.
He came back in bounteous force and made a full recovery. Rivera’s rehab came during the 1992 expansion draft for the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. Rivera was left unprotected during the expansion, but the Yankee Gods looked for him and they were not mistaken. ,
He rose from the Yankees’ Class A to AA and eventually to AAA, fanning 89 batters and walking only 20 over the course of the season. It was now time for Rivera to take the ultimate step forward in his baseball life and the Yankee Dynasty began.
With Rivera’s stellar numbers posted in the minor leagues, the Yankees had no choice but to give him the call to the majors in 1995. As a rookie, Rivera was initially slated to be a starting pitcher for the Yanks. In ’95, he made 10 starts while making nine relief appearances.