Five-time World Series Champion and legendary pitcher Mariano Rivera paid a special visit at a private gathering in Greenville on Friday, telling a group of baseball enthusiasts that his first love – his greatest passion – was soccer. “I really wanted to be the next Pele. But my ankles and feet were so beat up by the age of 16-17, that I had to figure out something else to do. And that’s when I started playing baseball.”
He signed with the Yankees just three years later.
Rivera was in town to raise funds for a school supplies backpack drive in Delaware. The gathering preceded a 5K at Canby Park in Wilmington the next day. Since retiring from major league baseball, Rivera has started the Mariano Rivera Public Foundation with his spiritual mother Naomi Gandia.
His personal visits – for fundraising as well as for the distribution of money and supplies to the needy – are a key and very visible component to the Mariano Rivera Public Foundation’s work.
While Rivera has held or attended fundraisers in states throughout the east coast, his Foundation is based in Delaware, which is where Rivera has hosted several small events over the past two years, including turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving and 5Ks to raise money for back-to-school backpack drives.
At last Friday’s event, Rivera pitched his foundation and shared insight into the method behind his signature pitch, the “cutter,” his early years in the game, and his toughest competitors. Raised in Panamanian fishing village, Rivera was 20 when he joined the New York Yankees organization, which is where he remained as he developed into Major League Baseball’s greatest closer ever. Rivera played 19 seasons for the Yankees and was named the 1999 World Series Most Valuable Player and the 2003 American League Championship Series MVP.
Rivera also shared the story about what many consider to be the best non-fastball pitch by any pitcher in history. The year was 1997 — about two years after he burst onto the scene — the year after the Yankees won their first World Series of that generation. Rivera was warming up in the outfield with his friend and fellow relief pitcher Ramiro Mendoza, and the ball just started moving. It reacted like a “cut fastball,” usually just known as a cutter, even though he was using the same four-seem fastball grip he always had.
When Rivera suited up and took the mound the next day, the same thing happened. His catcher — and later manager — Joe Girardi told him to cut it out because he thought he was throwing a pitch different than the one he was signaling for. “Using the same grip I had always used, throwing a pitch the same way I had for my entire life, I realized could no longer throw a fastball that didn’t move. Everything became a cutter.”
Stories like that, and being in the presence of one of the all-time greatest baseball players ever, was an experience like none other for several of the younger guests. “It was one of the most exciting opportunities of my life,” said 17-year-old Peter Harris. “It was such a privilege to hear some stories and talk to the best closer of all time. It’s also great that he gives back to people in need. He told me that it’s imperative to give from the heart and to always be content and genuine when doing it.”
Lifelong fan Harry Saridakis, 15, also appreciated the rare and personal opportunity to meet a legend. “Mariano Rivera has always been my favorite baseball player and idol. After reading his book, The Closer, I always believed that he was a humble person in addition to being a great baseball player. Meeting him and talking to him tonight confirmed that.”
Before taking questions from supporters, Rivera explained the reason for his foundation’s focus on education. “I play a sport. I play baseball. Not too many people have the opportunity to play the game professionally for so many years. I was lucky – not too many make it. Most people have to finish school. They have to have something to fall back onto. When you introduce school to these youngsters, that is for life.”
The toughest batter you ever faced? “Edgar Martinez. He was way, way ahead of me when I was trying to get him out. He was a great guy and a great hitter.”
What does it take to succeed in the Majors? “When I signed with the Yankees, that’s when I committed to giving it my all. But I had no one to push me, no one to teach me. I had to figure it out on my own – my own way. I had to sleep and eat on the bus, do my own laundry, learn English. It’s not easy, guys. But I had that passion and I always had that passion. That’s what it takes for you to be successful.”
Was it difficult to retire? “No, I was ready. It wasn’t difficult at all. I jumped into life, community foundation, ministry, family. I am happy with that.”