The greatest relief pitcher in baseball history will hang up his cleats at the end of the 2013 season. In a press conference Saturday morning, Mariano Rivera, 43, announced that the upcoming baseball season would be his last. He had planned to retire at the end of 2012, but his season ended prematurely when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament before a game in May.
“I didn’t want to leave like that,” Rivera said. “I felt like I wanted to give [it] everything.”
The New York Yankees legend is considered the most dominant “closer” ever, with a record 608 saves and 12 All-Star Game selections. Rivera’s career 2.21 earned run average and 0.998 WHIP walks plus hits per inning pitched are the best of any pitcher since 1920. He is also one of the greatest postseason performers in American sports, holding dozens of playoff pitching records and being a part of five World Series-winning teams.
Rivera grew up in the poor fishing village of Puerto Caimito near Panama City, Panama, playing baseball with his friends at an early age. He and his friends substituted tree branches for baseball bats and milk cartons for gloves, and used whatever balls they could find or make with tape. When he graduated from high school, Rivera worked with his father on a commercial fishing boat, hauling in shrimp and sardines. He began playing shortstop for a local amateur baseball team at age 19, and when a Yankees scout noticed Rivera’s athleticism during a game, New York signed him to a $3,000 contract.
Never considered a major league prospect, Rivera slowly rose through the Yankee minor league system as a starting pitcher. In 1995, the skinny right-hander made 10 unsuccessful starts for the big league club before deciding to move him to the bullpen. From that point on, Rivera’s career took off.
Adding to his legend: Rivera throws one type of pitch—a cutter. Most major-league hurlers throw several types of pitches to keep hitters off balance, but Rivera is able to throw the cutter with such velocity and movement that batters struggle to make contact, even when they know the pitch is coming. Many hitters, including slugger Jim Thome, have dubbed Rivera’s cutter the best pitch in baseball.
And yet, despite all his success and fame, Rivera remains a humble, soft-spoken man who goes about his job without the theatrics or bravado of his colleagues. His attitude toward the game and his outlook on his own accomplishments remain the same on good days and bad days.
After a game in 2011, Rivera sat in front of his locker, discussing the all-time saves record he had just set. When a reporter suggested that Rivera’s success stemmed from his work ethic, natural talent, and determination, Rivera quickly noted a much more important factor. “It’s faith,” he told ESPN. “Faith isn’t something that you decide to have. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Today, I’m going to have faith.’ It’s a process. I would never, ever be here in the big leagues without my faith. Ability, you have to have ability and you have to have talent, but I’m telling you, my talent wasn’t enough. God brought me here.”
Rivera explained how faith helped him handle the highest-pressure job on the highest-pressure team in baseball. Faith carried him through his first months in America when people he didn’t know speaking a language he didn’t understand surrounded him. Faith enables him to go back out to the pitching mound the day after a devastating loss. “When I talk about the Lord, I’m not talking about praying to Him for Him to give you what you want. People always pray for something they want. He’s going to give you what you need. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win the game. It really has nothing to do with baseball.”
After retirement, Rivera plans on spending time with his family and his church. He is already heavily involved in Christian ministries, and he and his wife, Clara, have helped establish and rebuild churches in the United States and Panama. He has suggested in interviews over the years that he plans to become an evangelical minister in Panama: “God has put me in a special place to talk about Him. It really has nothing to do with baseball. I’m here to talk about Him. Him alone.”