Nearshore Americas

Exit Sandman: A Ball Player Still in Touch With His Panama Roots

With his feet firmly planted on the ground, a wicked cut fastball and an undying faith in God, Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera has earned a reputation for being one of the most honorable –and lethal– men in baseball.  But it has been a road of stops and starts, near devastating blows and unlikely recovery for the famed closer; one that he has taken in stride, setting an example for veterans and rookies alike.

Not one to dwell on the past, or project the future, Rivera takes each day, each game, as they come. “I don’t do next month, I don’t do next week. I don’t do yesterday. I don’t do tomorrow. I thank the Lord for that day. I keep it simple. That’s it,” he was quoted as saying.

Growing up in the poor Panamanian fishing village of Puerto Caimito, where his father worked as a ship’s captain, didn’t provide the aspiring professional soccer player many options, but he was happy. “But my childhood there was wonderful,” said Rivera in an interview with the Daily News. “Oh man. I didn’t have much. Basically I didn’t have anything. But what we had, I was happy. I tell you what – if I can do it all over again, I wouldn’t change it. I’d do it exactly the same way we did it back then.”  But, he did have baseball, which at the time was just a fun past time he would play with his friends and cousins. Lacking actual equipment, the industrious boys would fashion gloves and protective gear out of cardboard and balls from rolled-up shredded fishing nets and electrical tape.Injury and Opportunity

Rivera’s dreams of becoming a professional soccer player were derailed due to a series of ankle injuries he suffered during high school competitions. With little opportunity available, Rivera took a job at age 16 fishing for sardines and catching shrimp. It proved to be hard work, going out rain or shine to make sure he filled the boat six days a week.  But, even though he disliked fishing, his characteristic determination drove him to stick with it for three years until he was caught on a capsizing commercial boat. That was the signal he needed to literally abandon ship and pursue his interest in becoming a mechanic.

Back on dry land, Rivera played shortstop for a local amateur team called Panamá Oeste. Little did he know that Herb Raybourn, a Panamanian native and the Director of Latin American Operations for the New York Yankees, would be watching from the stands. Although Raybourn recognized an innate athletic ability in Rivera, and appreciated his upper body strength, he didn’t think the young player had what it took to be a major league shortstop. “His arms had a little bit of definition. I could picture him pitching in the big leagues with that arm. The looseness was the thing that really impressed me,” Raybourn told the Daily News.

But, seeing Rivera as a prospective shortstop didn’t impress him enough. It was sometime later when Raybourn returned to Panama that he was contacted by a teammate of Rivera’s that told him Rivera was pitching. Curious, Raybourn took a look and he was impressed by the movement, if not the speed, of Rivera’s fastball. And in February 1990, the unproven Mariano Rivera was signed on as a free agent with a $3,000 USD signing bonus.

Climbing the Ranks

Leaving Panama for the first time in his life, Rivera arrived in Florida to play for the minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees, the Gulf Coast League. Failing to really impress the scouts at first, he quickly proved himself, capping off the first season by throwing a seven-inning no-hitter. That set him up for being promoted to the Class A level of the Greensboro Hornets of the South Atlantic League in 1991 where he started 15 of the 29 games. A moderate success that saw Rivera striking out 123 batters and walking 36, causing manager Buck Showalter to take notice.

The next year the pitcher progressed to the Class A – Advanced level Fort Lauderdale Yankees, where he started 10 games racking up a 5 – 3 win / loss record. But, it came at a price when he tried developing a new slider pitch technique that involved snapping his wrist which led to damage in his right elbow. The injury cut his minor league season short when he underwent surgery in August 1992. When Rivera returned to the mound in 1993, he started back at rookie level, and over time regained his place in Class A with the Hornets. When the 1994 season started, Rivera was promoted to the Double-A level Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Eastern League, then advanced to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers of the International League. Pitching mainly fastballs, with a few sliders and changeups as secondary pitches, he rounded-out the year with a 10 – 2 record.

The Majors

Although he made his major league debut in 1995 as a starting pitcher against the California Angels, Rivera did not enjoy immediate success and Yankees management considered trading him to the Detroit Tigers. The trade negotiations were abandoned when General Manager Gene Michael heard that Rivera’s pitches reached 95 to 96 mph, an improvement in velocity that Rivera attributed to God, as he does most of his life achievements. That same year he delivered a career defining 11 strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox, which was followed by a 1995 record of pitching 5 13 scoreless innings of relief in the American League Division Series. The Yankees not only kept him, but made Rivera a full time relief pitcher and moved him to the bullpen.

Rivera still had to prove himself and over the next two years he honed his skills and style, which helped the Yankees to win the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves, which was their first championship win since 1978. In 1997, Rivera became a closer responsible for pitching in the ninth inning. Finding his groove took some time and the Yankees suffered losses and shut-outs due in part to Rivera’s missteps. But the organization stood by him and Rivera came back with a vengeance in the following season, and the ones after that. Opposing batters began to fear the top of the ninth, knowing what lay ahead of them at the hands of Rivera and his unbeatable cutter: strike-outs, shattered bats and devastation – but always executed with the utmost respect by Rivera.

Enter Sandman

Looking for something that would get the crowd riled-up when Rivera entered the stadium, the Yankees scoreboard and broadcasting staff tried different songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses , but nothing caught on until a staffer brought in Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”  The crowd responded immediately, even though Rivera himself remained focused only on the job he has to do and hardly even listened to the music. After a while he became comfortable with it, especially as fans began to call him “Sandman.” But, Rivera never got lost in the hype, “People identify it [with me], but that’s it. I wouldn’t say that’s my identity. To tell you the truth, I have to do one thing. I go out there and pitch,” Rivera said of the song.

Over the next decade, Rivera pitched some of his best and worst games, winning the AL Rolaids Relief Man Award and placing third for the AL Cy Young Award in 2004. The same year he blew crucial saves against the Red Sox during the American League Divison Series and allowed a player to steal second base during game five, giving Boston the edge. When Rivera reentered the game after recovering from elbow bursitis in 2005 he again found the Red Sox to be his nemesis and he blew the first two save opportunities against them. The Sandman was sinking fast and his once loyal fans booed him at Yankee Stadium.

Rivera didn’t let the setbacks dampen his spirit and even responded to a standing ovation by Red Sox fans in Fenway Park by tipping his cap to them. Not one to be kept down, Rivera surged back to finish 2005 with new career bests, earning him a fourth AL Rolaids Relief Man Award, second place for the AL Cy Young Award, and ninth place for the AL MVP Award. He was also named as the relief pitcher on the Major League Baseball Latino Legends Team. The Sandman was back and better than before.

Moving Forward

Although 2006 was a banner year for Rivera, when he became only the fourth pitcher in major league history with 400 saves, he also suffered another elbow strain and was sidelined for most of September. Despite this, Rivera finished the season strong logging 34 saves in 37 opportunities and was voted Delivery Man of the Year.

When at the beginning of spring training Rivera requested an extension with the Yankees after his contract’s expiration in 2007, management responded that they would not negotiate at the beginning of the season. That seemed to set a negative tone for the way the season would play out with Rivera turning in his worse scores since 1997, and announcing that he was going to become a free agent. This spurred Yankees management into action and they signed him to a three-year, $45 million USD contract, making him the highest paid reliever in the history of baseball.

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The next few years saw mostly ups and some downs, with Rivera setting career records and carrying the Yankees to victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and win the 2009 World Series. He also won another AL Rolaids Relief Man Award, and the 2009 Sporting News Pro Athlete of the Year Award.

In May 2012 Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee which led to the end of the season for him, and talk that it would be the end of his career. That was way too premature and Rivera came back for the 2013 season after signing a one-year $10 million USD deal.

Expansive Horizons

Through the philanthropic Mariano Rivera Foundation, the pitcher has contributed to improving the lives of children and adults in his native Panama. Some of the projects the foundation has funded include building a church and an elementary school and developing a computer training program. Through church-based institutions in the US and Panama the foundation also distributes over $500,000 USD annually to children’s aid organizations.

Rivera has also financed restaurant ventures Mo’s New York Grill in New Rochelle, New York and Siro’s in Manhattan. He also has endorsement deals with Nike and the high-end men’s apparel company Canali.

Rivera will retire at the end of the 2013 season after 19 with the major leagues, leaving a team and a game that has been forever altered because of his participation, just like it was by Jackie Robinson, the man whose number 42 Rivera wears with honor. Some will remember Rivera for his cool and control, others for his drive and single-mindedness, but everyone will remember his amazing and devastating skill and how he engendered everlasting respect and admiration from teammates, owners, foes and the fans. Now, he will have more time to spend with his wife and three sons while he writes his autobiography and pursues his next career as an Evangelical preacher.

Narayan Ammachchi

News Editor for Nearshore Americas, Narayan Ammachchi is a career journalist with a decade of experience in politics and international business. He works out of his base in the Indian Silicon City of Bangalore.

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