SARATOGA SPRINGS — Humble, gracious, heartfelt, all words used to describe Mariano Rivera while being honored by NYRA at Saratoga Race Course on Friday.
“Man, those guys [are] old. They can’t even run. . . . I was like a little child in a candy store,” Rivera joked during his press conference with the media about playing in his first Old-Timers Game recently at Yankee Stadium.
Rivera is the first player to earn unanimous selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He holds the MLB record for career saves with 652, won five World Series and made 13 All-Star teams. Rivera was the World Series MVP in 1999, when the Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves, and also earned MVP honors at the 2013 All-Star Game.
“My greatest moment in baseball was just wearing the uniform,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t nothing [else, not] pitching, not [the] World Series, none of that stuff. That’s how big I have the New York Yankees in [my] mind.”
Rivera was known for his sharp-breaking cutter, which gave baseball’s best hitters trouble and broke countless bats. His career ERA of 2.21 also ranks among the lowest for qualified pitchers in the live-ball era.
Born in Panama, Rivera spent 19 seasons with the Yankees after making his major league debut in May 1995. Prior to that, he pitched for five years in the minor leagues, including a stint with the Class AA Eastern League’s Albany-Colonie Yankees in 1994.
He was originally not considered to be one of the team’s top prospects.
“I was just thanking the Lord to play for [a] few years,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘Lord, if you allow me to play [a] few years, I’ll be happy. I’ll make some money, go back to Panama make some business and I’ll be happy with that.’
“Little did I know New York City became my home, and the few years that I wanted to play became 19 years.”
Rivera debuted as a starting pitcher before being converted to a reliever and, eventually, became the team's closer in 1997.
In his post-baseball career, Rivera has received numerous honors beyond his impending Hall of Fame induction. In 2014, Major League Baseball renamed its American League reliever of the year award the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award. The Yankees also gave Rivera a plaque in the section of their stadium known as Monument Park, and a section of River Avenue, one of the streets bordering Yankee Stadium, was renamed Rivera Avenue in his honor.
The Yankees again honored Rivera with a Mariano Rivera Captain America bobblehead night before they played the Toronto Blue Jays Friday.
“The last night they had a bobblehead, it was a disaster.” Rivera said “The truck [was] late. They had lines around Yankee Stadium. Hopefully this time, none of that stuff happens.”
Rivera has focused much of his attention to religion. He rescued and renovated the Refuge Of Hope Church Iglesia Refugio de Esperanza in New Rochelle.
“My wife is a pastor,” Rivera said. “I’m a Christian, and so we built a church. Actually, the church was there. The building was there, abandoned for like 30 years. And we just got it and renovated the whole thing.”
During the Saratoga Race Course ceremony, which included having the “Mariano Rivera Hall of Fame” race named after him, Rivera took time to speak to and answer questions in front of a very excited crowd of fans holding cameras to record his every word and bellowing out constant screams of “We love you” while also attempting to start a “Mariano” chant.
Rivera was presented with a framed custom pinstripe jockey silk that displayed the number 42 in resemblance to his Yankees jersey. A video presentation showcasing some of the best moments of Rivera’s career was also displayed around the venue.
“I love you, too.” Rivera said with an emotional smile across his face. “It’s a privilege to be in front of you guys. You guys are the best. You guys pushed me to a different level. You guys were there in tough times, and great times and difficult times.”
Rivera would go on to tell a heartfelt story of when he returned to Yankee Stadium for the 2004 ALCS following a trip back home to Panama after the death of a loved one. After walking out of the tunnel to the bullpen, the reception from the crowd allowed him to feel like he had more strength that day than any other day of his career.
Toward the end of his speech, Rivera invited all of the fans cheering him on in attendance to take the trip to Cooperstown and join him for the induction ceremony that will take place July 21.
“I’m ready for that; I was born ready,” Rivera said about the induction. “Well, the speech is almost ready, too.”
Tyrell Feaster is an intern at The Daily Gazette. Feaster, a junior at the University at Albany, is majoring in journalism.