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by richard gere | May 3, 2012 | People
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New York has the world’s finest art galleries, restaurants, and theaters, but best of all, it is home to the New York Yankees. All one needs to do to capture the soul of the city is go to a game where a Mariano Rivera pitch in the ninth inning can be as captivating as the last, lingering note of the New York Philharmonic.
As Rivera enters the second year of a two-year, $30 million contract, he is ignoring retirement talk and focusing on his 17th year in pinstripes. Just after our February visit to Tampa, Rivera threw two scoreless appearances—a further demonstration of his competitive nature. Here, actor and lifelong Yankees fan Richard Gere—who threw the first pitch to open the Yankees’ spring training in 2011 and requested Rivera’s autograph for his son Homer, a Little League pitcher—interviews Rivera exclusively for Gotham as he aims to add to his MLB-record 603 saves and secure another World Series title. Will this be the season Rivera puts jersey number 42 permanently into retirement? No matter what he decides, it’s just a matter of time until Rivera takes his next position—in the Hall of Fame.
RICHARD GERE: The interviews you’re giving make it sound like you’re retiring after this year.
MARIANO RIVERA: Richard, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing: It’s been a great journey, but I do miss my kids a lot. It’s hard seeing your kids, then you’re separated for a few weeks, but at the same time you have your passion, your love for the game, that drive that’s always there. New York has been a blessing for me and my family. But it’s a decision to be made, and hopefully we made the best one for everyone.
RG: It’s not just New York that loves you; it’s all of baseball. Other pitchers and other relievers, like [retired Hall of Fame closer] Dennis Eckersley, these guys all freely say that you are the best. It’s very rare to see that kind of generosity from people you are competitive with.
MR: I know, it’s amazing, but I never feel like I have done anything. When people say that, it makes me uncomfortable because I’m not that kind of person. I just go out there and try to do my job.
RG: Do you feel that “Mariano” is gone when you’re in your space on the mound?
MR: I don’t feel that Mariano has gone, I feel like it’s just me and the catcher—I don’t even see the hitter. I feel like everything is gone—the noise, the fans. I’m in kind of like a tube, and it’s the catcher and me. There’s nothing that can take me away from that peace. I told the guys, and they said, “You don’t hear anything?” I said, no, I don’t hear, I don’t see. I have friends that have told me they were right there, above our dugout. They are sad because I ignore them. I say, no, it’s not that I ignore you. I’m so locked in that I don’t see you, and that will happen again, so don’t get mad at me.
RG: Do you go through any kind of conscious mental routine to get yourself into that space, or is it totally natural at this point?
MR: No, all I do is pray. Every time before I throw my first pitch, I am praying. And not only that, in the bullpen I am praying. I know there are millions of people praying for me, and I strongly believe in prayers. I know who I am, I know what I am capable of, I know who I trust. I don’t have control over everything; God has control over everything and I trust him, so I don’t worry.
RG: I’ve watched you pitch many, many times, and as everyone knows, 99 percent of the time you succeed, but one percent of the time you don’t. The way you deal with the blown save is the difference between you and most players. The mental strength that you have to let it go, to keep your mind clean, and start fresh every time—how are you able to do that?
MR: I learned early in my life that sometimes I’m going to lose. I don’t like it, but I accept it, meaning that I understand it’s going to happen. But I don’t see it like defeat; I see it like a learning process. Then if there’s nothing to learn, I move on. I’m going to give you a good example. It’s a big one, but it’s good. It’s the World Series, 2001, Game 7. We were winning by one run in the ninth inning against Arizona. I’m going out for my second inning, and we lost the game. I was sitting there in my locker and I wouldn’t say I was devastated, but I was hurt. But I accepted it. I remember that Mr. George Steinbrenner was there, and I looked into his eyes and said, “Boss, I did my best; my best wasn’t enough today.” And he just hugged me and he said, “You’re okay, son.”
RG: Was that the hardest one to deal with?
MR: The hardest one was ’97 because we lost the playoffs against Cleveland. I didn’t lose the game, but I gave up the home run to tie to Sandy Alomar. To overcome that I spent a few weeks thinking I should have done better.
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RG: That was with Joe Torre. How did Torre deal with that?
MR: He was the best. He just grabbed me and said, this is going to happen. You just learn from it and move on. And I said, what did I do wrong? Well, I missed my location. Okay. I have to make sure I don’t do that again.
RG: Who was the hardest hitter to get out?
MR: [Laughs] I think the hardest hitter, Richard, is retired, thank God…. It was Edgar Martinez.
RG: Edgar Martinez—he killed you, didn’t he?
MR: Oh my God, I don’t call that killed—I call that massacred. That guy, he was amazing. He was a great, great player and a great person.
RG: What did it feel like when you knew you were coming out there to pitch to him?
MR: It was a horrible feeling. First of all, I would hope there was no one on base. But I always got him to two strikes. Always. Quick too. But the third strike never came. If I could move the right fielder behind second base, I would have gotten him out every time because that was the line that he always hit.
RG: Let me ask you a few questions about how you got into baseball. When I received my first job as an actor, I felt that the next part of my life was taking off. What was it with baseball for you? Was there a moment when all of a sudden you realized that’s who you’re going to be in this lifetime?
MR: First of all, I wasn’t even looking for baseball. My main game was soccer; my second game was baseball. All of a sudden when I was 17, 18, soccer started going down, and baseball started gaining priorities because I was getting hit a lot on my knees and ankles. I didn’t want to get to the point that I couldn’t play baseball too, so I let soccer go a little bit and started playing more baseball, but I played for fun. I was really naïve when it came to professional baseball.
RG: How did that first professional contact happen?
MR: I was playing the outfield in Panama, and our best pitcher was getting killed. We had no more pitchers, so I ended up pitching, and we won the game. Two weeks after, I was coming from the beach with my parents and my wife—back then my girlfriend—and I see my two teammates, my catcher, Claudino Hernandez, and the centerfielder, Emilio Gaez, who told me, “We found you a tryout with the Yankees as a pitcher.”
MR: A week later I was signed for the New York Yankees as a pitcher. God has opened doors that amaze me. I was signed [to the Yankees’s minor league system] February 17, 1990. That same year I went to Tampa not knowing what I was doing. As a matter of fact, I was talking to the scout that signed me about two days ago….
RG: This is Herb Raybourn…
MR: Yes, Herb Raybourn, he fought for me. [The Yankees] wanted to release me. I was too old—I was 20 years old—and they wanted to send me to the Dominican Republic. And he said, no, he’s staying here, he has the potential. That year, Richard, I pitched about 52 innings and gave up one run. And on top of that, I threw a no-hitter in the last game of the season. I won ERA Champion for all the minor leagues.
RG: You’ve stayed in touch with Herb Raybourn? He must be an older guy now.
MR: Yeah, Herb is old now, but [an interviewer] was asking him, what did you see in Mariano and why did you sign him? He says, Mariano was relaxed and had a strong arm, though he wasn’t throwing hard at the time, but I knew that with his frame and free arm delivery, he would get it. I signed him not to play in the minor leagues; I signed him to play in the big leagues. But that’s when I say God used him to bring me from my hometown to Tampa, to start helping me through all my career. Five World Series, All-Star Games, state record—if somebody told me that I would accomplish all these things, I would have said that you are crazy. I was happy with five, six, years in the big leagues—that was my mentality, I wasn’t asking for much. And here it is 17 years later, I’m still in the big leagues.
RG: I assume that if you started that way, you didn’t have any curveballs; you probably just had a fastball.
MR: Fastball. Sometimes I threw a slider or something that I invented. The teaching, all that stuff came later. I didn’t know much, but God had a good plan for me.
RG: Obviously you have enormous natural talent, but where did this drive come from to be at the absolute pinnacle of your job, of your art?
MR: Richard, I think God gave talent to different people in different areas. And since I was a little one, I was real competitive. I never give up. If you beat me, you have to beat me one, three, four, five times, and I still don’t give up.
RG: This might have been one of the first times you were away from home.
MR: It was the first time ever in my life that I left Panama. The language, it was a giant for me. My first year, when I was in Tampa, my second year in North Carolina, it was no English. I cried, because I couldn’t communicate with my teammates, with my pitching coordinator, my manager—I was frustrated.
RG: You were a fisherman’s son, and you lived in this very poor but very beautiful little fishing village. What was it like growing up there?
MR: Puerto Caimito was a wonderful village— white sand, a nice breeze, sun, mango trees, the people were gentle and friendly. We didn’t have much, but everybody knew each other and we helped each other. My mother worked with us, taking care of the kids and the house. My father fished and brought food to the table. We didn’t have much, but whatever we had we were happy with. I wouldn’t change it for anything. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change it.
RG: Describing your mother and father, what are the pieces of your mother that you are? The pieces of your father that you are?
MR: The piece of my mother, I have the gentleness, the worries, making sure everybody is okay. Then my father’s side is the one that wants to protect, that no matter how long it took to catch that fish, he would get it done. From my father’s side I got the strength, the mental toughness, the heart, the courage. But my grandfather from my mother’s side was the person that really, really, put a lot on me, because he always was around me. He worked a lot with sugarcane, and he used to make charcoal. He would go to the—I don’t call it the jungle, we call it manglares— where you go and cut the trees. It was a lot of work, a lot of work, but my grandfather was gentle, he was careful.
RG: You came up through the organization as a starting pitcher and didn’t have a great time of it, so they made you a long reliever. When they moved you up to be the setup man, did you feel that was going to be your career, in that spot?
MR: When they made me a setup man, I felt comfortable. I was happy because we accomplished something that every major league player wants to, and that’s winning the World Series. I was assuming that I would be doing exactly the same the following year.
RG: They felt strongly enough about you that they let [closer John] Wetteland go.
MR: Oh my God, Richard, to me that was a crazy move. When I found out that they didn’t sign Wetteland, my first question was, well, okay, who is going to close?
RG: It didn’t occur to you that it would be you.
MR: Never, never, never. It never went through my mind.
RG: Do you remember how much money you were making in the very beginning? When you first started with the Yankees?
MR: In the minors, I wasn’t making anything. I was making, like, [between] $400 a month and $800, something like that. I got to the big leagues and I started to make a little bit of money. I think the minimum was $109,000 at the time.
RG: That was a huge amount of money for you.
MR: In my little mind, Richard, I thought if I played five, six, seven years in the big leagues making this kind of money, I’m okay. I’m set.
RG: What did you do with that first money you made?
MR: I saved it. I saved everything. I was living with my mother-in-law at the time, but I was saving money. I had the opportunity to build a small house for me and my wife and my kids.
RG: When did you and your wife start The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which does community outreach in Panama and New York?
MR: The foundation started like this. We were making good money. Whatever I made was tithed to a church I was a member of—10 percent of my salary. I was giving a lot of money, so I decided to put this into a fund so we could help many churches, many people, in need. The foundation was just private—my wife and I, we did it alone.
RG: Now you’re partnering with The Guidance Center in Westchester, giving out food for kids?
MR: Yes, but the biggest is—and this is where my heart and soul is—that I wanted to help the young kids who have a lot of talent. Not necessarily the A-plus students, but I would say the B students that have tremendous talent but don’t have tremendous opportunities because those go to the A-plus students. I was one of these kids—I didn’t have much, but I had opportunities, and thank God I took advantage of them. But many of these kids don’t have the same opportunities. I want to be able to help these kids go through college and be good leaders in the community.
RG: I hope the Yankees are helping you with that too.
MR: [Laughs] They are, they are. A lot of people are.
RG: I know the Yankees are very, very generous that way.
MR: I think that Mr. George, I learned a lot from that man. That man always was giving, and he didn’t want anyone to know. That was the most important thing to me—that he didn’t want anyone to know. That man, to me... was one of the best.
RG: What are the Yankees like without him?
MR: His presence is definitely missed. The Yankees are trying to do the best, but he was the New York Yankees. We definitely, definitely miss Mr. George.
photography by peter yang; Styling by Rebecca Malinsky; Grooming by Kristen Nugent/Zenobia Agency; Shot on location at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida