Readers of mine know that I hold Mariano Rivera in the highest regard as a player. As a reliever, he has no peer and his success is both unparalleled and prolonged. He also comports himself with grace, humility, and decency as a player and person in public, representing himself and the organization with an unwavering positive presence. He also maintains a disciplined regimen that has abetted his tremendous success as he has turned 40. At this point in his illustrious career, Mariano is at a point at which he can start to throw just before Spring Training begins, quickly get into playing shape, and pitch several innings before declaring himself ready come April. It has become somewhat hackneyed, but is nonetheless worth saying: we as Yankees fans have been blessed to have watched Mariano don and grace the pinstripes. He is beyond special.
Kevin Kernan had a good piece in yesterday’s New York Post probing some details of Mariano’s background and persona in Panama, a relatively impoverished nation (for those who might not know). In it, Mariano says that much of his determination and discipline to win stems from playing baseball as a child for pocket change against other kids, winner take all. Each team put up 25 cents, which might not seem like much to us, even for those of us growing up in the late 1970s as Mariano did. However, this tidy sum proved well worth a full effort from Mariano and his friends and teammates:
Are you kidding me, 50 cents, that was gold for us! And we fight to the end. It was beautiful. It don’t matter what we have to do, we fight to the end. Most of the time we came up winners…
These games, and doubtless his rather modest upbringing, cultivated a deep passion, determination, and competitiveness in Mariano that allowed him to hone his craft to a level of mastery rarely seen in major league history. He says it better than I ever could:
“I always had that determination to win,” Rivera said. “I was disciplined to win. I hated to lose. I hate to lose at anything, with my cousins, anything. I was very, very competitive. That’s the point. We didn’t want to let that 25 cents get away without fighting.”
“You have to fight for that goal — it ain’t going to be given to you, no one is going to hand you anything,” he said with passion. “You have to fight for it. You have to earn it.”
What did they do with those hard-fought winnings, you might ask?
If we won, we all went to the little store to buy a big liter of soda and oatmeal cookies and we share.
Anyone who thinks they have it tough should heed the words of Mariano, a guy who emerged from Panama with plenty of athletic skill and a determination to become far and away the greatest closer in the history of baseball. Here is a guy who literally asked for no quarter, and gave none. He just went ahead and won them. Best of all, revealed in this piece is an unselfishness that sheds crucial light on one of the greatest athletes of our times. They won as a team, lost as a team, and celebrated as one with the spoils when they won.
These may seem like trivial tidbits. Readers might shrug at such anecdotes, thinking such incidents more commonplace than they are. I contend they’re more fundamental to understanding how Mariano got to be who and where he is, literally playing his way out of poverty by using makeshift equipment, and avoiding a life of dangerous work as a fisherman, with Mariano avoiding peril by abandoning a capsized fishing vessel as a young man. As much as Kernan’s good article reveals about the genesis of Mariano’s competitive, focused demeanor, I appreciate as much as anything the unselfishness and appreciation that he displays. As great as Mariano has been, he ensconces himself within, rather than setting himself above, others, never forgetting from where he came.
We’ve been lucky to have Mariano, people. The likes of him just don’t sashay through the door every day.