Mariano Rivera’s five World Series championship rings, record 652 saves and 1,173 strikeouts were key factors in his unanimous election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but New Yorkers say there was more to it.
For them, the 49-year-old retired closer’s years of hard work, humility and generosity, on and off the field, made him the epitome of a Big Apple success story.
"Joe DiMaggio, it took him three years to get in," said William Coppola, a columnist for New York Sports Day. "You didn’t expect that. There’s always somebody [who votes against a player], but not this guy."
In fact, Rivera’s induction ceremony at Cooperstown on Sunday will be an important milestone for all New Yorkers. That’s especially true for the Latino community who have seen the Panama native as an ideal role model, according to Dr. Ramona Hernández, the director of the Dominican Studies Institute of The City University of New York.
"Here you have this man … um Latino, um Panameño … He is an immigrant and a good man," she said. "It is a beautiful story that needs to be repeated over and over."
Baseball fans, even ones who grew up rooting against the Yanks, acknowledged Rivera’s role in changing the game because he was a diamond in the rough, according to Robert Casey, the managing editor for the Yankee fan blog Bleeding Yankee Blue. The righthander began his major league career with the Yankees in 1995 as a starting pitcher and initially struggled to find his footing on the team.
"You had this guy who was extremely athletic, and [team owner] George [Steinbrenner] wanted to trade him, but he had this management team who said ‘No, no. Keep him,’ " Casey said.
Rivera quickly was shifted to a relief pitching role and wowed with his low ERA, huge strikeouts and clutch performances, which ultimately led to his role as the closer beginning in 1997. Casey said Rivera’s performances on the mound during his 19 years in pinstripes came at a time when bullpens prepared their relief pitchers to specifically focus on those final outs.
"Mariano capitalized on that, became extremely dominant with that cutter and kept getting those hitters," he said. "He helped reinvent the closer role in baseball."
Some fans said they felt a sense of wonder every time he showed up in the ninth inning.
"You basically knew we were gonna win the game the second he got on the mound. It was a given," said Michael Pannazzo, of the Bronx.
While fans acknowledge Rivera was just one of the many highly skilled Yankees of the late 1990s and 2000s era team that captured five World Series championships — including Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, David Cone and Bernie Williams — they said Rivera’s positive, courteous attitude stood out.
Even with his big Hall of Fame ceremony on the horizon, Rivera expressed humility about his career during a promotional news conference at Kennedy Airport on Tuesday.
"I was just happy to be in big leagues," Rivera said. "But the Lord has done everything for me since I signed with the Yankees. He’s opened doors for me, and I’ve been very blessed."
Hernández said Rivera’s words and optimism were also reflected in his actions off the field. His Mariano Rivera Foundation, created in 1998, has raised millions of dollars over the years for programs such as relief to Central American and South American countries, educational programs and scholarships. The charity lent a helping hand close to home in 2014, when it donated $3 million to renovate and save Rivera’s church, Refugio de Esperanza, near his New Rochelle home.
"His impact is felt across the board," Hernández said, "He fits so many shoes because of who he is."
Shaun Clancy, the owner of Foley’s Pub and Restaurant in midtown, agreed.
"The thing is, he really and truly is the personification of what a Hall of Famer is," he said.
Rivera said he plans to give his induction speech in both English and Spanish and will express his gratitude to New Yorkers.
"New York is a great city. The people here are amazing," he told reporters Tuesday. "I am so thankful the Lord brought me here because He knew I could do something different here and help others."
Hernández said she hopes that Rivera’s induction at Cooperstown will resonate with future Latinos in the New York City. She noted that American history books aren’t filled with historical role models who were minorities, even though Latinos have been important figures in various aspects, from science and art to civics and leadership.
Rivera’s sports work would be able to inspire a wide group, Hernández said.
"Mariano comes and adds to that list of people that we have been putting together, slowly and painfully, in our history books," she said. "That increases the possibility of our young children, particularly young men, to see themselves and the good they can do."
(with Allegra Hobbs)