Yankees closer draws closer to God

Former professional baseball pitcher Mariano Rivera came from nothing to play 19 successful seasons in Major League Baseball before his retirement in 2013.

Mariano Rivera

The ex-Yankees number 42 was 16 the first time he tried on a real baseball glove.

Before that Mariano and his friends lived in the Panamanian fishing village that was his home, had fashioned gloves from milk cartons, used sticks as bats, and made balls from a rock and fishing net.

When Mariano showed up for the Yankees tryout at Estadio Juan Demostenes Arosemena, he writes in his autobiography The Closer, he wore old green pants, a frayed shirt, and a shoe with a hold in it. He had no glove.

Mariano threw nine pitches – all fastballs – because that was the only pitch he knew. Chico Heron liked what he saw and had him pitch for Latin America's Yankee's head scout.

The next day he signed a contract. It was 1990, and he was 21 years old.

For a small boy from a small fishing village with very limited proper baseball experience, the rapidity and extent of Mariano's success was phenomenal.

In May 1995, he got the call to move up from the minor leagues and pitch for the New York Yankees.

He became the Yankee's closer in 1997. Over the following few years he established himself as one of baseball's top relievers, leading the major leagues in saves in 1999, 2001, and 2004.

He earned a reputation as one of the league's toughest pitches to hit. He was named the 1999 World Series Most Valuable Player and the 2003 AL Championship Series MVP and holds records for lowest earned run average and most saves.

But even as his career grew and he established success after success, Mariano considered he had another job, one more important than playing baseball.

"I have a new job," he writes in The Closer, "probably better described as a calling – and that is to glorify the Lord and praise His name, and show the wonders that await those who seek Him and want to experience His grace and peace and mercy."

When Mariano was 18, still living in Panama, he noticed a striking change in his cousin and asked him about it. His cousin told him he had come to know the Lord and began to witness to Mariano by sharing Bible stories with him. Mariano noticed his cousin's passion about his faith and his newfound peace and happiness.

Mariano and Clara Rivera
Mariano Rivera and his wife Clara unveil a plaque in the former pitcher’s honor before a game at Yankee Stadium in 2016 in New York City. (Photo Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

"Vidal was the first one to really teach me about the Bible," Mariano says, according to God Reports, "and what it means to know Jesus, and to know what He did for us, dying on the cross to forgive our sins."

Still, Mariano did not make the decision to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior himself until a few years later.

As Mariano reflected on his life, he sensed a battle being waged inside between then his own natural, sinful desires and God's Spirit, for ultimate control.

He eventually surrendered himself to God, felt his resistance crumble and a new love for the Bible within him.

Mariano says as he received prayer he felt like a burden lifted from his shoulders.

"It is the burden of feeling you have to do it by yourself," he explains, "of feeling alone and overwhelmed by your own limitations.

"I felt the Lord giving me a chance to be a different person, to free me from my sins, to be joyous and free."

So when his success with his pitching mounted, leaving him and his teammates wondering where such force came from, Mariano knew who deserved the praise.

Mariano Rivera retired
Mariano Rivera’s uniform number 42 was retired by the Yankees in September 2013, making him the first active Yankee to receive that honor. Here he is a year later in the dugout at Yankee Stadium before a game against the Baltimore Orioles. (Photo Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

"It has to be the work of the Lord," he said at the time. "I am getting results that are way beyond my physical abilities.

"I don't fully understand what is going on, but it feels much bigger than me."

Mariano believes that God has a reason for everything that happens.

For example, he found his failure in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series easier to deal with when he learned of the consequences it had for teammate Enrique Wilson.

Had the Yankees won the series, Wilson would have remained in New York for the championship parade and would have departed for his native Dominican Republic on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 260 people aboard.

Mariano told Wilson, "I am glad we lost the World Series, because it means that I still have a friend."

Since retiring from baseball, Mariano has been involved with philanthropic contributions to his native Panama, including the building of an elementary school, the provision of Christmas gifts to children, and the development of programs that provide computer access.

When he played for the Yankees, Mariano's pitching glove was inscribed with "Phil. 4:13" in reference to the verse from Philippians in the Bible that he continues to live by: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

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