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The Great Mariano Rivera

September 24th, 2013

Mariano Rivera during his retirement celebration at Yankee Stadium, Sept. 22, 2013. Photo licensed: AP/Kathy Willens

Even if you don’t follow baseball, or don’t even play sports, Mariano Rivera’s greatness can still be appreciated.

Rivera is a pitcher with the New York Yankees and he’s widely considered to be the greatest player at his position (closing relief* pitcher) in major le ague baseball history.

He’s retiring this season and teammates and rivals alike are celebrating one of the greatest baseball players of all time as he plays his final few games. If the Yankees do not make the playoffs  — which they aren’t likely to do given the current standings –his 19-year career will end this week.

He’s famous for his cut fastball “or cutter” which curves just enough at the last moment (while traveling over 90 miles per hour) that not too many batters have managed to hit it well. The pitch earned him 608 game-winning saves and was crucial to helping the Yankees win 5 of their World Series Championships, and many other division and league pennants.

His accomplishments are even more amazing for a player who grew up in a small fishing village in Panama, reportedly using old milk cartons for gloves, tree limbs for bats, and trash wrapped in tape for a ball. He didn’t own a baseball glove until he was 12-years old. He didn’t pitch until he was 19. And he wasn’t considered the next big thing for a long time. He made the major leagues when he was 25-years old, but not before working on his father’s fishing boat pulling in fish 6 days a week. When he signed his first contract for $3,000, he hadn’t been on a plane or outside of Panama, and didn’t speak English. At the height of his career he made $15 million per season and had the respect of his teammates and arch rivals alike.

On Sunday, Rivera was celebrated at his home field, Yankee Stadium.  He played all 19 years of his major league career with the Yankees.

In addition to his legendary cutter, Rivera is well known in baseball circles for entering the field while Metallica’s song “Enter Sandman” played. As a unique tribute, Metallica played the song live for him and a stadium of fans on Sunday. That was a highlight for many.

The ceremony was also significant for the early retirement of his jersey number as well. Rivera wears #42, in honor of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first African American baseball player to play in the U.S. major leagues, a historic milestone, and wore #42. Robinson’s number has since been retired across all of baseball (which means that no other player can wear it), but those players who were already wearing it were allowed to finish out their career wearing the number. Mariano Rivera is the last major league player to wear the #42 in the United S tates. Ever.

Rivera’s personal life is as interesting to many people as his pro fessional career. He is widely considered one of the nicest guys in his sport, is devoted to his family and his church, and has remained humble despite legendary success in one of baseball’s biggest cities.

His plans for life after baseball?  (He’s only 43-years old). He reportedly wants to become a minister spreading the word of God, to whom he has long attributed his success on the field.

During the ceremony at Yankee stadium, Rivera thanked God, his family, his teammates, his fans, and even his rivals that day for “allowing me to compete against you guys”. Then he thanked America and Panama for the opportunities he was given along the way and insisted on getting back to his job–for one of the last times.

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 * A relief pitcher is a one that enters during the middle or end of a game after the starter has tired or run into trouble. Rivera, as a “closer”, would typically be called upon in the 9th inning when his team was winning a close game and he was needed to help “close out” the victory. Pitching the last inning may not seem like hard work but usually it involves entering the game with men on base, excellent hitters at the plate, and lots of pressure to preserve a lead that the whole team has worked hard for 7 or 9 innings to maintain.

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