Mariano Rivera saves his best for last

  • Ian O'Connor [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPNNewYork.com | September 17, 2013

BOSTON -- A baseball cap tucked tight can strip years off a man's face, almost make a boy out of him, and so it is no surprise Mariano Rivera looks older without his.

The last of the 42s, age 43, has just pitched on three consecutive win-or-else nights in Baltimore, and he says he's been overwhelmed by requests for his time. If his weary brown eyes don't cry out for his pending retirement, they do betray his need for a restorative nap.

But suddenly Mo's expression changes as he absorbs a visitor's tales, lighting up and up in stages like a three-way bulb. Weeks and months after conducting his own town meetings in 18 ballparks in 17 cities, Rivera is being told stories about the strangers he inspired, the kids with cancer, the bombing victims, grieving family members, and the game's oft-ignored laborers and cheap-seat fans, all of them struck by his simple decency and messages of hope.

Rivera starts rattling off details about the strangers, proving what they expected all along. He does not forget them. He will not forget them. Now the overworked closer of the New York Yankees is back in his prime, in his element, and he wants more. A coach announcing a scheduling change passes his locker and says, "We're in the cage, Mo, in the cage," and this giver decides he wants to do a little taking.

Mariano Rivera
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesMo meets with members of the Bresette family in Kansas City.

Mo wants to hear more about the men, women and children he met on his selfless victory lap of the big leagues. Harry Clark, 13, is one of them. "Just a beautiful boy," Rivera says from the visitors dugout during his last regular-season trip to Boston.

A beautiful, brave and incredibly mature boy from Wellesley, Mass., who says on the phone that he's been fighting an inoperable brain tumor for years, and that his time talking with Rivera "was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. ... Mariano told me, 'Keep it up. Keep fighting. I know you can get through this and get better.'

"It was so inspiring to me. When I have to go in and get through shots or have chemo, I can think of what he said to me. ... Maybe in two, three, four years, if I've gotten a clean slate and fought it through and beat it, maybe I can play baseball. That would be amazing."

Rivera is told what the boy says, told that Harry Clark promises to be a Red Sox fan and a Mariano fan at the same time.

"You see what keeps me going?" Mo says. "It's not money. It's not fame."

He wants more, and there are many more stories in Boston, in Kansas City, in Oakland, in San Diego and in New York. As it turns out, in the year of baseball's big Biogenesis bust, Rivera's drug of choice was kindness. The 19-year Yankee who never got a hit, never mind a home run, found a way to touch them all.

Hope and dreams

On May 11, the day he met Mariano Rivera in Kansas City, Sam Bresette didn't care that the closer had planted the seed for his farewell tour in a 2011 talk with a Yankees PR official, telling Jason Zillo the end was near and that it was time to plan something special for the fans.

Bresette didn't care that Rivera insisted on learning the names and backstories of everyone he met with, or that Mo insisted on sitting in the same chairs, on the same level, with his audiences (elevated throne = elevated sense of self). A 9-year-old Royals fan from Overland Park, Kan., Bresette cared only that his brother Luke wasn't there to shake hands with one of the greatest players of all time.

Luke, 10, was traveling back from a Florida vacation with his parents and four siblings in March when a giant display board at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama collapsed and killed him. Sam suffered a broken leg and nose, his younger brother Tyler a concussion, and their mother Heather a broken pelvis and two broken ankles.

Mariano Rivera
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Getty ImagesFrom left, Heather, Tyler, Sam, Ryan and Joe Bresette enjoy the visit.

"This summer, Sam and Luke, they were so close in age that they were going to be on the same baseball team, and I was going to coach," said Ryan Bresette, the boys' father. "But Sam said, 'I'm not playing, I'm not playing.' After he met Mariano he said, 'I'm going to play.' ... What Mariano did was provide hope and inspiration to our children."

Tears were shed in a number of Rivera's meetings around the country, but the Kansas City experience was the most emotional. The closer met with Jonas Borchert, a high school baseball player who had suffered a relapse of Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, and who had kept pitching as he battled his disease. Rivera also met with Ricky Hernandez, a teen with cerebral palsy who is confined to a wheelchair yet plays baseball in his backyard on a field built by a charity known as the Dream Factory.

"When I think about Mariano's words that day, saying that I had given him motivation," Ricky said, "it gives me no doubt in my mind that I can do anything I want to do."

To better connect with those around him, Rivera spoke of the trying times in his own rehab. Kauffman Stadium was, after all, the scene of Mo's season-ending injury last year, when he tore up his knee shagging fly balls during BP.

But Rivera fully understood that a torn ACL isn't in the same ballpark with a broken heart. Mo hugged Luke Bresette's father, Ryan, a former Royals batboy, and whispered in his ear, "You are a stronger and braver man than I will ever be."

Meanwhile, young Sam had secured a promise from Mo that he'd hand him the game ball if he earned a save. Only the Bresettes ended up watching from handicap-accessible seats in the outfield, with Heather in her wheelchair, and couldn't make it through the crowd in time to catch the closer's eye after he nailed down No. 14 on the year. Sam was quiet as his father loaded up the car and started backing out of his parking space before finally answering the cell phone that wouldn't stop buzzing.

A Royals official was calling to say Rivera was waiting inside with Sam's ball.

"Mariano was frantic that he had to get us that ball," Ryan Bresette said. "This guy meets thousands of people, and he even remembered my son's name. ... He told Sam, 'You will always be in my prayers,' and my kid was on cloud nine."

Sam decided that he wanted not only to play again, but to pitch like Mariano, too. While manning third base one day this summer, bored with the bases loaded, Sam silently asked Luke to send a ball his way so he could turn two. Sure enough, a laser was immediately hit right at Sam, who was so thrilled to execute the unassisted double play that he didn't bother trying to turn three.

Sam Bresette
Courtesy of Bresette familyAfter meeting Mo, Sam was inspired to get back on the mound.

Yes, Rivera had assured Sam his brother would be with him in spirit at all times. Sam struggled early as a pitcher, but by season's end he was throwing the ball hard and throwing it for strikes. The father who couldn't bring himself to coach Sam's team without Luke was so proud of his 9-year-old's strength.

"To see him get on the field," Ryan said, "was Sam's way of feeding off Mariano's inspiration. ... For [Rivera] to do what he did and help me be a father is a moment I'll never forget."

In Oakland, an A-plus

On June 12, in Oakland, a free pizza was delivered to the A's mailroom as a show of appreciation for a woman who had worked there for 25 years. Julie Vasconcellos had a doctor's appointment scheduled for that day, and her always-agreeable boss wouldn't let her take the time off. The boss was in on it. The boss knew Mariano Rivera was delivering the pizza.

Vasconcellos loves her job, and she's been just as committed to it as Rivera has been to his. But the 65-year-old grandmother knows the way the world works. Some big leaguers she comes across in the workplace (Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick among them) always say hello, and some completely ignore her.

So that's why Vasconcellos called her surprise meeting with Mo one of the two best events of her life, right there with the time her father took her to listen to John F. Kennedy speak at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

"I'll never forget my dad saying I should listen to everything [Kennedy] has to say," Vasconcellos said, "and I'll never forget this, either. Just Mariano's kindness, the way he hugged me, was so nice. ... I still think of him all the time."

Three days later, in Anaheim, Rivera sat down with 17 Angels fans and employees, and one former Yankee. Jim Abbott recalled first seeing the minor leaguer pitch on a rainy spring training day nearly 20 years ago, letting it rip in a covered bullpen while players gathered around to admire the ease of his delivery.

Now Abbott and his 16-year-old daughter were admiring the ease of an entirely different delivery, admiring how Rivera made a woman who'd spent 45 years in housekeeping feel like she owned the team.

Mariano Rivera
Travis Lo Dolce /Oakland AthleticsJulie Vasconcellos was surprised with a pizza delivery by Mo.

"I played for the Angels for a while," Abbott said, "and I hate to say this, but some of these were people I'd never met or seen or frankly thought too much about, and Mariano was calling them out by name. He said he wanted to hear their stories, hear about what they do, and just wanted to thank them for their role in the game.

"It was incredible. I don't want to be dramatic, but I saw people welling up. ... It made me feel a little guilty, made me introspective about how many times I just walked by the same offices."

The same man who moved millions of fans by pitching a no-hitter for the Yankees 25 years after he was born without a right hand said he'd never been so moved by an athlete's grace.

"It was the coolest thing I've ever seen a baseball player do," Abbott said, "and I still get goose bumps thinking about it."

He thanked them for his freedoms

These sessions were supposed to last 30 minutes before pregame stretching, but as the tour rolled on they grew to 40 and then 50, sometimes even clearing an hour. The coaching staff would occasionally get concerned with the spillover, and so be it. Mariano Rivera didn't think a half-hour was cutting it for what he had to say and, more importantly, for what they had to say.

But he could make a profound impact on a kid, his father and grandfather in five minutes, too. Back in the Bronx, where Rivera would have full sessions with longtime season-ticket holders, with longtime cleaning staff members, and with longtime security guards and ticket takers, he met with an upstate New York family simply because a boy wanted a ball signed for his 16th birthday.

Five years ago in Toronto, Connor Fayle had caught the ball Rivera threw to him during BP. His grandfather, Tom Fayle, wrote a letter to the Yankees last spring in the hope Connor could meet Mo before the one and only retired.

Tom grew up on 168th and Woodycrest in the Bronx, and his older brother Al would take him on the short walk to Yankee Stadium, where their mother saw Babe Ruth play. Tom was a Mickey Mantle fan, of course, and he'd wait near the players' parking lot in the hope of meeting the Mick, Yogi Berra or Elston Howard, a meeting that never happened.

But more than a half-century later, the Yankees appreciated Tom's letter, and his family's four generations of loyalty, and the fact that the Fayles wanted to drive five hours from Lowville -- population 3,459 -- for a few minutes with Mo. The team informed Tom's son Mike of the granted request, and Mike asked his wife and mother to keep the true purpose of the trip a secret from Tom and Connor.

signed baseball
Courtesy of Mike FayleMo inscribed this ball for Connor Fayle.

Rivera met them all in the trainer's room on July 26, and Tom and Connor and Connor's brothers, Matthew and Danny, all but fell over. Tom retired a lieutenant after putting in 30 years with the state police, and he wasn't a man known to betray his emotions.

He sure betrayed them that night. He choked up when thanking Rivera for being a class act; Tom's grandsons said they'd never seen him do that, never seen his legs shake as they did. Rivera signed five or six balls, but made a special notation on Connor's, the one from Toronto. Beneath his meticulous signature, Mo wrote the words he'd write Sunday night on the Fenway Park bullpen wall: "Last to wear #42."

On the phone, Tom Fayle choked up again over his audience with the kind of Yankee legend he'd never met as a kid waiting on the Mick. Tom's brother Al, the one who took him to those games, died last year, and Rivera brought the retired state trooper back to a happier time and place.

"Just a lot of good memories," Tom Fayle said. "With all the things going on in sports today, I want my grandsons to look up to Mariano Rivera. If you're going to play sports, that's who you should be like right there."

A week later, Rivera found himself in a folding chair facing a semicircle of servicemen in San Diego's Petco Park. Mo had already visited with a 93-year-old soldier and baseball fan in Tampa who served under Gen. Patton in North Africa and who had never before met a big leaguer, but this was different.

Some of these wounded warriors were young men who had just returned from combat in Afghanistan. The Marines in the room told Rivera that sports conversation forever serves as a great morale boost in faraway battlefields, and one soldier maintained that Mo's face-to-face contact meant more to them than any card or email expressing prayerful support.

In turn, Mo thanked the men for his freedoms, and assured the soldiers he understood the difference between real-world heroes (them) and the fantasy kind (ballplayers).

Mariano Rivera
Michael Ivins/Boston Red SoxBoston Marathon bombing survivors J.P. and Paul Norden met with Mo before a game at Fenway in July.

"It was a chance of a lifetime for most of us," said Lt. Col. Joseph Allena, a Yankees fan from New Jersey who was deployed twice to Afghanistan as the commanding officer of a Marine battalion. "It was an absolutely sincere conversation, not a presentation or pitch, and [Rivera] wanted to hear from us as much as we wanted to hear from him.

"The morale in the room was incredible. The words he said about thanking us so his teammates could continue playing sports back here were really touching words. ... You had injured Marines there, giving their all, and to have him say that to them meant so much."

Back in Boston a couple of weeks earlier, Rivera's words resonated with two men in his Fenway Park session who lost limbs without ever signing up for war. J.P. and Paul Norden were standing outside the Forum restaurant when the second bomb exploded at the Boston Marathon on April 15, costing each brother a leg.

From his room inside Brigham and Women's Hospital, J.P. said he saw Rivera as a powerful and genuine force.

"Anyone would want to be like Mariano as a person," J.P. said. "He said he made a list of goals he wanted to accomplish [during rehab] and talked about what he went through to make it back. ... It's not the same, but it is the same. My goal now is to get up on the prosthetic, learn how to walk again, and then run and play sports and work like I did before. After listening to Mariano, I want to play sports with friends again."

Another Red Sox fan in the room with Rivera, 19-year-old Fernando Morales, felt the same way. He had to give up soccer and track because of his Ewing's sarcoma, and the struggle of running around the block now hits him hard.

Mariano Rivera, Fernando Morales
Michael Ivins/Red SoxMo said he looks up to Morales, who's waging a lengthy battle with cancer.

"When I told Mariano my story," Morales said, "the look on his face said it all. He didn't even blink. He told me he respected that I wasn't going to be defeated by my disease, and he talked about his own injury and said he looks up to me."

Like 13-year-old Harry Clark, Morales is a Jimmy Fund patient who has had far too much experience managing his chemo treatments.

"I was an optimistic person even before Mariano," he said. "But ever since that day I haven't beaten myself up over anything. If something gets me down, I look back on that meeting with him. Mariano gave us a lot of respect, and now I give everyone around me more respect than I gave before."

'I love to do good for others'

It is pouring before the first game of Mariano Rivera's final series at Fenway, and now that he's heard more about the way he lifted so many people, it's time to address the hows and whys.

As in how Mo became baseball's most respected ambassador and motivational speaker, and why he didn't cross over to the dark side as a fisherman's son in Puerto Caimito, Panama, where he wasn't always quoting from Scripture.

"I was kind of like a wild, a wild thing, yeah," he says, "not that I was like a bad kid. No, no such thing, no such thing. But I was doing the wrong things. But I've never been like a kid that, no, no, no trouble. No, never."

No drug use?

"No, no, no, no, no, no," Rivera says. "But I always was hanging with the wrong people. You know, guys that did a lot of stuff that is bad. But of course, just being there ..."

Association? Guilt by association?

"Exactly, exactly," he says. "So I've never been a kid who was in trouble, or a drug dealer, or something like that."

Rivera is still afraid of disappointing his father, Mariano Sr., the one who taught him to care for others. Mo calls him "a giver," a man who shared whatever modest possessions a fisherman's life afforded him in Puerto Caimito.

"I'm an old man, you know what I mean?" Rivera says from his seat in the Fenway dugout. "I'm not 15 or 16, but if there's something my father will not like, I won't do that. I know if I got a pierced earring, and that will bother him, I will never do it."

Of course, any meaningful conversation with Mariano Rivera ultimately works its way into some churches, the Roman Catholic ones he used to attend and the Pentecostal one (Refuge of Hope) he is renovating with his wife Clara in New Rochelle, N.Y. Rivera says that he left Catholicism around the age of 21, that the Pentecostal faith has enhanced his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and that his family, including his father, has followed his lead "because they see the difference in me."

Rivera All I wanted to do was be there for them. You don't know how many lives you can touch by just being nice to people.

-- Mariano Rivera

So was it simply faith that pulled Rivera away from the bad influences of his youth and made him this figure we see today, this person who can travel the country and encourage strangers who are among the sick and injured and forgotten?

"I always believe that when the Lord puts his eyes on you," Rivera says, "he will keep you from doing things. He will keep you from going the other way.

"I'm perfect? No, I'm not even near close to perfect. But you know what, I love to do good for others. I love to please other people.

"I have money and fame and I am better than you? No, my key is trying to always be lower than the rest. I lower myself because when I lower myself to others, I'm always trying to elevate my teammates. I'm always trying to elevate my team."

On the ballfield, where he once got by with bats made out of shovels and gloves made out of milk cartons, where he was signed for a lousy three grand, where he was considered a marginal minor league prospect before and after elbow surgery, where he was left unprotected in an expansion draft and was nearly traded twice, where he discovered the magical, mystery cutter ("a gift from God," he calls it), where he entered to a Metallica beat and remained composed while fellow closers all but smashed guitars in triumph, yeah, Mariano Rivera elevated his Yankees.

Off the field, where he's proved himself to be the perfect choice to retire Jackie Robinson's number, Rivera elevated a different team. A team that he drafted.

"All I wanted to do was be there for them," Rivera says. "You don't know how many lives you can touch by just being nice to people."

Game time at Fenway approaches, and Mo needs to get it moving. He says the farewell tour has been emotionally draining, and a visitor suggests that it has likely impacted his performance, that giving his heart away for 30, 40, 50 minutes before pregame stretching might've shown up in the box score, along with his age.

Rivera doesn't disagree, and yet he doesn't dare to complain. "I rejoice in it," he says. "I love it. And I won't stop."

He has two more appointments to keep, one more in the Bronx and one in Houston. "For me to stop now," Mo says before he lifts himself off the Fenway bench, "it will erase everything we have done."

Only nothing can erase from the books the closer's final save. Mariano Rivera remembers you, Sam Bresette. And you, Fernando Morales. And you, the wounded warriors. And you, Harry Clark and Ricky Hernandez, and J.P. and Paul Norden.

He's never going to forget you, which makes for an even-up trade.

Nobody will ever forget him, either.

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