Rivera awed by Hall of Fame tour

Part of the HOFVISITS series
Written by: Bill Francis

Ten days after making history as the first unanimous National Baseball Hall of Fame electee, Mariano Rivera was in the Museum’s Plaque Gallery and marveling at his good fortune.

“It’s freezing outside but this makes it warm. For a man that loves the game of baseball, who’s passionate for all that these players did and passed on to us, it couldn’t be a better day. Yesterday I was driving here and seeing all that snow and thinking, ‘Man, what am I doing here?’ but when I got here all that disappeared,” said an awestruck Rivera, looking fit and dressed fashionably in black slacks, a white shirt, and a black V-neck sweater, at a late morning 15-minute press conference held inside the Hall’s Plaque Gallery on Friday, Feb. 1.

“Mr. Juan Marichal, in a movie that we saw (the Museum’s Generations of the Game film), was talking about where he grew up, now being in Cooperstown, and how no one would believe it. And I can sympathize with that because I would say the same thing. From Puerto Caimito (Panama), a small fishing village to Cooperstown, no one would believe that.

“I only have to say, ‘Thank God,’ because without him it would have been impossible for me to be here speaking to you guys about the Hall of Fame.”

Rivera and his wife Clara were at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for their orientation visit, an annual rite for all living inductees in preparation for their Induction Ceremony. He will be joining fellow closers Lee Smith, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Trevor Hoffman in Cooperstown’s bullpen.

On Jan. 22, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced the Hall of Fame elections of not only Rivera, but also fellow pitchers Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina, as designated hitter Edgar Martinez. Rivera received 100 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot. The Induction Ceremony featuring the four will be held on Sunday, July 21 at the Clark Sports Center. The six-member Hall of Fame Class of 2019 will also include Today’s Game Era Committee electees Lee Smith and Harold Baines, who were chosen in December.

Rivera used his dominating cut fastball and steely nerves as a topnotch closer during an 18-year career with the New York Yankees, the righty finishing with a staggering list of statistics and honors. The big league leader with 652 regular-season saves, the Panama native’s stellar postseason numbers included 42 saves with a 0.70 ERA, including 11 saves in the World Series.

A member of the Yankees’ famous “Core Four” that included Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, “Mo,” who turned 49 in November, and his teammates captured five Fall Classic crowns during his tenure.

In 96 postseason appearances, Rivera was 8-1, winning World Series MVP honors in 1999 and ALCS MVP honors in 2003.

“Playing my entire career with the Yankees? That’s an honor for me,” Rivera said. “As a matter of fact, for me that was my greatest moment in baseball.

Not on the field, because on the field we have a lot of great moments, but for me just putting the uniform on, those pinstripes, day in, day out, year in, year out, for 19 seasons, that was amazing. Every day I had the opportunity to put the pinstripes on it was a privilege and on honor.

Rivera also addressed the opportunities he had with baseball’s most historically successful team and often on the sport’s biggest stage. In 96 postseason appearances, the Yankees were 78-18.

“There are no words to describe those moments,” Rivera said. “As a matter of fact, when you see yourself on video you say, ‘Wow. That was a great moment.’ But at the time you can’t describe it because you are in the moment, you’re doing it, and you’re not thinking about it.

“And when you have a franchise with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and you play on the same field and doing it in October, that’s when it matters. Those guys taught us how to do it representing the New York Yankees.”

This year’s BBWAA ballot featured 35 players. Of the 425 ballots cast, 319 votes were needed for the 75 percent threshold necessary for election.

Rivera, the recipient of the historic unanimous BBWAA vote, surpassed Ken Griffey Jr., who held the previous mark with 99.32 percent of the vote two years ago.

Asked about the pride he felt in being the first unanimous BBWAA elected, Rivera deflected, stating, “It’s not about pride, it’s about being thankful. And I’m thankful. I respect the game, I respect everybody, I respect my opponents, and I respect anything that is around baseball because no one is bigger than the game. When you are elected by 100 percent, me being the first one, my heart is full of gratitude and thankfulness because that happened.”

Rivera, who approached the Yankee Stadium pitching mound to the strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” became the last big leaguer to wear No. 42, a number he was grandfathered to him after it was retired in honor of Jackie Robinson in 1997.

“This is definitely a special occasion because of what Mr. Jackie Robinson represents,” said Rivera minutes after checking out the trailblazing Dodgers’ bronze plaque. “And me being the last player to wear No. 42 in honor of Mr. Jackie Robinson, it was amazing. For me it was a challenge. I knew the type of player that he was and the type of man that he was. Every time that I had the opportunity to go on the field and represent him it was an honor and a privilege and I’d do it with passion.”

Rivera first arrived in the United States in 1990 from his native Panama to start his professional baseball career having never flown on a plane before and not being able to speak English.

“I remember leaving Panama – seeing my father, my mother, my wife who was my girlfriend then, and a cousin – not knowing what would happen. Just accepting the challenge after being given the opportunity that I had,” Rivera recalled. “Now, it’s 29 years later and we’re talking about the Hall of Fame. I don’t even think that if I could write that I could have come to that conclusion. It’s something that every player dreams of, but it seemed so far to be reached.

“And now that I have reached it, thank God, I’m just thankful. If someone would have told me, ‘Mariano, in 29 years we’ll be sitting in Cooperstown talking about the Hall of Fame and you can put that in the book,’ I would have said you were crazy.”

With the 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony a little less than six months away, and his election still fresh in his mind, Rivera expressed excitement and anticipation on what the future holds.

“I tell you what. All New York is going to be here. They better be here,” Rivera said with a hearty laugh, predicting his summer induction crowd.

“I can tell you that it’s going to be a short speech, but it will come from the heart. I’m a grateful man who had the opportunity to play the game that he loved.”

While he won’t be able to see his plaque until it’s unveiled at the Induction Ceremony, Rivera’s hope is that when future generations look upon his bronze visage they will appreciate how he got there.

“When people come here and see that plaque, I would like them to think about what the Lord did in my life. Because it wasn’t just me. It was the Lord who opened doors for me,” Rivera said. “When I signed to play baseball I was 20 years old throwing 87 miles per hour, which was my highest. If any player right now going to any tryout, a pitcher 20 years old throwing 87 miles per hour, a scout would tell him, ‘Hey kid, go back home and continue working.’ But only God opened the door for me. I did everything that I could to honor that. One thing that I always remark is ‘respect the game.’ That’s what I want people to see.”

Prior to meeting with the media, Rivera and his wife went on a two-hour tour of the Museum guided by Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl. Inquisitive throughout, he was able to witness exhibits from baseball’s long history as well as revisit his own past.

Wide-eyed at what he was taking in, Rivera could be heard often saying “Amazing,” “Geez” or “Wow” when shown artifacts old and new that tell the story of baseball. Whether it was checking out a seamless baseball (“How are you going to throw that in weather like this?”), reading text that tells of Cy Young’s 751 complete games (“Unbelievable”) or a baseball bat Babe Ruth used to slug 28 or his 60 homers in 1927, “Mo” was constantly entertained.

After taking a photo in front of a large photo of 10 of the Hall of Famers inducted in 1939 and told he’s joining a pretty cool club, Rivera smiled and softly said, “Yes.”

Near a Gehrig exhibit, Rivera said, “Great man who played the game the right way,” looking at some Berra artifacts he added, “The best. A special human being,” and after watching a video of fellow Panamanian Rod Carew, he commented, “I first met him when he was with the Angels and we’ve become close.”

Rivera was also reunited with a number of artifacts he had previously generously donated over his career, including shoes from the 1999 World Series, the cap he was wearing when he got his 400th career save, and a cap he had on when was named MVP of the 2013 All-Star Game. The Hall of Fame even has a Brett Lawrie bat broken by Rivera in 2011 when “Mo” tied Trevor Hoffman with his 601st career save.

Later on, in the collections storage area of the Hall of Fame, Rivera saw a cap he wore during the 2000 World Series and a home jersey he sported in the 2008 All-Star Game played at Yankee Stadium. At the later press conference, Rivera was queried as to what was his favorite artifact he saw on his recently completed tour.

“The patriarchs, those five behind us that represent baseball, to me they are special,” he said, sitting in a director’s chair in the Plaque Gallery and pointing behind him to the plaques of the first five electees (Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson). “Knowing that they opened the doors and we followed them. It transcends the game of baseball.”

The six newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame will take their permanent place in Cooperstown on Sunday, July 21, with the Induction Ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m. EDT – televised live on MLB Network, highlighting four days of celebratory events and programs for baseball fans of all ages, as part of Hall of Fame Weekend 2019, July 19-22.

Hall of Fame Weekend 2019 will also feature the Saturday, July 20 Awards Presentation, when J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Jayson Stark and Ford. C. Frick Award winner Al Helfer will be honored. The Weekend will include family programming for baseball fans of all ages, including the July 20 Parade of Legends and a July 22 Legends of the Game roundtable discussion event with the five living inductees.


Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the HOFVISITS series