Mariano Rivera was born on November 29, 1969 to parents Mariano Rivera Palacios and Delia Jiron. Born as the second child, Mariano has one older sister (Delia) and two younger brothers (Alvaro and Giraldo). The family lived in Puerto Caimito, a poor fishing village in Panama. His father was the captain of a fishing boat, while his mother stayed home. As a young child, Rivera and his friends would play baseball and soccer on the beach during low-tide. Rivera was known for hanging with the wrong people around this time. Rivera attended Escuela Victoriano Chacón for elementary school and La Escuela Secundaria Pedro Pablo Sanchez for his secondary education, but he dropped out in ninth grade. At age 16, he began working six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching sardines. The job was hard for Rivera, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic.
He decided to give up fishing as a career after abandoning a capsizing commercial boat as a 19-year-old, and after his uncle died from injuries suffered on a fishing boat. Rivera continued to play sports during his teenage years but eventually quit soccer after a series of ankle and knee injuries around age 17. He shifted his attention to baseball but considered it just a hobby rather than a possible profession.
In 1988, Rivera joined Panamá Oeste, a local amateur baseball team, as their shortstop. Scout Herb Raybourn watched him play in a baseball tournament but did not project him to be a major league shortstop. A year later, Panamá Oeste’s pitcher performed so poorly in a playoff game that Rivera was asked to replace him, and despite no experience at the position, he pitched well. Teammates Claudino Hernández and Emilio Gáez consequently contacted Chico Heron, a scout for the New York Yankees. Two weeks after his pitching debut, Rivera was invited to a Yankees tryout camp run by Heron in Panama City. Raybourn, who had returned to Panama to scout as the Yankees’ director of Latin American operations, received a tip about Rivera. Raybourn was surprised to hear he had switched positions but decided to watch him throw. Although Rivera had no formal pitching training, weighed just 155 pounds, and threw only 85–87 miles per hour, Raybourn was impressed by his athleticism and smooth, effortless pitching motion. Viewing Rivera as a raw talent, Raybourn signed the amateur free agent to a contract with the Yankees organization on February 17, 1990; the contract included a signing bonus of US$2,500 ($4,583 today), according to Major League Baseball records.
After signing his contract, Rivera—who spoke no English and had never left home—flew to the United States and reported to the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Yankees, a Rookie level minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees. Feeling lonely and homesick, he wrote home to his parents often, as they did not have access to telephones. At that point in his career, scouts considered Rivera to be a “fringe prospect” at best, but he made progress with a strong 1990 season for the GCL Yankees. Pitching mostly in relief, he allowed only 24 base runners and one earned run in 52 innings pitched—a 0.17 earned run average. The team permitted Rivera to start the season’s final game in order for him to accumulate enough innings pitched to qualify for the league’s ERA title (which carried a $500 bonus); his subsequent seven-inning no-hitter”put him on the map with the organization”, according to manager Glenn Sherlock. In the off-season, Rivera returned to Panama, where a tip from him to Raybourn led to the Yankees signing a promising local 16-year-old player, Rivera’s cousin Rubén. In 1991, Mariano was promoted to the Class A level Greensboro Hornets of the South Atlantic League, where he started 15 of the 29 games he pitched in. Despite a 4–9 win–loss record, he recorded a 2.75 ERA in 114 2⁄3 innings pitched and struck out 123 batters while walking 36 batters. New York Yankees manager Buck Showalter took notice of Rivera’s strong strikeout-to-walk ratio, calling it “impressive in any league” and saying, “This guy is going to make it.”
In 1994, he was promoted from the Class A-Advanced level Tampa Yankees of the FSL to the Double-A level Albany-Colony Yankees of the Eastern League, and then to the Triple-A level Columbus Clippers of the International League. Rivera finished the year with a 10–2 record in 22 starts, although he struggled for Columbus, recording a 5.81 ERA in six starts. Beginning the 1995 season with Columbus, he was ranked by sports magazine Baseball America as the ninth-best prospect in the Yankees organization; by contrast, the publication ranked Rivera’s highly touted cousin Rubén as the second-best prospect in baseball. Mariano’s pitching repertoire primarily consisted of fastballs at the time, although he threw a slider and change-up as secondary pitches.
After being called up to the major leagues on May 16, 1995, Rivera made his debut for the New York Yankees on May 23 against the California Angels. Starting in place of injured pitcher Jimmy Key, Rivera allowed five earned runs in 3 1⁄3 innings pitched in a 10–0 loss. He struggled through his first four major league starts, posting a 10.20 ERA, and as a result, he was demoted to Columbus on June 11. As a 25-year-old rookie just three years removed from major arm surgery, his spot on the team was not guaranteed. Management considered trading him to the Detroit Tigers for starter David Wells. While recovering from a sore shoulder in the minor leagues, Rivera pitched a no-hit shutout in a rain-shortened five-inning start. Reports from the game indicated that his pitches had reached 95–96 mph, about 6 mph faster than his previous average velocity; Rivera attributes his inexplicable improvement to God. Yankees general manager Gene Michael was skeptical of the reports until verifying that Columbus’ radar gun was not faulty and that another team’s scout had taken the same measurements. Afterwards, he ended any trade negotiations involving Rivera. On July 4, in his first start back in the major leagues, Rivera pitched eight scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox, allowing just two hits while striking out 11 batters. In five subsequent starts, he was unable to match his success from that game. After a brief demotion to Columbus in August, Rivera made one last start in the major leagues in September before he was moved to the Yankees’ bullpen. Overall, he finished his first major league season with a 5–3 record and a 5.51 ERA in ten starts and nine relief outings. His performance in the 1995 American League Division Series, in which he pitched 5 1⁄3 scoreless innings of relief, convinced Yankees management to keep him and convert him to a relief pitcher the following season.
In 1996, Rivera served primarily as a setup pitcher, typically pitching in the seventh and eighth innings of games before closer John Wetteland pitched in the ninth. Their effectiveness as a tandem helped the Yankees win 70 of 73 games when leading after six innings that season. Over a stretch of games between April 19 and May 21, Rivera pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings, including 15 consecutive hit-less innings. During the streak, he recorded his first career save in a May 17 game against the Angels. Rivera finished the regular season with a 2.09 ERA in 107 2⁄3 innings pitched and set a Yankees single-season record for strikeouts by a reliever (130). In the postseason, he allowed just one earned run in 14 1⁄3 innings pitched. helping the Yankees advance to and win the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves; it was the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1978. In MLB’s annual awards voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Rivera finished in twelfth place for the American League (AL) Most Valuable Player Award and third for the AL Cy Young Award, which is given to the league’s best pitcher.Commentator and former player Tim McCarver wrote that the Yankees “revolutionized baseball” that year with Rivera, “a middle reliever who should have been on the All-Star team and who was a legitimate MVP candidate.”
On May 19, 2002, Rivera recorded his 225th career save, surpassing Dave Righetti as the Yankees’ franchise leader in saves. Over the next few months of the season, injuries limited his playing time. He was first placed on the disabled list in June due to a groin strain, though his first-half numbers, which included a 1.47 ERA and 21 saves, earned him an All-Star selection. In a game on July 14, Rivera endured one of his worst outings, allowing six earned runs, including a walk-off grand slam. One week later, he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Rivera was activated on August 8 after receiving a cortisone shot but returned to the disabled list after a recurrence of shoulder tightness. For the season, Rivera recorded a 2.74 ERA and 28 saves in 32 opportunities in just 46 innings pitched. To placate the Yankees’ concerns about his durability, Rivera followed a strength and conditioning program in the off-season, instead of throwing. Torre said that he would try to reduce Rivera’s workload during the 2003 season to minimize the injury risk to his closer. However, Rivera suffered a groin injury before the season began, causing him to miss the first month. After returning on April 30, he pitched well in the season’s first half, saving 16 games in 17 opportunities. His save on June 12 against the St. Louis Cardinals secured the 300th career win for starter Roger Clemens. Rivera slumped early in the second half; over one stretch, he blew five of eleven save opportunities, but he rebounded to convert his final 15 of the season. He finished the 2003 regular season with a new career best in ERA (1.66), along with 40 saves in 46 opportunities. In the 2003 AL Championship Series against the arch-rival Boston Red Sox, Rivera had one of the most memorable postseason performances of his career; in the decisive Game 7, he entered in the ninth inning with the score tied 5–5 and pitched three scoreless innings, his longest outing since 1996. He became the winning pitcher after Aaron Boone hit an eleventh-inning walk-off home run that clinched the Yankees’ series victory and advanced them to the 2003 World Series. Rivera celebrated by running to the pitcher’s mound and collapsing in joy to thank God, as Boone rounded the bases and was met by his teammates at home plate. Rivera was named the AL Championship Series MVP for recording two saves and a win in the series. The Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins; Rivera saved five games and allowed only one earned run in 16 innings pitched that postseason.
Following a career high in appearances in 2004, Rivera did not throw during the off-season, unlike previous years. His 2005 season began on a low note. After missing time in spring training with elbow bursitis, he blew his first two save opportunities of the season against the Red Sox, marking four consecutive blown opportunities against Boston dating back to the previous postseason. Fans at Yankee Stadium booed Rivera, and baseball journalists speculated if his days as a dominant pitcher were over. He was subsequently cheered by Red Sox fans during pre-game introductions at Fenway Park the following week, in recognition of his struggles against the Red Sox. He responded to the ovation with a sense of humor by tipping his cap to the crowd. Rivera’s 2008 season was one of his best individual years. Along with a 1.40 ERA and 39 saves in 40 opportunities, he set career bests in multiple statistical categories, including WHIP (0.67), on-base plus slugging (OPS)-against (.422), batting average against (.165), save percentage (97.5%), walks (6), earned runs (11), and blown saves (1). He averaged 9.81 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, his best mark as a closer. He pitched with such control that his 12.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio made him the second MLB pitcher ever to record a figure that high in a season (minimum 50 innings pitched). He placed fifth in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
After successfully rehabilitating his knee in the off-season, Rivera announced on March 9, 2013, that he would retire after the 2013 season, his 19th in the major leagues. Throughout his final year, Rivera spent time during visits to each ballpark meeting privately with fans and unsung team employees to hear their stories and thank them for supporting baseball. He explained: “It was important for me to meet the people who make baseball what it is, the people who work in the game every day. They have given me far more than I have given them.” Each opposing team returned the favor by honoring Rivera with a gift during his final visit to their city: in Cleveland, the Indians teamed up with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to present Rivera with a gold record of his entrance song “Enter Sandman”; the Minnesota Twins commissioned a rocking chair made of broken bats, many broken personally by Rivera’s cutter, called the “Chair of Broken Dreams”; the rival Boston Red Sox gave him a painting and several artifacts from Fenway Park. Many teams made donations to the Mariano Rivera Foundation, the pitcher’s charitable organization. Corporate sponsors of the Yankees paid tribute as well; Delta Air Lines dedicated a Boeing 757 airplane with Rivera’s signature and uniform number 42 on the exterior, while Hard Rock Cafe retired “Enter Sandman” from its song system at all locations except for its Yankee Stadium restaurant.
Rivera exhibited a reserved demeanor on the field that contrasted with the emotional, demonstrative temperament of many of his peers. Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage said that Rivera’s composure under stress gave him the appearance of having “ice water in his veins”. Commenting on his ability to remain focused in pressure situations, Rivera said, “When you start thinking, a lot of things will happen… If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control your acts, and that’s not good.” His ability to compartmentalize his successes and failures impressed fellow reliever Joba Chamberlain, who said, “He’s won and lost some of the biggest games in the history of baseball, and he’s no worse for the wear when he gives up a home run.” Rivera explained the need to quickly forget bad performances, saying “the game that you’re going to play tomorrow is not going to be the same game that you just played.” Derek Jeter called him the “most mentally tough” teammate with whom he had ever played. During his playing career, Rivera was regarded as a team leader within the Yankees organization, often mentoring younger pitchers and counseling teammates. He had a team-first mindset and deferred most discussions about individual accolades to team goals and his teammates, praising them for making his presence in games possible. When once asked to describe his job, Rivera put it simply, “I get the ball, I throw the ball, and then I take a shower.”
Rivera was a dominant reliever throughout his career, pitching with a consistency and longevity uncharacteristic of a role commonly marked by volatility and high turnover. In his 17-year tenure as the Yankees’ closer, Rivera compiled considerable career numbers. A 13-time All-Star, he is the major leagues’ all-time regular season leader in saves (652) and games finished (952). He pitched in 1,115 regular season games, which is fourth-most in MLB history, the most in AL history, and the most by a right-handed pitcher. Rivera holds or shares several records for the most seasons of reaching various save milestones, including seasons with at least: 20 saves (sixteen); 25 saves (fifteen consecutive, sixteen non-consecutive); 30 saves (nine consecutive, fifteen non-consecutive); 35 saves (twelve); 40 saves (nine); and 50 saves (two). Rivera’s career ERA (2.21) and WHIP (1.00) are the lowest of any MLB pitcher in the live-ball era (minimum 1,000 innings pitched), making him one of the top pitchers since 1920 at preventing hitters from reaching base and scoring He recorded an ERA under 2.00 in 11 seasons, tying him with Walter Johnson for the most such seasons (minimum 60 innings pitched each). Rivera also ranks first in career adjusted ERA+ (205), a statistic that adjusts ERA for league and ballpark to allow comparisons of pitchers on the same baseline.
Rivera and his wife Clara have known each other since elementary school, and they were married on November 9, 1991. They have three sons: Mariano III, Jafet, and Jaziel. The family lived in Panama until 2000, when they relocated to Westchester County, New York; they currently reside in Rye, New York. Mariano III pitched for Iona College in New Rochelle, not far from his home. He was drafted by the Yankees with the 872nd pick in the 2014 MLB draft, but decided to return to Iona for his junior year. In the following year’s draft, Mariano III was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 4th round with the 134th overall pick. Over the course of his professional career, Rivera learned English, beginning in 1991 with the Greensboro Hornets, when he realized none of his teammates spoke his native Spanish. He is now a proponent of Latino players learning English and of American press members learning Spanish, in order to bridge the cultural gap.
In March 2014, Rivera was twice recognized for his philanthropic efforts, receiving the ROBIE Humanitarian Award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, as well as a Jefferson Award for Public Service. Later that month, the “Legends Series”, comprising two MLB exhibition games between the Yankees and Miami Marlins, was played in Rivera’s native Panama to “honor [his] legacy”; he helped promote the games, which were supplemented by charitable events and a gala benefiting his foundation. On April 9, 2014, MLB announced that a new annual award for relief pitchers, the Reliever of the Year Award, would replace the existing Delivery Man of the Year Award, and that the AL honor would be named after Rivera. The following month, a section of River Avenue bordering Yankee Stadium at 161st Street was renamed “Rivera Avenue” in the pitcher’s honor. This coincided with the release of his autobiography, The Closer: My Story, co-authored with Wayne Coffey. New York University bestowed an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree upon Rivera during its commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium on May 21, 2014. During the 2015 Little League World Series, he was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence. The Yankees dedicated a plaque to Rivera in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park on August 14, 2016.