Officially, the box score will say that there are 180 people gathered around the diamond at City Park in New Rochelle, N.Y. In fairness, 90 seems a much more reasonable estimate. It's Friday, March 28, and like almost every other day in the Northeast for the past four months, it's far from pleasant outside. A cold drizzle sporadically falls and a brisk wind blows in from left. It is perfectly understandable that there's only a sparse gathering here to watch this early-season, non-conference matchup between two Division I ballclubs, the Iona Gaels, and the visiting Seton Hall Pirates. This is not a day meant for baseball.
While the crowd might not be large, some of the attendees do stand out. Just behind the plate, watching through a black, chain-link fence, approximately 20 baseball scouts line up three deep, armed with the requisite radar guns and notepads, here to unearth the next job-saving superstar. A few feet behind them, a handful of higher-ups from the administration and athletic departments of both schools fraternize with each other between glances at the action.
There are probably another 50 fans, parents, students, alumni, and others scattered down the left field line. Standing by himself just past the third base bleachers, a father watches his son — today's starting pitcher for the Gaels. A recent retiree, he is here on this workday, having called it quits fewer than six months ago. He looks to be at ease with his new circumstance, here, on the sidelines, watching. The game is for his son now.
Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two.
So far, in the first inning, his son has stuck out the first two hitters, and then given up a double down the right field line. Still, despite the extra-base hit, the young man, who bears the same name as his father, looks to be in control, getting ahead 1-2 on the Seton Hall cleanup man. His teammates cheer him on from the dugout as the father looks on from left — all of them hoping for strike three. The pitcher sets, and delivers. Swing and a miss. The son gets his man to chase an off-speed pitch in the dirt to end the inning and walks off the mound.
Both Mariano Riveras look pleased.
The father is here to cheer on his 20-year-old son — a redshirt sophomore for the Gaels. Listed on the Iona roster as Mariano Rivera, the son's legal name is actually Mariano Rivera III (although most everybody, including dad, refers to him as "Jr."). Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two. There are also many differences, one of which is that the son is a starter — at least while he is in college. "He's too good to be a reliever at this level," says Iona head coach Pat Carey.
That's an assessment the scouts seem to agree with. After Rivera records the third out, the men put down their radar guns and dutifully record the pitch in their notebooks. They offer no expression, but can't help but to have been impressed by what they've seen so far. This is a good lineup that Rivera has set aside in the first, all via strikeout. Seton Hall's high-powered offense entered the contest averaging 7.8 runs per game. That offense has helped propel them to a 16-4 record and the No. 19 spot in ESPN's unofficial power rankings going into today's game. Iona, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, seldom plays a team of this caliber. It is a rare chance for the scouts to see what Rivera can do against a lineup with some punch.
As he makes his way back to the dugout, he avoids eye contact with the scouts, but he is fully aware of their presence.
"Twenty something scouts," he says. "Most scouts ever in my life. Obviously, it's in the back of my mind."
Rivera takes a seat and grabs as much solitude as he can in the cramped Iona dugout. This is hardly out of character for him. Rivera is well liked among this group, and treated like just one of the guys. He is close friends with some teammates, but he tends to set himself apart, and sits alone between innings.
"I try to lay low," young Rivera says. "I don't really fit with everyone, because I'm more to myself."
Max Bruckner, a sophomore pitcher who is tight with Rivera, attributes part of Rivera's solitary tendencies to the fact that he carries the name of his legendary father.
"I think there are times where he just wants to sit back and be a normal kid," Bruckner says.
Iona goes down in order in the home half of the inning, and Rivera is quickly sent back to work. He looks confident as he takes his warm-up tosses. Frankly, he has reason to be. In his previous outing, Rivera shut out conference rival Fairfield over seven innings, winning 4-0. The scouts were there for that one too — albeit a dozen or so fewer — primarily to see Rivera. That day, after fielding some questions from an out-of-town reporter, one scout joked with his comrades about the vagueness of his on-the-record commentary. ("Well, the sun shines on a dog's ass every now and then," he told his buddies, in a mocking tone, when asked what he told the scribe.) But while the men with the radar guns are keeping their true feelings about the youngster private, their presence alone offers a hint of how they view his major league potential, and Rivera knows it. "I'm turning heads a little bit," he says with a smile. "Getting some recognition. It feels good, I'm not going to lie to you. It does feel great."
"I'm turning heads a little bit. Getting some recognition. It feels good."
Watching him on the mound, it's easy to picture his father. If it were not for the younger Rivera's neatly groomed beard, it would be hard to tell them apart — at a distance. Listed at 5'11, 155 pounds, Mariano Rivera III has his father's lean, athletic frame, and an easy motion he repeats again and again. And then there are those ears, the same ears that led Red Sox fans on the Sons of Sam Horn message board to refer to his father as "Fruit Bat." But the resemblance is not just physical. Junior has presence. He carries himself as if he belongs. You watch him toss, and damned if you don't see a little of the old man in him out there.
Do the scouts see it too, or are they just hoping to see it? At his size and with his velocity, Rivera is a marginal prospect and likely projects as a late-round draft pick. But there is that name, and the regal pedigree that goes with it. After all, the old man was a late bloomer as well. Way back when, he carried 155 pounds too, and only threw 87, just enough for the Yankees to give him a shot at age 20, signing him to a bonus worth all of $3,000. Over time, he added 10 miles per hour to his fastball. And when he arrived in the big leagues, after five years of riding the bus in the minors, he discovered the cutter, the pitch that would go on to vex hitters for nearly two decades.
The chance, however remote, that something like this could happen again, draws the attention of the scouts. And it will, almost certainly, move one major league organization to select him in next week's draft, likely in the middle rounds.
In the second inning, however, he reminds no one of his father. He yields back-to-back singles, putting runners on the corners, and then hits the next batter to load the bases. Though he manages to get his first out on a fielder's choice grounder to second, a run scores. The Pirates then execute a perfect safety squeeze. Not only does the man on third cross the plate, but the batter beats out the throw to first.
Rivera has been hit hard this inning. His fastball generally tops out at around 92 mph, but an over the shoulder glance at the radar guns today shows only 89 — and he's laboring as a result. But he has a chance to escape with just the two runs. He runs the count full to Seton Hall's Chris Chiaradio. The Iona bench tries their best to get him home (with several shouting, "Come on, Mo!"), while undoubtedly wishing in the back of their collective minds that Rivera could, at this key moment, summon his dad's cutter — arguably the greatest single pitch in the history of the sport.
But he can't. Iona's Mariano Rivera does not throw a cutter.
Instead, he delivers a slider, and it sits up just a little. Chiaradio knocks it up the middle for a base hit, scoring two. Seton Hall is now up 4-0.
Rivera is visibly frustrated. He knows this is a huge opportunity for him. He might not get another chance the rest of the season to stand out and to step away from the enormous shadow cast by his father and justify the attention of the scouts for reasons beyond his name. Based on this performance, will they ever see him as anything more than Mariano's son?
He gives up two more runs in the third, but does go out on a high note, posting a scoreless fourth before Pat Carey gives him the hook. Still, allowing six runs (five earned) in four innings doesn't do wonders for an ERA, and Rivera's now sits at 6.31. His brutal line (4 IP, 5 ER, 8 H, 2 BB, 4 K) does justice to the mediocre outing. After the first inning, he fooled no one. All in all, a disappointing day at an inopportune time.
"I tried to do more than I was capable of doing," Rivera says. "My emotions got the best of me. I tried to do too much. I tried to just throw and, honestly ... I was just throwing for the gun."
The pitcher sits largely expressionless as he watches the rest of the game — one that his team will lose 8-0. And as for the other Mariano Rivera, the one with the cutter? By the fifth inning, he too is gone.
* * *
"There's this kid at the desk," Mariano Rivera says, talking about a classmate he just ran into on the first floor of Iona's Hynes Athletic Center. "I'm in his class now for two semesters. And he goes ‘Let me ask you a question. Are you Mariano Rivera's son?' and I'm like ‘Yeah.' And he says ‘Oh. I didn't know.'"
And so it goes for Mariano Rivera, who tells this story with a look of exasperation. Such encounters are part of his distinctive reality. It's to be expected, given that he bears the name of Yankee royalty. From time to time, both in the community, and on campus, people just feel the need to tell the kid what his father meant to them.
Rivera can certainly appreciate that. His dad means a lot to him too. "I idolize my father," the kid says. "I'd like to follow in (his) footsteps." Quickly, though, he adds, "I'm not him. I will never be him. I want to be my own person."
Without question, being the son of a legendary baseball player has its perks — a financially secure upbringing, a chance to hang out with other famous people, a leg up with the scouts. Rivera questions, though, whether those benefits outweigh the heavy burden of that name. "(It's) almost a disadvantage," Rivera says. "It's a big shoe I've gotta fill."
"I'm not him. I will never be him. I want to be my own person."
Mariano Rivera is not the only son of the modern Yankee dynasty looking to fill his father's big shoes on the diamond. Josh Pettitte was selected by the Yanks in the 37th round of the 2013 draft, before opting to attend college instead. Koby Clemens made it to Triple A, though he appears to have peaked, currently playing for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. Going further back, Preston Mattingly was unable to make it past A ball, after being drafted in the first round by the Dodgers in 2006. Two of Yogi Berra's sons, Dale and Larry, played ball, and Dale spent 11 years in the big leagues. And Mickey Mantle Jr. even had a brief minor league career.
The young Rivera doesn't worry about following his father into professional baseball — at least openly. He is confident and just cocky enough to believe he can overcome any obstacle to his success, certain he can make his own way.
"I want to be remembered," he says. "I want to be one of those guys that you read about later in life that you tell your kids about ... I want to play this game because, number one, I love it. And number two, I want to be good at it. I don't want to be just another guy who made it to the bigs and was good, but never great."
Mariano Rivera's family left Panama and moved to New York's Westchester County when he was 7, out of fear that his family could be kidnapped. ("I love Panama," Mariano Sr. told The New York Times in 2005. "But for safety, I had to look out for my kids and my family ... All it takes is one crazy, maniac guy who wakes up that morning with my name in their mind.") With his father often away on Yankee road trips, it was up to young Mariano to help his mother Clara get acclimated to life in a new country, and to help out with his two younger brothers, Jafet and Jaziel.
"I felt that I had to step up and be the man of the house as much as I could," Rivera says. "I was still young. But it was something I took upon myself ... I had to do it — be strong for my mom, my brothers."
The transition to the U.S. presented its share of challenges: first and foremost, the language barrier. "It was tough at first," Rivera says. "I had a big accent." This obstacle was compounded by the fact that he was placed one grade ahead of where he should've been in school. "I was supposed to be in second grade," he explains. "But they put me in third by accident."
Above all, though, was the loneliness and isolation. "We weren't really familiar with anybody," Rivera says. "We didn't have, my mom didn't have, any friends at all. It was just our family, and that was it. My dad was here for one purpose. That was his job. So it was very — for my mom especially, I was still young — but for my mom, it was very lonely."
Clara Rivera eventually overcame her loneliness. Like her husband, her faith is central to her life. She eventually began preaching, and in 2009 became Senior Pastor at Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope), a Pentecostal Church that the couple founded. She first held services in the family's home, but with her husband's help, eventually moved to an old church building in New Rochelle that the Riveras renovated. But she leaned on her eldest son to help her through those early tough times, cultivating a relationship that remains extremely close.
"My mom will come to me to just ... de-stress herself," he says. "Whatever she's feeling, she'll come to me with a heavy heart, she'll talk to me about anything. And I feel like that's something that's grown on her, because she had nobody to talk to."
"I never got, NEVER got, any special treatment from anybody. I've worked for everything that I am today."
So in his father's absence, Mariano Rivera stepped up. This circumstance helped him to develop what he considers his defining trait — his independence. He's not really like his father. And that is why he's particularly anxious to shoot down any suggestion that he has benefited from some sort of cronyism.
"I never got, NEVER got, any special treatment from anybody," he says. "I've worked for everything that I am today ... baseball-wise. It wasn't given to me. The name didn't carry me anywhere ... Having the name, and not being able to throw, not being able to perform, what good is that? I had to work hard, day in and day out, to be at the level that I am." He played baseball growing up, beginning in Little League through high school, but then it was for fun, and he was just another kid on the team. He never played on any kind of travel or select team,
For his part, the elder Rivera recognizes his son's individuality, and believes that he's beginning to forge his own legacy. He supports his son, and does not mind talking about him, but he is careful not to say too much, wary of becoming more of his son's story than he already is.
"He is independent, and that's good," the father says. "Whatever you receive, whatever you achieve, you want to do it on your own. I believe that he's doing that."
Rivera's coaches and teammates back up this contention. They claim that the pitcher has received no favorable treatment since his arrival as a walk-on in 2012. Here, he is just another player, too.
"It's not like we did anything special for him," Iona head coach Pat Carey says. "He adjusted to meeting new people, and being on a long bus ride, and eating at McDonald's. And being one of the guys, you know? We did nothing different with him than we did with anybody else."
Carey didn't treat him differently, and Rivera says his teammates soon found out that he wasn't any different. And he says that's why the relationship between him and the school has worked. "From the coaches to the players, it just clicked." Rivera says.
"It (was) just like any other kid coming into (the) team," says starting pitcher Kenny Dietrich, a de facto leader of the staff and one of Iona's few seniors. "He's a really good kid. He helps out with stuff. He does what he's expected to do, and you can't ask anything more."
Trouble is, a guy like Dietrich is speaking for himself. While he may not personally ask anything more of his teammate, might other people see the name Mariano Rivera, and expect more? That name has been synonymous with success, with class, with greatness. It has been the standard for everything a baseball player, particularly a pitcher, could ever hope to be. The fact is, it's going to be almost impossible for Mariano Rivera to measure up to his father in baseball terms, and he knows it.
"I've always lived under a shadow," Rivera says. "And I wanna step away from that and be my own person ... Because, you know, people always say ‘Oh, this is his son. He's gonna be an All-Star.' I'm not like that. I'm gonna make mistakes. I'm not gonna throw 95 ... I'm me. I'm not him. God bless him. He did his job, and was the best at it. I want to make a future, I want to make a name for myself."
* * *
The MAAC baseball schedule's traditional structure dictates that a doubleheader is played on Saturday (a full nine-inning game, followed by a seven-inning nightcap), and another nine-inning contest on Sunday. By design, Mariano Rivera usually pitches the back end of the doubleheader. Carey believes Rivera's talent and durability gives him a chance to pitch a complete game in that slot and help preserve Iona's bullpen. "If you look at Mariano, he sustains his velocity," Carey says. "He's the same in inning five as he is in one."
"If you look at Mariano, he sustains his velocity. He's the same in inning five as he is in one."
Today, April 5, Rivera takes the mound looking to finish off a sweep for his club. Iona took the opener over Manhattan College, 4-2, behind a strong start from Dietrich, who pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings. Now, in game two, Rivera is looking to close it out on this crisp, sunny afternoon at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx — where Manhattan plays its home games. Beyond the regular conference implications, Iona and Manhattan are longtime rivals. There is a measure of pride involved with games between the two schools, located less than 10 miles apart. "Manhattan-Iona is always a big series," Rivera says, fully aware of the stakes.
Rivera is unable to keep his team's momentum going, yielding a two out, RBI base hit to left in the first inning. Iona gets the run back immediately, though, and from there, Rivera settles in. He retires nine straight and, thanks to an Iona run in the top of the fourth, takes a 2-1 lead.
During this part of the game, everything appears to be working. Rivera says his arsenal consists of five pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a split change-up, a curveball, and a slider ("my out pitch," he says). Right now, all of them are finding the zone. He is in complete command.
"When he's in control, he's fine," says Mariano's father, offering his scouting report. "He uses the whole plate. He uses the off-speed the way you're supposed to do it. And the rest is just being in control."
Noticeably absent from that repertoire, though, is the cutter. Rivera says he once attempted to learn his father's signature pitch. He claims that it worked for him occasionally, but he wasn't quite able to master it.
"It was never consistent," Rivera says. "And obviously, I didn't want to put effort into it because it wasn't one of my best pitches ... I didn't want to go out there during games and throw a mediocre pitch ... So I stopped throwing it in the fall of my freshman year."
But considering Mariano Rivera's overarching desire to create his own identity, it is fair to question just how hard he really tried to learn the pitch.
"It didn't feel unique. I feel like I was copying something that wasn't mine."
The lack of a cutter has not seemed to hurt Rivera's stock too much. Part of what makes him an intriguing pro prospect, other than his genealogy, is the fact that he is extremely raw. Thanks in part to a contentious relationship with his coach, he barely pitched at all in high school. "I think my entire high school career, I probably pitched ... six innings? Seven innings?" Rivera speculates. "I was basically just a pinch runner, ‘cause my coach didn't think I could play." The pitcher was so fed up with his place on the depth chart that he quit the team in his senior year. He enrolled at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, intending to pitch there, but transferred to Iona after just one semester. He redshirted during the 2012 season, and eventually pitched in 2013. When he arrived, Pat Carey made sure not to tax his arm too much, while still getting him valuable experience.
"He's a kid that, for his age, is maybe a little underdeveloped," Carey says. "What we did with him is get him as many innings as possible. So we started him a lot during mid-weeks (games against non-conference opponents) and then we gave him a taste on the weekend (in the more important conference games). And I think that helped him a lot."
The experience benefited him, and so too did a renewed focus, according to Rivera. For a time, when he was younger, he played soccer. Now, it's all baseball, all the time — to the point where he's even going to play summer league ball at season's end, when he'll join the Laconia (New Hampshire) Muskrats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
"Every ounce of muscle and every ounce of strength that I have within me, I give it to baseball."
"I would say until this past summer, I didn't put baseball ... on the top of my list," Rivera says. "But now, I feel like I'm giving it everything I have. Every ounce of muscle and every ounce of strength that I have within me, I give it to baseball."
His inexperience shows from time to time, though. In the fifth inning, Rivera drops a pop-up just behind the mound. He should've let his infielders handle it. With a man on, now forced to pitch out of the stretch, the pitcher appears to have lost his rhythm. He gets the next two men out, but thanks to a stolen base and a wild pitch, the Manhattan runner is now on third. Rivera gets ahead of the next hitter 1-2, and is a strike away from getting out of the inning. But he gives up a base hit to left, and the run scores to tie the game 2-2.
Rivera is now rattled. He promptly allows another single on a hard hit ball to left. Then, an error by Iona's shortstop on a ball hit up the middle loads the bases. Rivera's been working more quickly during this sequence, and shaking off his catcher. Young Mariano's father has noticed his son's propensity to get a bit hyper at critical junctures like this.
"Sometimes he gets too hectic, meaning too aggressive," the father says. "And that can be a minus for him, because you don't have control of your pitches."
Pat Carey recognizes this tendency as well, and has tried to get Rivera to pitch on an even keel.
"Coach always tells me to pitch at a six (on a scale of one to 10)," Rivera says. "If I'm lower than that, I get sluggish. If I'm above that, I get too hyped up."
The number not only represents the level Carey wants him to pitch at, it is also the number on the back of his jersey. It was assigned by Carey for no particular reason. The fact that it is the sum of the digits of his father's famous number is purely a coincidence.
"As soon as somebody brought that up, I was like ‘Oh man, I see how somebody can assume that,'" Rivera says, laughing off this common assumption. "But no. The number isn't a big deal to me." (A fellow sophomore pitcher, John Daddino, wears number 42.)
Still, "six" has become an indelible part of the pitcher's identity. Teammates will frequently refer to him by his number when cheering him on from the dugout. "Come on, six," they'll say. Or, "You got ‘em, six." Or, "Atta boy, six." In many cases, a number robs a player of their individuality. But in a funny way, it has the opposite effect for Rivera. The number six represents something all his own, something that has absolutely no connection to his father. To call him "six" is not to call him either "Mo" or "Junior." And though he reiterates, time and again, just how proud he is of his father, Mariano Rivera doesn't necessarily seem to mind being called something else.
Carey visits the mound, in an effort to try to bring Rivera back to a six. It works. With the bases loaded, the pitcher gets his man to hit a lazy fly to left. Rivera accepts fist-bumps and high-fives from his mates, and then takes a seat by himself.
Though it's early in the season, this is a big game for Iona — and not just because they're up against their chief rival. A win here would get them to 3-2 in the league, equaling their entire 2013 conference win total. With Rivera and another young star pitcher, freshman Bill Maier, at the top of the rotation, and a couple of strong position players in the everyday lineup, the Gaels believe they stand a real chance to qualify for the MAAC postseason tournament for the first time since 2000. The top six in the 11-team league qualify, and this early in the season, Carey is totally convinced his club can get there. "Our goal is to make the playoffs," the coach says. "And it is very realistic."
Both teams go scoreless in the sixth and enter the seventh and final inning still tied. In the top of the inning, Iona's speedy leadoff man Joe Torres works a one-out walk, and is a threat to steal, especially with a righty on the mound for Manhattan. But he stays put, and gets a slow start on a hard-hit grounder to short. Double play. Inning over.
Bottom of the seventh, and Mariano Rivera takes the hill looking to get his team to extra innings. He has turned in a strong performance, and though he will later say he was consistently missing high through much of the game, he does not deserve to lose.
Rivera records the first two outs quickly, striking out the first Manhattan hitter on four pitches, then getting the next to ground out to short. Two out, and the Iona dugout is fired up. One more, and they'll get another turn at bat to try to win it. Rivera has shown nothing to indicate that he can't get that last out. He's at 102 pitches, but he looks to have plenty left. Iona's relief pitchers are spitting sunflower seeds, not warming up. It's Rivera's game.
Manhattan's number nine hitter is at the plate, and, with a 1-1 count, he hits a blooper down the third base line that just drops in just in front of the leftfielder for a double. This brings the Manhattan dugout and rooting section to life. They've had very little to cheer about over the past five hours. But now they can defeat, if not a legend, then the son who bears his name, and walk away with a story to tell.
And the son? If he prevails, he gains a little distance, a little more of his own identity. After all, there is only one Mariano Rivera who still stands on the mound with a baseball in his hand and his teammates depending on him.
With a base open, Carey orders an intentional pass, bringing up Manhattan's centerfielder, Chris Kalousdian. Rivera sets, and deals. The pitch is well off the plate, and up around Kalousdian's eyes. But that doesn't stop Kalousdian from taking a tomahawk swing at the ball. The loud "PING!" of the ball meeting aluminum bat spells clear trouble for Iona, and Rivera knows it. He takes a quick look back to centerfield, but Joe Torres is unable to chase it down. It lands over his head. Game over. Manhattan 3, Iona 2.
Rivera briskly walks off the mound, head hung low, as the Manhattan team and fans celebrate around him. The rest of the Gaels follow suit, quickly packing up their equipment ("Clean it up, let's go!" a frustrated Carey barks) and making their way toward the parking lot, and the vans waiting to take them back to campus.
The last man to leave the field for Iona is the losing pitcher. On the rare occasions that Mariano Rivera's dad surrendered a game-winning hit, he never failed to answer the questions afterwards. In that, the young man is his father's son. Five minutes after walking off the mound in defeat, he is here, talking about the decisive pitch.
"If I threw that pitch 100 times, that might be the only time he would swing at that ball," Rivera says. "It's either a swing and a miss, or he'd take it for a ball. But that guy was sitting first pitch, no matter where it was."
Though far from expansive, Rivera is cordial, answering the questions politely. When it's over, he rushes to join his teammates in one of the vans. An associate athletic director offers him a ride home, but he declines. Rivera wants to be with the guys.
* * *
One of Mariano Rivera's greatest attributes as Yankees closer was his short memory. No matter what happened last time out, it never seemed to affect Rivera's next performance. Five days after the Manhattan game, it is apparent that his son has a pretty short memory, too. Sitting in a film room in the athletic center, his upbeat demeanor makes it clear that he's shaken off the tough loss.
Rivera has just come from practice, where he long tossed in preparation for his next start. He's here with his girlfriend Stephanie, who he has been dating for nearly two years. Prior to meeting Rivera, Stephanie wasn't the biggest baseball fan ("I'm learning," she says with a smile), so the conversation soon drifts to other topics.
Topics like school, for one. Finals are only a few weeks away, and Rivera is bracing himself for the endless hours of studying ahead. He is majoring in communications, but declares another subject to be his favorite.
"I like science," he says.
"You have nothing to do with science," Stephanie says, laughing.
"I have nothing to do with science at all," Rivera says to his girlfriend. "But I just like it."
He says that chemistry and biology are his preferred scientific disciplines, but then, in his next breath, utters a malapropism that betrays his level of knowledge. "I always like to experiment with the different...um...what's it called...all that stuff you do with the beeken."
"Beaker!" says Stephanie, who cracks up at her boyfriend's gaffe. Clearly, he's no Louis Pasteur.
Rivera also professes his affinity for cars, a subject on which he appears to be far better versed. "I love cars," he says, his face lit up. "My favorite car (is) probably the Mercedes, the S550. The AMG 63 though — the fast one. I love that car ... Or ... like a supercar? That would be the McLaren. That's a bad-ass car."
Like his father (and mother), Mariano Rivera is a person of deep faith.
These outside interests all run a distant second, though, to Mariano Rivera's true off-the-field calling. He was raised by one of the most prominent advocates of religion in all of American sport, and that upbringing has rubbed off on him. Like his father (and mother), Mariano Rivera is a person of deep faith.
"I always want to do the best I can in regards to church," Rivera says. "I want to attend as much as I can. I want to live my life as it (is) in church, outside of it. I want to be able to pray every day. I want to be able to read my Bible every day. That's a big part of my life."
Church might be a big part of his life now, but it wasn't always. During his first semester of college up at Quinnipiac, the first time he was away from home, he admits that he wasn't on his best behavior.
"When I was at Quinnipiac, I never went to church," Rivera says. "I was just doing what a freshman in college would do. I was just going out, partying, this and that. And I really had no remorse for it. I really just wasn't thinking."
From afar, Rivera's dad got wind of his son's rebelliousness, and decided that he needed to do something about it. "When he (had) a lot of freedom, I mean ... he was making the wrong decisions," the father says. "And he was told ... we're gonna take charge. That's exactly what happened ... That's why I pulled him out of the school, and (he) came back to Iona."
To hear his son tell it, his moment of clarity arrived randomly one day while he was bathing.
"One day, I was in the shower, and it just hit me," young Mariano says. "‘What am I doing? I've never been this way. What's wrong with me?' You're out here partying. Your mom is trying to found a church, building up a church. And you're not happy. And you don't know what's behind all this. This lasts for a moment. It's not for a lifetime. It's a moment of pleasure and then it's gone. So all that taken into consideration ... is it really worth it?"
The answer, Mariano concluded, was no. And so he rediscovered his faith and, in the process, appears to have found the happiness that eluded him for a time. His father had a similar epiphany at around the same point of his life. In a 2013 interview with New York Magazine, Mariano Sr. said of a period in his late teens, "I was doing the wrong things. It was just bad. If I kept going that way, I would have been dead." But he found religion, just as his son has now.
One of the key events that help strengthen the Rivera family's faith was the birth of young Mariano, and the grave danger that he faced in his mother's womb.
"She went for a checkup," Mariano says. "And the doctor said I had a hole in the back of my head. And that, potentially, was a big threat. I could die in her stomach. Or if I was born, I could be a vegetable ... A week after that, she went for a checkup, expecting bad news. But the doctor said ‘There's nothing there. He's fine.'
"I always say it's for a purpose, that God was able to save my life."
"It was something we will never forget," Rivera's father says. "Because it was not easy. It was not easy (to) have a child with that kind of birth problem. But, thank God. Thank God that he's healthy. Thank God that he's doing what he loves."
Right now, young Mariano is doing what he loves at Iona College. And although Iona maintains an affiliation to the Catholic Church, it is still, at the end of the day, a college campus. Is it difficult for Rivera to practice his faith in an environment that can often veer toward the secular?
"Of course it is," he says.
"It's so hard," Stephanie adds, holding on to her boyfriend's hand.
* * *
Joseph J. Jaroschak Field in Jersey City, N.J., home of the St. Peter's University baseball team, is a place so distinctly Jersey that it feels like it belongs in a Springsteen song. There are dumpsters, and port-o-potties buried in the tall grass. The Pulaski Skyway, a titanic, aging steel bridge, dominates the horizon.
Down the left field line, where the fans of the visiting Iona Gaels gather in and around the bleachers, a small child repeatedly tosses a baseball high up into the air, and waits for it to drop inside his glove. AJ Carey, the 8-year-old son of Iona's head coach, attends many of the team's games and practices and has "free rein," according to his father, to mix with the team and go where he pleases, up to and including the dugout. It's a privilege he will exercise liberally this early May Saturday, as the ball and glove can only hold his attention for so long. Wearing a white T-shirt, gym shorts and a maroon Iona cap that looks to be several sizes too big, the kid is a bouncy house all by himself.
AJ's father's team has struggled of late. Following the loss against Manhattan, the Gaels dropped six of their next seven in conference. During that stretch, Mariano Rivera pitched in some tough luck. Over his last four outings, Rivera's ERA is a respectable 3.16. But his record in that span is 0-3, with the team also dropping his lone no-decision. Rivera just hasn't gotten any offensive support. Iona has averaged 1.5 runs per game during this dismal stretch.
But thanks to the expanded MAAC playoff field, Iona, 5-11 in conference after an opening-game loss to St. Peter's, still finds itself with a reasonable chance to qualify for the postseason. Four teams have broken away in the standings, with the bottom seven fighting for two spots. Taking two out of three over Niagara last weekend helped the Gaels get back in the hunt, but a doubleheader sweep at the hands of St. Peter's would all but finish them off. It is up to Mariano Rivera to keep this from happening.
His father's famous entrance tune, Metallica's "Enter Sandman," blares from the speaker set up behind home plate.
His father is not in attendance. He generally doesn't attend the road games. The scouts aren't here either. There have been fewer, recently, though their interest doesn't seem to have waned too much. Two of them, in fact, asked, and ultimately received, permission to speak with Rivera following his start against Niagara last week, a sign of their continued interest. It's just that there are plenty of kids to see in the New York metropolitan area, and for now, they know enough about Rivera. He's not going to suddenly throw 98, or show a cutter — at least not yet.
Iona fails to score in the top of the first, and Rivera heads out to the mound. As he takes his warm-up tosses, he is greeted with a familiar song. His father's famous entrance tune, Metallica's "Enter Sandman," blares from the speaker set up behind home plate.
Rivera is not pleased. Before today, none of Iona's MAAC rivals had played the song this season. The pitcher will grimace when asked about the song after the game, but before he can speak, his coach cuts him off. "That's them having fun," Pat Carey says briskly. "We're not going to comment."
There will, of course, come a point in Rivera's career, when he is playing for money, when his opponents will look to rattle him in any way they can, and he's just going to have to deal with it. For now, though, it pisses him off. With that song playing, he can't be anything other than Mariano Rivera's son.
Due to the song, perhaps, Rivera is amped up and fights to find himself in the first inning. The first two men reach on a single and a walk, but both run into outs on the bases. Rivera has a full count the number three hitter, with a chance to get out of the inning, but loses him on a pitch up high. That brings up the St. Peter's cleanup man, Chris Hugg. After taking a first pitch strike, Hugg gets a pitch that sits up perfectly in the zone. See ya. It lands beyond the fence in deep left, a two-run homer.
AJ Carey is nowhere near the dugout right now, and it's a good thing, considering how animated his father is. "Pooch, let's go!" He screams down the dugout, calling for sophomore lefty Andrew Pucillo to head to the bullpen to warm up. A hasty move, perhaps, considering Rivera has only given up two runs. But Iona's season might well be on the line here, and Carey appears to be managing like it is. Later, Carey will claim this is a decoy, that he never intended to pull him from the game. If indeed it's a smokescreen, it's quite convincing. And it works. Rivera dials it back, and gets out of the inning with a strikeout, before Pucillo can get serious in the pen.
And the pen won't be needed in the second either. Iona's bats finally come to life. In a single inning, the Gaels give Rivera seven runs — one more than they have given him in his four previous starts combined. Finally, Mariano Rivera has some run support, enough to guarantee a win today. Unfortunately, it won't be enough for the Gaels to make the postseason. A three-game sweep by Monmouth the following weekend will crush their chances.
But on this day, with a lead, Rivera settles down. He retires seven of the next eight, concluding with Hugg, on whom Rivera exacts his revenge by getting a called third strike on an absolutely nasty slider to lead off the fourth. He is pitching at a six, and looks to be untouchable. The only thing that can beat him at this point is a rainout, a growing possibility as the storm clouds begin to loom off in the distance.
In the top of the fifth, while his club is in the midst of another extended rally, and as the sky turns black on the horizon, Rivera decides to throw a little bit to stay loose. As he and a teammate toss the ball around, AJ Carey sidles up next to young Mariano. He holds his glove open, as though he is supposed to get the throws intended for Rivera, and then snaps it shut when the ball hits Rivera's mitt. The boy looks admiringly at the pitcher. The pitcher returns the glance approvingly. Here, finally, is someone who appreciates Mariano Rivera Jr. on his own. After all, AJ Carey wasn't even born until Mariano Sr.'s big league career was more than half over. Maybe he has his baseball card, but he's too young to fully appreciate the Yankee legend. The Mariano Rivera standing in front of AJ Carey today is the one he knows best. This is the Mariano Rivera he looks up to.
He peppers him with questions. "You're throwing really hard. What are you throwing?" AJ asks, wanting to know Rivera's precise velocity.
The pitcher shakes his head. "I have no idea," he says.
"Ah, you're probably 91, 92," the 8-year-old shoots back.
Rivera smiles at the future scout and continues to throw. AJ, meanwhile, is still standing at Rivera's side, still snapping his glove as though he's receiving the tosses, as if he is Mariano Rivera, this Mariano Rivera. And as the first drops trickle from the dark Jersey sky, they carry on, these sons of the game, hoping that the rain won't fall and they can both keep playing.