The Closer


By Mariano Rivera

With Wayne Coffey

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The greatest relief pitcher of all time shares his extraordinary story of survival, love, and baseball.

Mariano Rivera, the man who intimidated thousands of batters merely by opening a bullpen door, began his incredible journey as the son of a poor Panamanian fisherman. When first scouted by the Yankees, he didn’t even own his own glove. He thought he might make a good mechanic. When discovered, he had never flown in an airplane, had never heard of Babe Ruth, spoke no English, and couldn’t imagine Tampa, the city where he was headed to begin a career that would become one of baseball’s most iconic.

What he did know: that he loved his family and his then girlfriend, Clara, that he could trust in the Lord to guide him, and that he could throw a baseball exactly where he wanted to, every time. With astonishing candor, Rivera tells the story of the championships, the bosses (including The Boss), the rivalries, and the struggles of being a Latino baseball player in the United States and of maintaining Christian values in professional athletics.

The thirteen-time All-Star discusses his drive to win; the secrets behind his legendary composure; the story of how he discovered his cut fastball; the untold, pitch-by-pitch account of the ninth inning of Game 7 in the 2001 World Series; and why the lowest moment of his career became one of his greatest blessings. In The Closer, Rivera takes readers into the Yankee clubhouse, where his teammates are his brothers. But he also takes us on that jog from the bullpen to the mound, where the game — or the season — rests squarely on his shoulders.

We come to understand the laserlike focus that is his hallmark, and how his faith and his family kept his feet firmly on the pitching rubber. Many of the tools he used so consistently and gracefully came from what was inside him for a very long time — his deep passion for life; his enduring commitment to Clara, whom he met in kindergarten; and his innate sense for getting out of a jam. When Rivera retired, the whole world watched — and cheered. In The Closer, we come to an even greater appreciation of a legend built from the ground up.


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Fish and Consequences

MY COUNTRY IS A curvy strip of earth at the southern tip of Central America that doesn't look much wider than a shoelace when you see it on a map. It has 3.6 million people and one famous canal that meanders for forty-eight miles and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a shortcut that saves the world's ships about eight thousand miles of sea travel. Costa Rica is the neighbor to the north, and Colombia to the south. Panama isn't just a place where two oceans meet; it's a place where two continents, North and South America, meet. For a nation that is a little smaller than South Carolina, it has a lot going on.

Puerto Caimito is about twenty-five miles from the canal, on the Pacific side of Panama, and about fifty miles from a volcano called El Valle. It is a village put on the map by fish. If you aren't an actual fisherman in Puerto Caimito, then you probably work at the ship repair shop or the fish processing plant, or take the fish to market. Just about everybody is connected to fish, and everybody eats it.

I ate fish every day, and that's what made me strong, my father says. His father lived to be ninety-six, and my father says he is going to go longer than that, and I wouldn't bet against him.

My father comes from tough farmer stock. One of fifteen children, he was born and raised in the province of Darién, near the Colombian border, and after he left school following sixth grade, he spent eleven hours a day, six days a week, working on the small family farm. They grew rice and corn and plantains, and an assortment of vegetables, and did all of it without a tractor or any other sort of power equipment. Shovels, hoes, rakes—that was the high-end gear, tools for the well-to-do farmers. My father and his family used a machete to cut the brush and the weeds, and sharp sticks to till the soil. Each week they would take their goods to the market, an all-day trip in a boat powered by a pole in the water, gondola-style.

It was a hard, even brutal, life, and by the time my father was a teenager, several of his brothers had already moved to Puerto Caimito, because fishing was considered a more prosperous line of work. At age seventeen, my father joined them. He started out by getting whatever fishing odd job he could, and he was still trying to get to know his way around when he went for a walk one day and came upon a girl who was washing dishes and singing in front of her home. The girl, one of eight children herself, was fifteen years old, and my father will tell you that he fell in love with her in that instant. Her name was Delia Giron, and two years after she stole my father's heart with her singing, she gave birth to a baby girl.

Two years after that, she gave birth to me.

My own life in Puerto Caimito is simple, and smelly. For my first seventeen years we live on the shore of the Gulf of Panama, in a dingy cement home on a dirt road, two rooms with a beat-up tin roof, just a long throw from the fish-meal plant. There's a whole lineup of such homes in the village, most of them occupied by my aunts and uncles and cousins. When my parents move in, the home has no electricity or running water; there is an outhouse in the back and a well for water a short walk away. Light comes from a kerosene lamp. By the time I come along in 1969, we have electricity and water, but the outhouse is still the only bathroom option. Steps away is a big gritty beach strewn with broken shells, pieces of old boats, and fragments of discarded net. It is not a beach you see in a Corona commercial or a tourist book—no turquoise water or tropical trees or sand as soft as talcum powder. It's a working place, a storm-battered boat here, half a dead fish there, the humble soul of a village where people are trying to eke out a living from the sea.

This shore is where I become an athlete. At low tide it is the best playing field in Puerto Caimito, flat and big, a place where you could run forever on the mudflats. I play soccer here. I play baseball here. I play all kinds of games, really, and my favorite is the one where we get a piece of cardboard and cut three holes in it, and string it up between two sticks in the sand. Then we stand back about twenty or thirty feet and fire rocks and see who can get the most rocks through the holes.

My aim is good.

We learn to be creative on the shore, too. We have no bat, so we find an old piece of wood or saw off a branch of a tree. We have no ball, so we wrap up a rock with fishnet and tape. We have no baseball gloves, but it's amazing what kind of pocket you can make out of a cardboard box or a six-pack carton, if you know how to fold it.

This is how I play ball for almost all of my childhood; I don't put a real glove on my hand until I am sixteen years old. My father buys it for me, secondhand, right before we move away from the shore, up the hill about a third of a mile, to another cement block home but in a quieter location, without so much drinking or as many men hanging around the shore all hours of the night.

Neither of our homes has a telephone (I don't have a phone until I move to the States), or a single amenity to speak of. There is a plantain tree hanging over the roof. I don't have my own tricycle or bicycle or any kind of cycle, and really, I have only one toy for most of my early childhood. It's called Mr. Big Mouth. You touch his belly and his big mouth opens and you put a little chip in it. I love touching Mr. Big Mouth's belly. I don't feel deprived, because I am not deprived. It's just the way life is.

I have everything I need.

My favorite time of year is Christmas. As the oldest boy in the family, my job is to get our Christmas tree. I do it every year, and know just where to go. Behind our house is a manglar—a swamp—that has a lot of little trees growing in the muck. You aren't going to find a Fraser fir in the swamp, of course, so the next best thing is to scope around for a decent three- or four-foot tree, yank it out, and bring it home. After it dries out, we wrap the branches in cloth so it looks festive, not like some sad little swamp bush. Santa Claus doesn't make it to our part of Panama—maybe because there are so few chimneys—but Christmas Eve is still magical, with lights twinkling and Christmas songs playing and all the anticipation of the big day. For years I get the same present—a new cap gun. I am happy to get it. I like the pop-pop-pop sound it makes. I like firing it when I am watching my favorite television show, The Lone Ranger, about a do-gooder in a black mask, though the truth is that I like his companion, Tonto, even better. Tonto is smart and loyal and so humble that he doesn't care about getting credit. You can't find a more trustworthy person in the whole Wild West than Tonto. I think that is pretty cool.

I discover early on that I love to run, and I love to be in motion. If I am not playing soccer or baseball, I am playing basketball. When the tide is in and the beach shrinks, we switch to El Tamarindo, just far enough off the shore to let us play without being ankle-deep in mud. Whatever I play, I want to win badly. When a baseball victory is about to turn into a defeat, I throw the ball into the Gulf of Panama and declare the game a tie. It doesn't win me any sportsmanship awards, but it does prevent an outright loss.

If the tide is in, I do the next best thing to sports and hunt iguanas. They are everywhere in Panama, green and spiky and leathery, six-foot lizards that lounge on branches and hide in the vegetation. I know exactly where to find them, and how to hunt them. All I need is a rock and my right arm. Iguanas are very fast when they get going, and they are amazingly resilient; they can fall forty or fifty feet out of a tree and run away as if all they've fallen off is a park bench. Mostly, though, iguanas stay stationary on the upper branches of trees, and that makes them an easy target. Most times I'd have a direct hit on the first try, then pick it up and sling it over my shoulder to bring home for dinner. Iguana—chicken of the trees, they call it—isn't as much of a staple as coconut rice or tamales, and you aren't going to find fast-food restaurants selling iguana nuggets, but it's one of my favorite dishes.

I never stop and figure out how many relatives I have in Puerto Caimito, but all I can tell you is that my cousins might outnumber the iguanas. It makes for an instant stash of playmates when you want to start up a game, and a total small-town feel, where, if everybody doesn't know your name and what you are up to, they at least know somebody who does. It's a great comfort to grow up this way, surrounded by friendly faces and people who are looking out for you, the only trouble being that it is almost impossible to do anything without three-quarters of the town knowing about it.

This is not always a good thing when you have a father like my father.

My father has taught me so much in my life. He's not big on speeches and parental declarations, but his actions have imparted many lessons that have shaped who I am. A strong sense of discipline, doing things the right way, sticking with a task no matter how difficult it is—he models all of these things for me. He is a great provider, getting up at 5:00 a.m. on Monday and staying out on his fishing boat all week, not coming home until Saturday, spending twelve- or fourteen-hour days (or longer) hauling and dragging the nets, a man of the sea right to the core. I'm sure there were times he didn't feel like going out, but I don't remember him ever taking time off.

Vacation? Weekend getaways? Sick days?

No such thing. He is a fisherman. Fishermen fish. He takes care of business, day after day after day.

You don't appreciate all these things so much when you are a child, though. You are too busy kicking soccer balls or feeding Mr. Big Mouth, or trying to pry the family bicycle away from your sister. As a kid, mostly what I associate with my father is fear. He is a big, strong man. I am a small, skinny kid. He has a barrel chest. I am all rib cage. He walks in the house on Saturday, and the stench of fish is with him, and I immediately look at his hands.

They are thick, powerful, workingman's hands.

They are hands that petrify me.

They are hands that hit me. Hands that have me walking on seashells, because you never know when they are going to strike. As the oldest boy, I am his favorite target. Sometimes I feel as if I am my father's personal piñata. I don't keep track, but I get the beatings often. Before leaving for the boat, my father gives me a list of things to do around the house and yard. They don't always get done. And when they don't, it is not pretty.

Pili, why did you not do what I asked? my father demands.

I did most of it, I say.

You did not do everything I asked you to do.

I'm sorry, Papa. I will do everything next time, I promise.

But there is no slack with my father.

Bend over, he says.

They are the words I dread more than any others. A close second is when my mother says: Wait until your father gets home.

When he does get home and gets a less than favorable report, there is rarely a delay. My father's thick hands go to his waist and unfix his belt. And then it begins, three or four hard lashes to my backside, sometimes more. I try not to cry, but sometimes I do.

I get the belt for a variety of offenses. Break something playing ball? Misbehave in school? Get into some mischief with my sister and brothers? It doesn't take much. One time I pass a friend of my father's in town. I don't really know him, but he looks a little familiar. Or maybe my mind is somewhere else, I don't know. Anyway, I don't wave or say hello to this man. He mentions it to my father the next time he sees him.

My father comes and finds me.

Pili, why did you disrespect my friend? He said he saw you and you said nothing. You didn't even wave hello.

I wasn't sure who it was, I say.

That doesn't cut it. The belt comes off. It is the last time I do not say hello to one of my father's friends. Now I wave to everybody. I also develop a key pain-prevention technique. When I know I've messed up and that the belt is coming, I put on two pairs of pants.

Sometimes I put on three pairs of pants. You need all the cushioning you can get against the belt.

The worst beating I get comes late one February, during Panama's Carnival celebration. There is a big dance in town to commemorate the occasion. I am fourteen years old. My parents have opened a small bodega out of our house to make a little extra money selling fruit and groceries and sundries. They head to Carnival and leave my sister, Delia, and me to mind the store. We stay open for a while, but business is slow, with everybody at the celebration. It doesn't make any sense to stay open when there are no customers.

It makes even less sense knowing there is all this fun and dancing going on and I am not part of it.

Let's close up and go to the dance, I say to my sister.

We can't do that. Do you know how much trouble we'll get in? she says.

I know, but it's Carnival. It's the biggest party of the year. And you might as well come with me, because even if you stay behind you're going to get in trouble for letting me leave.

My sister isn't so sure of my reasoning, but we change our clothes and go to the dance. The merengue music is blasting. The spirit is festive, the dance floor packed. It is all I had imagined it would be. I am out there in the middle of it before you can bang a conga drum, feet flying to the beat, having the best time.

And then I feel a hand on the back of my neck.

A big, strong hand. A hand that feels like a clamp.

If I'd seen it coming, I would've run, but I had no chance. I do not even turn around. There is no need. Only one person in the world grabs me this way. My father is right in my ear, hollering over the music.

What are you doing here? Weren't you told to work in the store?

I do not talk about the slow traffic in the store. I don't offer any defense whatsoever, because there is none. I have disobeyed him. I figured this moment would be coming. I'd just hoped to get a little more dancing in before it did. My father has been drinking, and that makes me even more apprehensive. He is always rougher after he's had something to drink.

He clamps down on my neck ever harder, pushes me forward. He rams my head into a pillar, a direct hit. A big bump pops up on my forehead. A surge of anger courses through me. Part of me wants to lash out at him, punch him, but I know better than to do anything or say anything. It would only make things worse. Much worse. I do not go back on the dance floor. I know the belt will be coming later, when my father returns from the party.

Our house is just five hundred yards away. I walk home through the tropical darkness, sad and hurt.

I think, Why does my father have to be so harsh? Why can't he understand what it's like to be a kid and how much it meant to me to be at Carnival? Why does he want to hurt me all the time?

I know it's a parent's job to instill discipline and teach kids right from wrong. But is this how it has to be done? I don't know. I am confused. Maybe it's in the genes. My father's brother—my uncle Miguel—lives next door to us. He is very tough on his kids, too. He works on the boat with my father. I am very close to him and his family, and one time I decide to ask my uncle straight-out.

No way would I ever think to ask my father.

Why are you and my father so rough on your children? Do you want us to live in fear of you?

My uncle thinks about it for a few moments. I can tell he wants to answer the question the right way. He seems more reachable to me than my father.

I know that we are tough guys, your father and I. But if you think we are tough, you should've seen how our father was with us, he says. This is not an excuse, but this is all we know, because it is how we were raised. We left home as soon as we could—to get away from it. He doesn't give me many details, but I know they lived inland, in a farming area, and they practically had to flee, things were so bad.

I think about my father as a kid, being afraid of his own father, going out on his own when he wasn't much more than a boy. It is hard to imagine him as small and vulnerable, but listening to my uncle helps. I never doubt that my father is trying to help me find my way in life by hitting me. I don't doubt that he loves me, even though those are not words that he says when I am a child. It's just so… so… hard all the time. I walk away from my uncle Miguel feeling compassion for my father, feeling love for my father. I know how much he cares, how much he is trying to teach us what we need to be a success in life. Even so, I know one thing.

When I have children, I will discipline them and I will teach them, but if I do nothing else, I am going to do it in every other way than through outright fear. And I will pray that, with their own children, they are even better parents than me.


Water Torture

YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED to fish near the Panama Canal. There is way too much traffic on the seas there, and the other boats don't slow down. When your boat is the size of my father's—90 feet in length and 120 tons in weight, with nets that stretch out a thousand feet—it's not easy to get it out of the way if you have to.

But the way my father looks at it, you do what you have to do. As a fishing boat captain, he has a mantra I've been hearing my whole life:

The nets don't make money on the boat. They only make money in the water.

I am eighteen years old, the youngest of the nine crew members, working on my father's boat full-time. It's a hulking steel vessel named Lisa, with a banged-up hull and a rusty patchwork of dents and dark paint. It has seen better days, lots of them. I am not on board because I want to be. I am on board to make my fifty dollars a week so I can go to mechanic's school. I have already decided that the fisherman's life is not for me. I don't like being out at sea all week, or the monstrous hours or monotony, and that's not even getting into the risks involved.

Did you know that fishing is the second most dangerous occupation out there, behind logging? a friend tells me. That it's thirty-six times more dangerous than the average job?

I did not know that, I reply. But I am not surprised. Then I tell him about the family friend who had his arm ripped right off his body when it got caught between two boats.

There is another reason I am not keen on being a fisherman. I hate being away from Clara. Six days a week out at sea, and one day a week with Clara? Can we reverse the ratio?

Right now I don't have a choice, though. I need money and this is how I can earn it. Our nets are in the water, in the Gulf of Panama, and we are not having a good day of it. For hours we've been in one of our regular sardine hot spots, called La Maestra, but we haven't caught anything and are heading back to our base island. We are about twenty minutes away, not far from the Canal, when the fish-finding sonar lights up.

If the sonar is orange, it means you've come across a lot of fish. If the sonar is red, it means you have hit the fish lottery. The sonar is red. They are everywhere. We go all day with no action, and suddenly we're right on top of the mother of all sardine schools. Even though we're near the Canal, my father figures that at this hour—it's after 11:00 p.m.—the boat traffic won't be a problem. You only make thirty-five dollars for every one hundred tons of fish, so you don't want any swimming away.

Drop the net. Let's go. The fish are waiting, my father hollers.

We cast the net out in a huge circle, the idea being to surround the fish with it, and then quickly close it up with two massive ropes that get pulled in by hydraulic winches on either side.

It takes a bit of time, but we have a huge haul, maybe eighty or ninety tons of sardines, the net just about bursting, our boat sitting so low it's practically submerged in the water. We have so many fish, in fact, that my father radios for another couple of boats to come so we can transfer our haul to them and go back out and catch more. The other boats show up, and we unload the sardines and go back to the hot spot. It is now close to 4:00 a.m. It's not normal to fish at such an hour, but we are not stopping now.

Not when the sonar is flaming red.

My father circles the spot again and we drop the net. He has a hard time maneuvering the boat in the strong current, but we get where we need to be. There is one guy in the back and one in the front working the ropes—huge hunks of interwoven line that do the heavy lifting, bringing the bounty up to the boat. The ropes are guided by a pulley system, and at the top of the pulleys there are flaps that lock into place so the ropes won't fly out of control once the winch starts reeling them in. When the ropes start coming, they move at a blinding clip, like cars on the Daytona straightaway.

We are working in complete darkness, the sun still two hours from coming up. Our deck lights are not on because lights would alert the fish to our presence and then they would swim away. We are about to close the net and fire up the hydraulic winches and bring the fish up. I am near the middle of the boat, about six feet from my uncle Miguel. It's a bit tricky working in the dark, but we're all so familiar with what needs to be done that it isn't usually a problem.

Except that one of the pulley flaps is not secure. In the daytime somebody definitely would've noticed. In the darkness nobody does.

The ropes have to close the net in tandem, one after another, and when I notice that one rope is too far ahead, I tell the crew member on the second rope to let go of his rope. He lets go, but because the flap is not secure, when the winch starts reeling it in, the rope takes off, coming at us like a braided bazooka, ripping out of the water and onto the deck. It happens in an instant. There is no time to get out of the way. The rope blasts into my uncle at chest level, knocking a 240-pound man across the ship as if he were a palm frond. My uncle crashes face-first into the metal edge dividing a large salt-water-filled bin in the middle of the boat. The rope lashes into me a microsecond later, also hitting me in the chest, and I go flying even farther, but I don't hit the metal edge, just the divider itself.

I get a tooth knocked out and get scraped and bruised but otherwise come out unscathed. It has nothing to do with athletic ability or anything I do to minimize the damage; by the grace of God, I simply land in a relatively safe place.

My uncle is not so fortunate. His face is split open, blood gushing everywhere. He is badly hurt. He is screaming in pain. It is the most horrific thing I've ever seen.

Stop! Help! Miguel is hurt! somebody yells.

Call for help! Quick! He's hurt bad!

Everybody on board is screaming. My father, who is at the helm in the cabin upstairs, races down to find his brother looking as if he'd taken a machete to the face. I keep replaying the nightmarish sequence of events. An unfastened flap, an out-of-control rope, and seconds later, an uncle I love—the man who gently explained to me why my father is so strict and quick with the belt—seems about to die before my eyes. I wish I could do something. I wish I could do anything. My father radios the Coast Guard, our first responders, and they arrive within minutes and take my uncle to the nearest hospital. The sun is coming up now. I can't get the brutal images out of my head.

My uncle is a diabetic, and that massively complicates his recovery. He seems better on some days, and on others slips back again. He fights for his life for a month. He does not win that fight. The funeral and burial are held right in Puerto Caimito. People show up by the hundreds.

Miguel has gone home to be with the Lord, the priest says. We grieve for this loss, but we have to remember that the Lord has prepared a room for him and he has gone to a better place. There are nine prayerful days of mourning. It is the first time I remember seeing my father cry.

We are back out on the boat a few days later, because the nets only make money in the water. We return for the final day of mourning. The perils of the job are nothing we can change. This is just what we do, day after day, week after week.

Close to a year after my uncle died, we are supposed to be off on a Friday, only my father doesn't know it because he never gets the message from the company that owns the boat. We spend the first part of the day repairing the nets and then set out in the direction of Contadora Island, in the Pacific Ocean, heading toward Colombia. The nets fill quickly and we start back toward our base island to unload our haul. We have not gotten far when the belt on our water pump stops working. We try a backup belt that we have, but it doesn't fit properly. The pump is still not working.

This is not good.

The pump is what gets the water out of the boat. You do not stay afloat for long if your pump is not functioning.

We're carrying about a hundred tons of sardines and we're sitting low and taking on water. Without the pump, we immediately begin taking on a lot more water. We are about two thousand feet off an island called Pacheca, which is next to Contadora. We are starting to sink.

There is no time to deliberate. My father has an immediate decision to make—a decision no captain ever wants to make.

We're going to bring the boat into Pacheca, right onto the sand, my father says. There isn't time to do anything else.

He heads directly for the island and we are about halfway there, maybe a thousand feet away, when the belt mysteriously starts working again. Nobody knows why, and nobody is launching an investigation. Water begins to get pumped out and the boat rises in the water. My father is relieved, and you can see it on his face; he knows all about the risks involved with trying to pilot such a big boat onto shore. We could hit a rock or a coral reef, and the hull would get shredded like cheese in a grater. We'd take on too much sandy water, and the engine would be gummed up for the rest of time.

We are two hours from our base island of Taboguilla, and with the pump back in commission, my father says we're going back to Contadora. The wind is picking up and the swells in the ocean are getting bigger, but he is confident it will be no problem.

We need to get back and unload the fish, he says. As long as the belt is good and the pump is good, it will be fine.

My father has been fishing these waters for years, and has keen instincts about what's safe and what isn't. Those instincts have served him well, but that doesn't mean they are always right. He reverses field and pulls away from Pacheca. We don't get more than fifteen hundred feet before the pump stops again.

It is almost 9:00 p.m. now. The water in the boat starts rising, of course. The wind keeps getting stronger, and soon the swells are eight or ten feet, crashing over the sides of the boat. The conditions are worsening by the second. The boat is taking on water at a terrifying rate.


  • "Even Babe Ruth as a slugger doesn't have Rivera's kind of consensual clout.... Rivera was known as perhaps baseball's classiest act. He keeps up that reputation here.... Rivera emerges on these pages as a wordsmith.... It's the kind of baseball odyssey that leaves readers with a sense of the Homerian that later extends to the stuff of clutch strikeouts, "Casey at the Bat"-style grandeur and fallen records."—Colin Fleming, Los Angeles Times
  • "Over his 19-year career with the Yankees, Rivera became the all-time saves leader and won five World Series. Along the way, he conducted himself with such humility that he earned the love of his teammates, the deep respect of opponents and the admiration of fans. This memoir demonstrates why.... Will be devoured by Yankees loyalists and happily sampled by all baseball fans."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
May 6, 2014
Page Count
288 pages

Mariano Rivera

About the Author

Mariano Rivera was a New York Yankee for nineteen seasons. He is Major League Baseball’s all-time saves and postseason ERA leader, a thirteen-time All-Star, and a five-time world champion. He and his wife, Clara, have three sons and live in New York.

Learn more about this author