Mariano RIVERA has always been a bit mysterious. Long and sinewy yet small next to sluggers, he saved an unmatched 652 games over a 19-year career with the New York Yankees that ended last season.
In front of the cameras, he remained stoic after blowing a save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox. He was intensely private, holding his wife, Clara, three sons and deep religious beliefs close.
In his new book, The Closer, co-authored by New York Daily News sportswriter Wayne Coffey and written in Rivera's voice, much of the mystery is peeled away, from the desolate poverty of his Panamanian upbringing, to a troubled youth and abusive father, who once rammed his head into a pillar for disobeying him, to a glorious career tinged by an emotional side.
Coffey spoke with USA TODAY Sports' Stephen Borelli.
Q: Did you realize when you went into this Rivera was a high school dropout?
A: No, and almost nobody does. If you go back and look at all of the profiles and even some previous books, kids books that have been done, just pour over the clips, it says he graduated from high school at 16 or, in some cases, it might say he left high school at 16 or 17. I certainly wouldn't call it a delinquent phase, but he talks about hanging out in the clubs and dancing and the guy chasing him with a machete... It's not like he was one step from jail, but he was definitely making some decisions that were not necessarily in his best interest. It was really Clara, then and now the love of his life, who helped straighten that out. As he writes, "If it weren't for Clara, I would never have become a New York Yankee."
Q: I knew Rivera came from pretty humble beginnings, but it's captured here how really humble the beginnings were. Did that strike you as well?
A: When you were there in Puerto Caimito, the overwhelming impression I had was, "How does anyone ever escape this place?" His family had an outhouse; they had no running water when they moved into this little shack right by the shore. Four kids piled into one bedroom. They had enough to eat, mostly because of the father's fishing boat, but that was about it. It was as humble as it could possibly be. One paved road in the whole town. To me, there's this mind-blowing image of a young man showing up at a Yankee tryout with a hole in his shoe, with just a hodgepodge of clothes and no glove. And he wasn't even a pitcher.
Q: You went down there and saw this firsthand?
A: I actually walked on the field where he tried out and the slum in Panama City that he walked through to get there, and even the day of the tryout, he's repairing fishing nets the whole morning with his father and taking two buses for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and showing up at the field.
Q: Rivera also gets into this mixed relationship with his father. Was that difficult for him to discuss with you?
A: When he first sort of mentioned his father, almost in passing, (he said he) was a very tough man -- a very disciplined, hardworking man who he had a world of respect for but also someone who really instilled fear in him. So I naturally would ask him, "Well, what was it that created that fear?" And he said, "Oh my gosh... if you crossed him in any way or you disrespected him or didn't follow through on something you were supposed to do, you were gonna get it." He was actually pretty open with that. The more we talked about it, the depth of the trauma that he experienced (emerged). He has, I think, a good relationship with his father now. His parents still live in Puerto Caimito. They have a nice home -- it's not palatial, but he's built them a nice home. He cares for them, provides for them. They also come up to the States and visit Mariano and their grandchildren quite a bit.
Q: Were there any other real surprises to you doing this book project?
A: One of the enduring images I have is the story of flying home from Arizona after the 2001 World Series. He shares an account about seeing Clara outside the locker-room and kissing her and holding her hand and walking to the team bus and the team charter and flying home to New York and basically crying the entire flight. And he's also terrified of flying, which is sort of... I don't know if it's amusing, but think about all the miles this guy flew all these years and it never got better. And he's with Clara, and she's just rubbing his back for 2,500 miles and trying to comfort him. That, to me, is a pretty powerful image to show the depth of how much he cared and how much it hurt him to let down his team.
Q: And there's that story in 2004, when the fan is heckling him about the deaths in his family in the bullpen at Fenway Park right before he comes in and blows that game. Do you think that was something that might have affected his performance?
A: Every single teammate who you ever talked to said that, if anything else, the greatest asset that Mariano Rivera had was his mind and his almost supernatural ability to focus and block everything out. What that fan did in Boston was unspeakable, but I certainly don't think he took it out to the mound.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to discuss?
A: I thought the (Robinson) Cano stuff was interesting. And he loves Cano; they would talk all the time. There was a game pretty early on in Cano's rise to stardom, a ball that he just didn't go after very hard. His theme basically with Cano was, "I don't know if you know how good you can be. I don't know if you know that you can be the best player in baseball and how much ability that you have." He said, "I don't think Robbie burns to be the best." And he compares that elsewhere. He has a section where he writes about Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia's really the polar opposite -- he's the guy who would give a limb to win a game. And he basically said if I had to win one game and I needed someone to play second base, it'd be Pedroia. And he's not dropping a safe on Robbie Cano, certainly, but it's interesting insight.
If I took away anything in the course of working on this with Mariano, he's as rock-solid and grounded as any superstar athlete you could ever meet. So many times there's kind of a public and private disconnect with these guys. The persona that plays out before the cameras and before the press and everything and then you see them in another setting or privately and you see if it's not all completely fraudulent, it's certainly prettied up for public consumption. And there is none of that with Mariano. His last moment on the field as a Yankee was illustrative of that with (Andy) Pettitte and (Derek) Jeter coming to get him. He talked about Pettitte coming into the trainer's room and giving them a head's up that they wanted to do this, and he said, "No, don't do it... You know me. I want to do my job. I don't want to be fussed over." And then they did it anyway. He totally appreciated it. He loved it, and he loved where it was coming from.
Q: What are your thoughts of Rivera's critique of Robinson Cano?
A: I found his insights very interesting, and I have to tell you, I don't see Mariano's viewpoint as any sort of cheap shot -- and certainly not anything written to sell books, as some people have suggested. He genuinely likes Robinson Cano, has great affection for Robinson Cano, regards him as a little baseball brother. And he is in awe of Cano's natural gifts. Just completely in awe of them. To Mariano, Robbie Cano has the ability to be the very best player in baseball, and truly an all-time great. His point is simply that if Cano burned a little hotter, played with more passion and fire that he truly would be in a class by himself.
-- USA Today