Helping fight ALS, Mo reflects on new life
Legendary closer honored as dinner raises more than $1 million for research
NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera says he is "content" with his new life in retirement: working toward the opening of a church on Dec. 15, being "chauffeur" to his kids at school and their sports, tipping his cap to former rivals who just won a World Series and seizing an "opportunity" to help find a cure for a disease that took the life of another Yankees legend long before him.
Rivera, the 13-time All-Star and author of a Major League-record 652 saves, was honored on Thursday night at the 19th annual Lou Gehrig Sports Awards Benefit Dinner at the Marriott Marquis. There is still no known cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), 72 years after it claimed the Iron Horse's life, but this dinner raised about $1 million toward research, with another $172,000 added during a live auction.
Honored along with Rivera were former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms and former New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner. The Jacob K. Javits Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Richard Essey, chairman of TemPositions.
Rivera, invited to attend by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, a benefit co-chair of the ALS Association Greater New York Chapter, was saved for last. The crowd was treated to a comical video highlighting Rivera's "perfect" record of catching batting-practice flies; Rivera even claimed that he made a "miracle" catch when he was injured at Kauffman Stadium in 2012. Closing the show was typical for Rivera, as he told the crowd of about 600.
"I don't understand why I always have to be last," Rivera said, drawing laughs. "I mean, 18 years, 17 years being last. I always ask [manager] Joe [Girardi], 'Why do I have to pitch last?' I asked Joe, 'Can I pitch first so I can go home?'"
Then Rivera lowered his voice in a hushed tone and spoke about the reason he was here. There was silence and respect. He had spent time throughout the night with individuals and families who are coping with ALS, and with those who have worked tirelessly in hopes of finally breaking through.
"It means a lot for me to be here," Rivera said. "Sometimes we complain. Sometimes I did complain when I would blow a save. When I see this, I have to reach out and say, 'I'm sorry for being selfish sometimes.' ... Seeing this, it's something we all have to help, to share what the Lord has given us with others less fortunate and those in need.
"I would like to thank the Greater New York Chapter for honoring me with this special award named for one of the greatest Yankees ever. And I mean that when I say one of the greatest -- one of the finest men who played this game with dignity and loyalty, and he was taken with this disease. He lost his life to this, but his fighting spirit is in us. That's why you guys are here -- to give back and stay strong and help to defeat this disease that has taken so many lives. I know -- I'm sure -- that we're going to find a cure for this disease."
Rivera also met with media on a red carpet before the dinner, and he stressed that his playing days are firmly behind him. He said he has not even had a chance yet to watch video of the priceless moment when teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte came out to get him on the mound at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26 after he threw his final pitch.
"I'm enjoying it," Rivera said. "I love it. I'm having fun. ... Knowing that I did whatever I wanted to do and leave the game the way I did, it's more than satisfying. I'm happy. I'm content in what I'm doing, and I'm just waiting for my next job in my life."
Asked if life is already different, Rivera replied: "That's behind us. That playing time is already done. I'm moving forward. So I don't pay attention to it. It's something I have to drop, and pick up whatever I'm going to do next."
Rivera said that "helping the church" in New York, where he lives, has been a priority. Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope) will be a Christian-Pentecostal congregation, in a decayed Presbyterian church purchased from the City of New Rochelle (his U.S. home) in 2011 and renovated for a reported $2.5 million.
"I'm trying to open the church on December 15, so I've been busy," Rivera said. "It's consuming time there -- trying to get everything in order, finding the funds. It's a challenge, but we will do it."
Rivera said that if he is in the Tampa, Fla., area next spring, he "will go and see the boys. They're my family; they're my friends. I'll give them a hug. It will be something nice."
But other than that, he said, "I'll be somewhere I don't know. I'll be somewhere. It won't be time for me. Like I said, that is behind me. I'm happy, content and doing what I'm doing."
Rivera said that serving as a guest instructor at Spring Training for the Yanks might be something he would consider "in the long run, but not now. I have a lot of things to do. I'm focusing on other things."
One thing Rivera said he wants to see soon is a finalization of a Yankees trip to his native Panama next spring for an exhibition.
"We're trying to make it happen, but right now, it is not confirmed," Rivera said. "Hopefully it will happen quickly, because we want to do it. I want to bring them back to my country and give the people in Panama a great time with the Yankees. So hopefully we can do it."
Rivera was saluted by the Fenway Park crowd during the recent World Series, and he saluted his former rivals right back after they beat the Cardinals in six.
"They deserve it," Rivera said. "They played better than anybody. They played to a different level. That's why they are the champions. They were capable of doing that; they deserved to win."
As for an heir apparent at closer, Yanks general manager Brian Cashman has said that decision will be made next spring. But when asked if he thinks David Robertson is ready to assume that role, Rivera said he thinks his former setup man has the right makeup.
"That would be my guy," Rivera said. "But definitely, when you start a new job, it's different. He'll have to be patient. I believe that he could be the guy. ... The transition is mentally. You have to be ready mentally. When it happens, you have to be able to flip the page and move forward."
Earlier this week, Rivera won two American League Comeback Player of the Year Awards -- MLB's official award and one affiliated with the MLB Players Association.
"You know, when you talk about a comeback, it's not such a good word, because you know that something happened," Rivera said. "Either you didn't do good, or something happened to you. The previous year, I didn't like to remember that. It was a sad time for me. But it motivated me, pushed me to finish the way I finished. If that didn't happen, it wouldn't have been the same."
On this night, Rivera was humbled by what he saw and the people he met. He spent several minutes before the dinner with Chris and Christine Pendergast of Long Island. Chris is in a wheelchair, stricken by ALS, but the couple has worked to spread awareness and has raised about $1 million in funds. They talked baseball, and mostly, Rivera was there to listen.
"I'm here to give to the community, to people in need," Rivera said. "Sometimes you just need to be there and put your arm around people and say, 'You know what? I'm praying for you.'"
"It's almost like two heroes meeting each other," Christine said. "One was a hero on the mound. Chris has been a hero on the road, raising money in his wheelchair, riding from out east on Long Island through the streets of Manhattan. So it was one hero meeting another hero."
Then she said what so many said about Rivera throughout his 2013 farewell tour.
"More than that, Mariano is just a fine gentleman," Christine said. "That's what you take away from all of this. Not the celebrity-ness of the pitcher. You know, that ends. It's that gentleman that really carries that persona forward."