The Most Valuable Player in last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was Mariano Rivera, a 43 year old pitcher for the New York Yankees. He pitched one inning – the eighth – and got his three outs without giving up a hit or a walk. For him it was just another day at the office.
But there was more going on last night than an older player getting his outs.
When Rivera went out to the mound before the inning started – for his warm-up throws – his team-mates did something they never otherwise do. They stayed in the dugout – and cheered along with the 43,000 or so fans who were there. They wanted him (and him alone) to receive the ovation they believed he deserved.
Rivera is retiring at the end of the season, and he’s using the season as a kind of farewell tour. He was drafted at 19 years old and has been pitching pretty much since then, missing only the last half of the 1992 season to elbow surgery. And with more than 20 saves in the first half of the season, Rivera remarkably is pitching as well as he ever has.
Here’s the really interesting thing about him: he’s universally loved within the league – players, coaches, managers, even front office staff and other ballpark employees.
I should point out that I personally don’t like the Yankees and never have. I’m a lifelong Tigers’ fan and will always despise the Yankees (and their insufferable fans). But it’s hard not to like Rivera (except when he’s pitching against the Tigers).
New York magazine published a profile of Rivera last month, and the profile disclosed something about Rivera that many fans do not know. He’s a Christian. And not just an occasional church attender, but someone who treats his faith as the most important part of his life. “Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord,” he said to the reporter.
Christian athletes of course are nothing new. Every sport has them – Tim Tebow in professional football (barely), Jeremy Lin in professional basketball, and so on. But these days Christian athletes are often tolerated more than loved. Tebow, for example, was such a polarizing presence on the New York Jets last year that for a while no team wanted him for the coming season.
So, what sets Rivera apart? Part of it is that he’s earned the respect he’s getting by being around so long, so dedicated to his sport, and – well – so good. At this point people are willing to listen to anything he says.
But I think there’s more, and this is something other athletes – and Christians in general – could pay attention to: He’s humble. For someone who has achieved so much, this trait is especially striking, but I suspect he was humble when he was a nobody. His humility makes his faith seem sincere and genuine and believable.
Even that New York magazine reporter was in awe – not because she was interviewing a sports celebrity, but because that sports celebrity was not all that impressed with himself. As Rivera put it, “God put [my baseball talent] in me, for me to use it. To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”
There’s one Yankee I admire.
(Photo credit: As with many of the photos I use on the blog, I found this one in a search of Google images. However, an alert reader has pointed out that Rivera is a right-hander, and the photo clearly shows him throwing left. He’s a great pitcher, but he probably doesn’t throw from both sides. So, I’ll assume this photo was flipped. Back in my college newspaper days, we used to flip photos so that, for example, a person wouldn’t be looking off the page. I’ll assume something like that happened here. Good eye, Jim!)