COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Mariano Rivera stopped at the entrance to the Plaque Gallery inside the Baseball Hall of Fame and just gazed at the walls, awestruck by the moment. He was a long way from Puerto Caimito, Panama.
“I can’t comprehend it. It’s just amazing. Too much,” Rivera said Friday as he soaked in his first visit to the Hall of Fame. “It’s quite a journey from a fishing village to a place where the best of the best is.
“For a man who loves the game of baseball, what all these men did and passed it on to us, there couldn’t be a better day.”
Rivera’s appearance with his wife, Clara, on a sunny, frigid morning in upstate New York came less than two weeks after he became the first unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame . The former New York Yankees star relief pitcher received all 425 votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and the late Roy Halladay also were selected by the writers, while Harold Baines and Lee Smith were picked in December by a veterans committee. All six will be inducted July 21 in Cooperstown.
The son of a fisherman, Rivera signed with the Yankees in 1990 and took his 87 mph fastball north to the Gulf Coast League in Florida. Five years later, at age 25, he made his major league debut for the Yankees. After serving as a setup man and nearly being traded, Rivera emerged in 1996 under first-year manager Joe Torre as one of the game’s best relievers.
“There were a line of men that saw abilities in me in different areas,” Rivera said. “I wanted to start, yes, but I wasn’t attached to it. I just wanted to be happy to play the game of baseball. Smarter people than me put me in a position where I would shine.”
One pitch rendered Rivera almost unhittable — his nasty, bat-shattering cut fastball, which he discovered in 1997. Part of a core with shortstop Derek Jeter, left-hander Andy Pettitte and catcher Jorge Posada, Rivera helped lead the Yankees to five World Series titles from 1996-09.
Rivera saved his best for the postseason, saving 42 games with a 0.70 ERA and 11 earned runs allowed over 16 seasons, including 11 saves in the World Series. Rivera retired after the 2013 season as MLB’s saves leader with 652 and will join Rod Carew as the only natives of Panama elected to the Hall of Fame, and just the eighth relief pitcher.
“He put us on the map the way he played the game, the way he went about the game,” Rivera said of Carew. “He represented us in a great way that we can never forget no matter what I did. If it wasn’t for him, it would have been different. He was a special man.”
There were disappointments, too, for the hard-throwing right-hander — five blown saves in the postseason, the most glaring in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rivera gave up the Series-winning hit to Luis Gonzalez, a bloop single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.
That’s just part of the legacy.
“If I have to do it again, I don’t regret any moment of my career,” Rivera said. “No regrets. I always give my best and sometimes the other team is better than you that day. That’s baseball. My best wasn’t enough for those games, but I wouldn’t change it because how will you enjoy victory when you don’t know what it is to be defeated? How do you know what it is to be on top when you’ve never been on the bottom?”
And his greatest moment?
“Just putting the uniform (on), those pinstripes on day in and day out, year in and year out, for 19 seasons, that was amazing,” Rivera said. “It was a privilege to do that.”
During his tour, Rivera stopped to gaze at several plaques — Carew, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hoyt Wilhelm (his first pitching coach in the Gulf Coast League), Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Joe Torre, and Whitey Ford among them.
Rivera also was effusive in praise of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and wore No. 42 during his major league career. That Rivera was the last player to wear the number — it was grandfathered to him when No. 42 was retired in Robinson’s honor in 1997 — made the moment more memorable.
“I was so happy and so glad when major league baseball retired that number,” Rivera said. “Me being the last player using his number, representing the legacy of Jackie Robinson, was magnificent. I was blessed with that, being able to represent him with dignity.”
There was one moment Rivera had to fight his emotions — when he contemplated his journey.
“I remember leaving Panama seeing my father and my mother, my wife, back then my girlfriend, a cousin, not knowing what will happen, just accepting the challenge given the opportunity that I had and do my best,” he said. “Now, 29 years later, we’re talking about the Hall of Fame?
“I don’t even think if I could write that I could comprehend it. It’s something every player dreams of, but it seems so far to be reached. Now that I have reached it, thank God.”
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