Waiting in the Rain for a Superstar

For sports fans, Mariano Rivera needs little introduction. From 1995 to 2013, Mariano (or Mo, as he’s known by his many admirers) was the much-feared closing pitcher for the New York Yankees. His list of awards and records is so prolific that it would be foolish to even begin to list them. But Joe Torre, Hall of Fame manager of the Yankees, summed it up well: “He is the greatest ever.”

Mariano’s take on his success is surprising and rarenot only for a professional athlete, but for anyone. Still humbly connected to his roots in his native Panama, and a person of deep faith, he sees every moment of his life as an opportunity to express the gifts he’s been given by God.

“So, Mariano, do you think you’re the greatest ever?” I asked him.

Sitting with him in his living room, I watched as he closed his eyes, letting his head tilt back, taking in the question. Like he was back on the mound, he held the moment. A moment that almost didn’t happen.

For the past few months, I had been prepping production on a short documentary film on the life of Willie Alfonso. Willie grew up as part of a large Puerto Rican family in a tough part of Brooklyn in the ‘60s. His dad was an alcoholic and took out most of his aggression on Willie’s mom. At age 12, Willie found himself homeless after he was kicked out of his house defending his mom from his dad’s attacks. Willie spent the next two decades battling demons of his own. After a hard journey of healing and recovery, Willie eventually found himself as the chaplain for the New York Yankees.

Enter Mariano, stage left.

 

 

Well, almost.

As Willie and I got to know each other over the phone, he mentioned that Mariano might be interested in participating in our documentary project. Mariano and Willie had formed a tight bond working together at the Yankees. Willie had become a mentor and pastor to Marino. Mariano hosted Bible studies with Willie and other players in his home on a regular basis.

As we flew to New York in July, we knew Mariano was always a “maybe.” So when we landed, I focused on the job at hand: capturing Willie’s story.

A few minutes after we arrived, our producer got the call: Mariano was available on Sunday. We went ahead with our scheduled shoot that day with Willie knowing we’d have plenty of time to prep for Mariano.

(Side note: Saying you have plenty of time on a film set is a lot like saying “Macbeth” in a theater. It’s an absolute no-no and you risk jinxing everything.)

An hour or so later, we got another call: Mariano isn’t available on Sunday … he’s available tomorrow.

(Told you.)

 

After a late night of prepping questions I hadn’t been prepared to ask for another few days, we arrived at Mariano’s house. I sat in the back of our rental car pouring over my questions, knowing our time would be limited. And then it began to rain. As we waited, the rain kept coming. Soon we were being pelted by an enormous storm. As the rain poured, the clock ticked. Fifteen minutes. Thirty. An hour and a half went by. No Mariano. Willie sat in the front seat “texting” his friend asking for his ETA. (This was also the moment I thought that sweet Willie Alfonso might be a liar.)

Just then, Mariano pulled up.

Mercedes? BMW? Bentley? Nope. A 2014 Toyota Highlander.

After lugging our gear inside, shielding it from the rain, he stood before me. Shorter than I thought, but still a presence to behold. With his Panamanian accent still thick, he shook my hand.

“Sorry I was late. I was checking up on my Toyota dealership,” he said “You can shoot anywhere you want.”

We had only been given 25 minutes from the time we started the interview, but in the end, I spent nearly an hour sitting across from the greatest relief pitcher in the game of baseballevery answer dripping with humanity and humility. His character underscored by the fact that his World Series trophies sat unceremoniously on his desk amidst a pile of Office Depot printer paper still in its wrapper.

And when the moment finally came, I took a deep breath, then asked:

“So, Mariano, do you think you’re the greatest ever? Do you think your magical cutter pitch was the greatest?”

He simply replied, “It wasn’t just something magical, it was a purpose of God. It was a miracle. A lot of people thought that I did it, or a lot of people take the glory that they taught me the pitch. Well, no one did. I’m telling you right now that no one did that but God.”

It wasn’t just something magical, it was a purpose of God. It was a miracle.

We ended the interview and he bounded up the stairs to change. He and his wife were heading to watch their son pitch his final college baseball game. As we were packing up, Mariano came back down asking us to hurry up.So we picked up the pace.

Then, when we were just about to say our final goodbyes, he asked where we were going. Confused, I said that we were all packed up and ready to go.

“Oh no,” he said, “I wanted you to hurry up so you could join me for lunch. The chicken is getting cold.”

 

 

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