Legacy of 42: Mariano Rivera’s place in history

By Roberto Salvador Klapisch

One of the perks of covering Mariano Rivera’s career was learning not just about his famed cut fastball, but his soul. We spent many hours talking about what mattered most to him. Winning championships was at the top of the list, but so was faith and the pursuit of man’s better angels.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson’s No. “42” than the soft-spoken closer who sat in the corner of the Yankees’ clubhouse, greeting visitors’ with the same welcoming smile year after year. No topic was ever off limits at Rivera’s locker, but what moved him was hearing about Robinson’s courage in the face of unspeakable racism after he broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rivera, a native of Panama, understood the responsibility that came with being the last major leaguer to wear that number.

“It’s something I always considered an honor and a privilege,” Rivera told me shortly before his retirement in 2013.

“To think about what Jackie went through, to continue that tradition meant people were looking at me. It was important to live up to that.”

Rivera paused and said, “that was pressure.”

More than any of his 652 careers saves? A tougher chore than recording a career 0.70 ERA in the post-season? The great righthander practically laughed at the questions.

“There is no comparison. Jackie Robinson was a pioneer, he was the first (to break the color barrier). I am not the first (Latino in the big leagues). Many have come before me.”

Today Rivera stands on the doorstep of Cooperstown, N.Y.. His election into the Hall of Fame is a certainty. All that’s left is picking the over-under on the percentage of voters in his corner. Yes of course Rivera deserves to be chosen unanimously, but don’t expect him to join the discussion about numbers.

He was always more comfortable talking about the legends who led the way, like Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, the ones who established a beachhead for Spanish-speaking players.

All Rivera did was pitch, but he was a model of integrity and class, not just in the Yankees’ universe but throughout the game.

Rivera stood out from the others in his spirituality. Even Derek Jeter, a Yankee icon, deferred to Rivera’s higher calling. The captain used to say Rivera would’ve been a preacher had he not been blessed with such a unique pitch. But as effective as that cutter was, and as often as Rivera destroyed hitters unlucky enough to face him in the ninth inning, he never gloated. He dominated without ego or bling. He despised the gimmicks of other pitchers.

Instead, Rivera brandished his gift with respect. He considered his opponents fellow warriors who were part of the same entertainment phenomenon – everyone under the same tent. Rivera was kind and strong, not unlike Robinson himself.

The similarities did not go unnoticed by the former Dodger great’s wife, Rachel, who spoke glowingly of Rivera in 2010. She was convinced the right man was still wearing her husband’s number.

“I believe there is integrity attached to it,” Mrs. Robinson told the New York Times. “And I would hope it would always represent individuals who stand up for the things they believe in.”

“I know that the Latino population has suffered through many of the challenges we have as African-Americans, so to have someone who conducts himself in the way Mariano Rivera does, that’s what we want to teach our young people.”

Ironically, Rivera didn’t grasp the significance of that No. 42 when it was handed to him in the Yankees’ clubhouse in 1995, his rookie year. Lean as a greyhound and an unknown in the farm system, Rivera was focused on working his way up the depth chart, not furthering a Civil Rights cause. He had heard of Robinson, but didn’t know what the number represented.

That would soon change, of course. Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s digits, grandfathering those who’d already claimed it prior to 1997. Among others wearing it at the time included the Red Sox’s Mo Vaughn, the Mets’ Butch Huskey and hurler Kirk Rueter of the Expos and Giants.

Though it wasn’t required, six of the 13 players wearing No. 42 voluntarily gave it up in 1997, including reliever Dennis Cook and outfielder Tom Goodwin. Little by little the number faded away.

When Vaughn retired in 2003, Rivera became the last to carry Robinson’s legacy. It was one of the many reasons the Yankees’ closer hovered over the baseball community, larger than a bases-loaded jam and just a tad larger than life, too.

Everyone loved Mariano, not just his teammates and fans in the Bronx, but opponents too, even umpires. Rivera’s grace came from his background and humble upbringing in Panama. The “42” on his back was a constant reminder of who – and what – he represented.

The campaign won’t end with Rivera’s induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Jackie Robinson Museum held its ground-breaking ceremony last April in New York with plans to finish construction by early 2019. If the stars are properly aligned, the doors will open to the public on April 15, baseball’s equivalent of a national holiday.

That would be just perfect for Rivera, who remains one of Robinson’s greatest admirers.

“Hopefully what Jackie did for baseball will be remembered by every generation in the future,” Rivera said. “He was a great man. That’s why when I wore his number. I did it thinking, ‘I have a lot to live up to.’ I hope I did.”

Featured Image: Jared Wickerham / Getty Images Sport

Inset Image: Maddie Meyer / Getty Image Sport