I met Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer for the New York Yankees, in 1998. A company called us about getting autographed baseballs before the World Series, which featured the Yankees and the San Diego Padres. As I went through the Rolodex of Yankee players, they all told us no, because signing baseballs before the World Series was taboo.
We reached the “R” section and called Mariano. He agreed to sign some balls, either because he didn’t know better, or he felt sorry for us. So I went to his humble one-bedroom walk-up in New Rochelle to meet him. We sat down and made small talk for a few moments before he stopped signing, looked up, and asked me, “Brandon, do you believe in God?”
The question caught me off guard, but I answered, “Yeah, I believe in God.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “DO you believe in Jesus Christ? he asked next.
I looked at him for a second before answering, “Can I get back to you on that?”
The truth is I never understood faith until I met Mariano. I believed in God, but it didn’t extent much beyond that. I liked to joke that I prayed almost every day in the 1990s, but it was for the Yankees to win or for Derek Jeter not to get hurt.
Mariano and I have worked together for more than twenty years, and we’ve had these long conversations while I drove him to various appearances. Inevitably, those talks would turn to subjects of faith. I learned about the specifics of Christianity and how it differed from Judaism. We talked about divine intervention and ways to become a more faithful person, and I have to say, Mariano convinced me with his arguments.
Our relationship started me on a journey of faith that I’m still on to this day. I never thought a skinny kid from Panama with broken English was going to have such a profound impact on me, but I’ve come to believe that God gives us signs and uses people to redirect our path sometimes. Whether we choose to acknowledge those signs is up to us.
Mariano’s faith was tested in a big way on May 3, 2012, when he tore his ACL catching fly balls int eh outfield during batting practice. I was in the kitchen that day helping my wife, Mara, set the table for dinner when I saw the news that Mariano had gotten hurt.
I turned to Mara and said, “Our summer just changed dramatically.”
“I need surgery for my ACL,” he revealed. “I won’t be able to play the rest of the season.”
“With a torn ACL, did you really think you were coming back this season?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been working hard since the injury. Watch this.”
Mariano stood up and showed me how he could push off with his injured knee. In my head, I was having a Jerry Seinfeld moment, thinking, Is this guy crazy He has a torn ACL!
Finally, I got Mariano to admit he couldn’t move side to side and that surgery was the best route for him to take. He wasn’t taking the news well, though. For a guy who was so cool, calm and collected on the mound, he was having a moment in his house that day.
In that moment, Mariano faced the choice we all face: faith or fear? Fear was pulling at him tearing down the faith in his doctors and in himself to get healthy and come back next season to end his career on his terms. It was hard for me to see because Mariano is one of the most faith-filled people I’ve ever met. I chose to remind him of that.
“You have been wondering abut what the end of your career would be like,” I said. “You wanted to get the church build and to spend more time with your family. God has granted your wish and given you exactly that. He’s given you a window into what life will be like after baseball, and you still have the option to come back next year if you want.”
Time away from the game was good for Mariano. It allowed him to test-drive his new life and filled him with faith that things would work out in the end. His injury was a temporary setback on the way to a major comeback. Mariano returned to the game recharged, with a new perspective, and without the mystery of what awaits him after baseball. He ended his career the following year on his terms, finishing with 44 saves and a 2.11 ERA.
Mariano was fueled by purpose after his injury. He wanted to finish his career his way. Remaining in a fearful state could’ve robbed him of that chance. True to the Mariano I know, he chose to walk by faith, and it made all the difference for him, his family, Yankee fans, his teammates and everybody who loved watching him play the game.