NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — The greatest closer in baseball history sits incognito behind dark sunglasses in a red fold-up chair halfway down the left-field line. He is nervous. Could he be more nervous than pitching against David Ortiz with the bases loaded in the ninth inning?
“Absolutely,” says Mariano Rivera as he awaits the start of Iona College’s baseball game against Fairfield, in which his 20-year-old son, Mariano Rivera Jr., is the Gaels’ starting pitcher.
“I’m more nervous now. There’s nothing I can do. You’re not in control. You’re nervous. I’m wishing and praying for him to do the job.”
The man who has recorded more saves than anyone in baseball history cannot save his son. Not on the mound, anyway.
“To be honest, it’s not what I can give, it’s what he can do,” he said.
Mariano Jr., a bearded, wiry, shorter version of his dad, has some New York attitude to him. He is his own man.
His father is a likely Hall of Famer because of his signature cut fastball, but his son refuses to even throw a cutter.
“I’m deliberately not throwing it,” he says. “I tried to learn it, but I feel like that’s something that is his pitch. I don’t want to be remembered for his pitch, I want to be make my own pitch. I want to be the Mariano Rivera of my own accomplishments. I want to be my own player.”
His father, stylishly dressed in a black quilted jacket and designer jeans, with a clean-shaved head, gives him plenty of space.
As his son starts his warm-up tosses, the antsy Rivera heads for the parking lot in City Park. Dodging cars, he plays catch with a couple of kids with a Pinky Ball. A jogger runs by, sees the trademark delivery, and does a double take.
The few fans in the stands leave him alone. One parent even tosses him a baseball glove to play with the kids.
“Just another parent,” says one blasé New Yorker.
Rivera is having fun throwing the kids sky-high pop flies — until the first pitch. As seven major league scouts armed with radar guns take their positions behind home plate, the father heads back to his chair.
The last man to wear No. 42 in the major leagues admits his son used to have mixed feelings about him attending games.
“Sometimes he did not want me there,” he says.
Mariano Rivera Jr. later explains why.
“I thought I had to be Superman,’’ he says. “I wanted him there, but it was a challenge I had to overcome because on the days that he was there, I got real nervous. So I had to overcome those nerves.”
The worst time was when he was 15 years old and pitching in Babe Ruth League.
“I asked him to come to the game. It was a day off for him and I didn’t get out of the first inning,’’ he says. “After every pitch I would just look at him for approval. I hit two guys. Walked two and just kept leaving the ball up in the middle. I maybe got one out.
“I remember that day I was upset and I didn’t want him to come to any more games. I was happy that he was there, but overcome with all the emotions, so I didn’t really perform the way I should.”
Today, Rivera performs well. He hurls a two-hitter, blanking Fairfield, 5-0, over seven innings for his first collegiate shutout. Although he admits he was tired at the end, his fastball still reaches 92 miles per hour in the last inning. One major league scout is effusive in his praise.
“If his last name isn’t Rivera, he’s still interesting because he’s loose and he’s got a quick arm,’’ says the scout who requested anonymity. “He’s still skinny and he still has a physical projectability and a high baseball IQ.’’
Last year as a freshman, Rivera was the team’s fifth starter. This year he is the top starter for the 6-22 Gaels.
“We try to forecast what he’s going to be like in five years,” says the scout.
One play particularly impresses the scouts. In the third inning, Rivera gives up a leadoff double to Fairfield’s Billy Zolga, who is then sacrificed to third.
Rivera then uncorks a pitch that bounces off the backstop. Zolga and Rivera race for home. Iona catcher Carmine Palummo fields a quick ricochet and fires the ball to the speedy, 155-pound Rivera, who dives to tag Zolga out.
“College pitchers don’t make that play,” says the scout.
Eyes on a big opportunity
Rivera is not like most college players with big league aspirations. A self-avowed homebody, he wanted to stay home with his family and not pitch in baseball meccas like Arizona and Florida.
The communications major lifts weights at 6 a.m. before classes. He’s pitching year-round for the first time in his life and loving it. He’s on the radar of both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Through eight starts, he is 1-4 with a 4.67 ERA. In 44⅓ innings, he has 26 strikeouts and 15 walks, and has allowed 47 hits. He is still likely to be chosen in the June draft, although his dad has made it crystal clear he wants him to stay in school.
That’s one save that the Yankee great may not get.
“I might have to go against his wishes on this one,’’ says Mariano Jr., who would consider taking online courses. “This is an opportunity that I can’t let pass.”
His goal is to be a major league starting pitcher. He says he doesn’t mind the famous name. People have so much respect for his father that he never gets heckled.
“I like my name. I wouldn’t change my name at all. With that name comes a huge shadow, big shoes you have to fill, but I go every day living my life,’’ he says. “I don’t want to live under the shadows of my father. I won’t take anything away from him. He’s the greatest man I have known, on and off the field.”
Father isn’t a coach
Rivera says he used to regret that his dad spent a lot of time on the road.
“I didn’t understand and it upset me,’’ he says, “but, at the end of the day, he did it not for himself, or the glory of the game, he did it for us.”
That made Mariano Jr. grow up fast.
“I have two younger brothers, so I had to step in and be the man of the house when he was gone,” he says.
Of course, growing up in Yankee Stadium and playing catch with Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano was fun.
“All those guys treated me like I was their own kid,” he says.
But he gives most of the pitching credit to the Iona baseball staff.
“He’s a bulldog, it’s fun to watch him grow. He’s got no sense of entitlement because his name is Mariano Rivera,” says coach Pat Carey. “If he stays healthy, yeah, he’ll have the opportunity to make it to the big leagues. He’s that good.”
Carey says the Yankee great spoke to the team once, but he never interferes.
“He’s a normal parent. He’s not going to come here and tell us what to do,” says Carey.
Rivera Jr. says he never has his father look at video. He just asks him for feedback. Things are mellow between father and son.
Mariano Sr. says his is proud of his eldest boy.
“I want him to be good and make it to the big leagues, but on his own terms, on his ability, his desires and his love and passion of the game.
“I want him to be himself.”
The father says he has tried to teach his son that his spirituality is more important than baseball. Recently he bought an abandoned church from the city of New Rochelle for $1 and brought it back to life. His wife, Clara, is the minister at the renovated Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope).
“I helped put in the pews and cleaned the windows,” says Mariano Jr.
Rivera Jr. knows it would be a thrill for his dad to see his son pitch in the majors.
“He would love it,’’ he says. “But he’s not, ‘Oh if you don’t strike this guy out, you’re not getting dinner.’ He’s not that guy. He just wants the best for me.’’
‘I would play for the Red Sox’
Before the start of the last inning, Mariano Sr. stands and stretches and signals for the righthander — himself. Then he laughs, his Chiclet-white teeth gleaming in the sun.
Rivera Jr.’s on-field song is a mellow Christian rock song, “Walk Proud” — the polar opposite of his father’s signature song, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” He doesn’t like the Metallica song, either.
“Last spring break, we went down to Oklahoma and I came out and they played Metallica and I almost lost it,” he says. “I hated it. I was really upset. I don’t like to be compared to him at all. I really don’t like that.”
At the end of the game, there is no father-son bonding moment. The old man is out of the parking lot quicker than Dave Roberts swiped second base off of him in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
The young Rivera has only love for the Red Sox. He says they worked him out last winter.
“I would play for the Red Sox,” he says enthusiastically. “If the Red Sox drafted me, I would be there.”
He’s already almost mixed it up with a Sox fan at Fenway.
“We were in Fenway, my dad was pitching in 2012,’’ he says. “There was this guy behind me and he was screaming. ‘Overrated, overrated’ for the whole two innings. I turned around and I said ‘Shut up, before I make you shut up.’ I got in his face because it’s my father and I’m going to represent him whenever I can.
“I’m not backing down.’’Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com. Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.