The Hall of Fame athlete, author and philanthropist shares his life story and his philosophy for giving back.
Baseball fans all over the world know the name Mariano Rivera. After all, he’s one of the most dominant relief pitchers in major league baseball history. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, Rivera recently paid a visit to our Corporate Campus in Westchester, New York where he was interviewed by Andy Saperstein, Head of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.
In front of an audience of nearly 300 clients, Financial Advisors and staff, the former New York Yankees star discussed his successful career, his humble origins and how he is putting his personal values to work.
Mariano told of growing up in a fishing village in Panama City, Panama, near a fish processing plant that made everything, and everyone near it, smell like fish. When he went to school, he was teased as “the boy who smelled like fish.” He quit school—a mistake, he admitted—and followed his first passion: playing soccer. “I was going to be the next Pele,” he said.
But soccer eventually took a back seat to baseball, which he played with other children on the beach when the tide was out. He made his gloves out of cardboard milk cartons and climbed trees to select a branch that would be straight enough for a bat.
“We made balls by winding up shredded fishing nets and covering them with tape,” he said. “I learned about values, responsibilities and to appreciate what I had. I had next to nothing, but I was still happy, playing baseball.”
Success and Failure
By the time he turned 20, he had attracted the attention of the Yankees who signed him to play for them in Tampa, Florida. The first year was easy, as he was surrounded by Spanish-speaking players and fans. But when he was promoted to Greensboro, North Carolina the following year, the environment was totally changed. “I had nobody to talk to,” said Mariano. “I could not understand restaurant menus. I cried a lot from frustration there.”
He worked hard and reached the Yankees in 1995, and his rise was rapid: he was chosen to be their “closer”—the pitcher who finishes, or saves the game—in 1997. He became one of the most dominant relievers in major league history and the Yankees won five World Series titles during his 19-season career.
How did he manage to perform at such a high level on the field with all the pressure and the distractions of loud cheering fans? “It all disappeared when I took the mound,” he said. “I just had tunnel vision, blocking out everything else. Mental preparation takes a lot of effort and practice, but once you have it, it is easy to keep it.”
Asked about those rare times that he failed, and how he handled the aftermath, Mariano explained how he was able to maintain inner peace and stability.
“I would ask myself three questions—was I prepared mentally? Was I prepared physically? Did I give my best?” he said. “And if I could answer yes to all three, then I was O.K. Sometimes the other guy has to win, too. He has a family to feed as well.”
In 2019, he became the first unanimous Hall of Fame electee in the Hall’s 83-year history, and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony at the White House.
Legacy & Giving Back
Mariano was the last major league player to wear #42, the number permanently retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson who shattered baseball’s color line in 1947. Mariano was unaware of its significance at first. “The number selected me, I think,” he said, but he grew to understand and appreciate the impact Robinson had on the game and the country, and felt privileged to be a part of that legacy.
Long before the million-dollar contracts became standard, in his very first year in the major leagues, Mariano set up a private foundation to help others, particularly with financing education. “I knew I had to give back; I was receiving a lot.” Since then, his Mariano Rivera Foundation, S.A.V.E. (Students Achieving Valuable Education) has pursued its cause to provide youth from impoverished families with an education that will empower them for the future.
“I gave up my career saving games, and now I like to think I am saving lives,” said Mariano.