Mariano Rivera, recently selected as the first unanimous choice for induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, made his first visit to Cooperstown on Friday, Feb. 1. Rivera toured the museum and looked at the plaques dedicated to his fellow baseball immortals before answering questions during a media conference.
The retired Yankees reliever, 49, entered the plaque gallery, escorted by Erik Strohl, the Hall of Fame’s vice president for exhibitions and collections. Strohl led Rivera to several significant plaques, including those of Roberto Clemente and Rivera’s fellow Yankee greats, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
Speaking of Ford, Rivera said, “He’s a great guy. He gave me great career advice. He told me, ‘Never change the way you try to get a guy out. ... Don’t change until you have to change.’”
Rivera told a story while looking at the plaque of Hoyt Wilhelm — Rivera’s first pitching coach. “He always had a bag of baseballs. He’d put oranges and bananas in there. They didn’t last long.”
A native of Panama, Rivera seemed reverent when he reached the plaque of Rod Carew, the first of his countrymen to play in the major leagues. “He put us on the map,” he said. “He was a special man in our country.” He said he met Carew after reaching the majors, himself. “I had a great time with him, talking baseball. He encouraged me to keep playing the game the right way.”
Rivera was the last man in the majors to wear number 42, which was retired in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors. Players already wearing that number were allowed to keep it until they retired.
Looking at Robinson’s plaque, Rivera said, “I was so happy when Major League Baseball retired that number because of what it represents. When I learned about what he did for us, as a minority, I was amazed.”
When Strohl pointed out that Rivera would be the last number 42 to become a Hall of Famer, Rivera said, “I thank the good Lord every day that I got to wear that number.”
Looking at the plaque of his former manager, Joe Torre, Rivera said, “He had one rule — play hard. He allowed us to play. He allowed us to make mistakes. He allowed us to find our best.” He called Torre “a father figure” and said, “He’s the man that gave me the opportunity to be a closer. That’s why we’re here.”
When he reached the plaques of the Hall of Fame’s first class — Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson — Rivera exclaimed, “Oh my god. This is baseball.”
During a media conference at the end of his tour, Rivera remarked about his journey from the small Panamanian village of Puerto Caimito. “It’s quite a journey from a small fishing village to a place where the best of the best is,” he said.
He said the flight north after the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract in 1990 was his first time on an airplane.
When asked what he thought about being the first unanimous selection to the hall, Rivera said he was honored, but kept it in perspective. “I respect the game,” he said. “No one will ever be bigger than baseball.”
He joked about his impending induction, saying, “All New York’s going to be here. They better be!” He said his acceptance speech “will be short, but it will come from the heart.”
He said it was “a privilege and an honor” to wear the Yankee pinstripes during his career, and said he loved the big moments, whether they resulted in success or failure. “How will you ever enjoy victory if you don’t know what it’s like to be defeated?” he asked.
Strohl said later that Rivera spent about two hours touring all the public exhibits at the Hall of Fame and viewing other items in the collections, not on public display.
When asked what Rivera particularly seemed to enjoy, Strohl said, “No matter how big superstars they are, they always marvel at the first catcher’s mask.”