On a chilly September night, Mariano Rivera throws one last pitch in the bullpen, his arm flying forward, pulling him into a stride toward the open bullpen door. He puts his head down, lightly jogging onto the field as the opening riff of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blazes over the stadium speakers for the final time. The fans, all on their feet cheering, show their adoration for the greatest closer of all time as he pitches in his final game, writing the last lines of a storybook career. But soon the stadium lights will dim, those fans will file out, and everyone will head home. And for Rivera, home is right here in Westchester.
Having made his mark on Major League Baseball, Rivera looks to make just as big an impact on the community he came to live in 19 years ago, after being shown around by a close friend. “The water reminds me of my hometown [in Panama], so I feel comfortable here,” Rivera says of Westchester, where he plans to make that impact with the church he and his wife, Clara, both of whom are devout Christians, began as an informal Bible study in their Purchase home in 2009.
The Refugio de Esperanza (Refuge of Hope), as the congregation is now known, soon outgrew the space, and Rivera was in search of a larger place for it when a friend brought him to the former North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle. The stone structure, built in 1907, had long been shuttered, a dilapidated frame of what it once was. “It was in bad shape, but I saw the beauty of it,” says Rivera. “I talked to the city, and we came to an agreement that I would renovate the church”—which he did for a purported $2.5 million, after purchasing the building in 2011.
Most important, Rivera wants the church to have a profound influence on the community. “We want to make sure it has a great effect on the youngsters and whoever else wants to come,” he says. To that end, he adds, the space won’t just be a place of worship, but will be a hub for local outreach as well—from feeding the hungry to helping underprivileged kids. “That’s the challenge we want,” Rivera explains. “To do good for the community.”
Longtime friend Brandon Steiner predicts, “It’s going to be something special. It’s a little like divine intervention that he’s coming back to where he got started.”
To help raise funds for those charitable initiatives, Rivera and Steiner, CEO of New Rochelle-based sports collectibles and marketing company Steiner Sports, have teamed up to sell rare memorabilia from the closer’s final season, including a 20” by 24” signed photo with the inscription “Last To Wear #42” ($675) and a signed final-season baseball ($450). Steiner, who jokes that one of Rivera’s favorite words is “no,” an assertion that makes the baseball great laugh, says, “I cry at night, because I want to do all these things, and he’s like, ‘That’s not going to help my team win [or] help me be with my family more.’”
But with this past season being the veteran Yankee’s last, Steiner amends, “He realized there was an opportunity to raise a lot of money for his foundation and the church. And there’s a lot of children he wants to help.” Rivera says that, in this case, it wasn’t a hard choice to pair up: “I understand that we had to do it, and we did.”
As part of an auction of Rivera’s used game jerseys and other memorabilia taking place in December, Steiner received jerseys from players across the professional sports world—from Tom Brady to Kobe Bryant—looking to lend a helping hand to Rivera’s closely held causes. “It makes me feel good knowing that when you give respect, you get that back,” Rivera says. “As a player, that’s what you want. Doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but that’s what you want.”
The two are also partnering to start a youth baseball camp at ProSwing Baseball in Port Chester, which they hope to make a yearly commitment. “You name it, he’s done it in this area,” says Steiner of Rivera. “He’s committed to Westchester.”