There are few people in the sports world who are universally acknowledged as the Greatest Of All Time at what they do. However, the pros who cast Baseball Hall of Fame ballots made it clear — with a first-ever unanimous vote — who is the GOAT when it comes to cutting down opposing batters in the ninth inning.
That, of course, would be Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer for the New York Yankees.
That would also be the man known as the Rev. Mariano Rivera, the Pentecostal minister who renovated a 107-year-old church sanctuary in New Rochelle, N.Y., to become Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope Church. While his wife — the Rev. Clara Rivera — serves as pastor, the former Yankee great is also ordained.
If you know anything about Rivera, you know that he has never been shy about discussing his faith (see this New York Daily News piece in 2011). His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was not a sermon, but it was full of references to Christian faith.
This is where things get tricky. Truth be told, Pentecostal Christians believe many things that would turn a lot of elite-market journalists into pillars of salt (it’s a biblical thing). Quite a few Pentecostal beliefs are considered unusual, even strange, by middle of the road Christians. And some forms of Pentecostalism are seen as more extreme than others. Oh, and “Pentecostalism” and “Evangelicalism” are not the same things.
Are you ready for the shocking part of this equation? Some Pentecostal beliefs have political implications. For example, a high percentage of Pentecostal people can accurately be called “Christian Zionists,” as that term is now defined. Many people think Christian Zionists back Israel for all of the wrong reasons.
By all means, there are valid news stories to report about these topics — if the goal is to understand the life and work of Mariano Rivera. The question, today, is whether an advocacy publication like The Daily Beast can handle this kind of nuanced religion-beat work, especially in the Donald Trump era.
You see, for editors at the Beast, Rivera’s religious faith is only important to the degree that it is political. That belief led to this headline: “Inside Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s Far-Right Politics.” Here is the crucial thesis material near the top of this advocacy piece:
For countless fans, Rivera is baseball royalty — an idol, worshipped for his on-field dominance, deadly mastery of a cut fastball, and pinpoint control.
To this day, he is held up as the ideal athlete, bestowed with endless grace and an unflappable demeanor on the mound that belied a burning competitive desire. Rivera represents a nearly unbroken succession of Yankee greatness that stretches all the way back to the 1920s, from Ruth and Gehrig to DiMaggio and Mantle, and then Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter.
And over the past three years, he’s also served at the pleasure of a racist president, taken part in thinly veiled propaganda on behalf of a far-right government in Israel, and gotten chummy with outright bigots and apocalyptic loons.
What does Rivera actually think of The Donald? That isn’t clear, in terms of on-the-record material in this story. It is clear that Trump — #DUH — likes to wrap himself in the celebrity of other people, like Rivera. It’s also clear that Rivera has been willing to serve on a White House commission looking at issues linked to opioid addictions, an issue that some might consider non-partisan territory.
But the big story here is Israel and the Christian Zionist beliefs that are common among Pentecostal believers around the world.
Let me stress, again, that this is valid material for news, especially if one is willing to look at the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs about Israel and, yes, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
However, we are talking about tricky theological territory that is packed with symbolism and biblical issues that are way beyond complicated. There’s more to this than “Left Behind” books and movies, if reporters are interested in church history and doctrine, instead of stereotypes. This isn’t a story with two sides — it’s a story with a dozen or more sides and it’s often hard to tell the players without a program.
The Beast team is not interested in any of that. I don’t even think that the goal was to find out what Mariano and Clara Rivera actually believe. It would appear that the goal was to find as much second-hand material as possible to link this Yankee great to Trump and to as many strange Christians (Pastor John Hagee alert!) as possible.
Let’s look at the attributions used in one crucial chunk of this Beast feature. This is long, but essential:
Rivera insisted he would retire from baseball in 2003 in order to focus on evangelical work; “Phil. 4:13", referring to Philippians 4:13, was scribbled on his cleats; the year he retired, Rivera’s charitable organization, one very much powered by his faith, was distributing nearly a million dollars annually, according to New York magazine; he recently founded a church in New Rochelle, NY (his wife serves as pastor); when Rivera gave up the game-winning single that cost the Yankees the 2001 World Series, he said it was part of the greater good — God’s plan, even — because doing so prevented a teammate from possibly getting on a plane that crashed; and when it comes to his signature pitch, “He put it in me,” Rivera said. “He put it in me, for me to use it. To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”
But the vast majority of Evangelical Christians also believe in a particular messianic biblical prophecy: Jews must rule the Holy Land before Christ can return. Whether Rivera ascribes to those beliefs entirely is unclear, but his support for Israel and the Israel Defense Forces is a matter of public record. He has traveled to Israel on multiple occasions, possibly beginning in 2013.
That year, the New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR) named Rivera its “Man of the Year.” During the awards ceremony, NYBR’s executive vice president, Joseph Potasnik, claimed Rivera would accompany him to Israel for 10 days. (The Daily Beast was not able to uncover concurrent reporting verifying Potasnik’s assertion, and he did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) However, on his WABC radio show in June 2015, Potasnik said Rivera and his family had spent five days with him there. In this case, reports exist which back up Potasnik — Rivera did visit religious landmarks and chatted up government officials.
Later on, there will be experts who interpret all of this — with exactly zero voices coming from the world of Pentecostal of charismatic Christianity.
In this case, I thought that that it would have been especially crucial to have found people who are involved in the rapidly growing world of Pentecostal Christianity in Central and South America (see classic Pew Forum study here). In my experience, we are talking about people whose Christian beliefs are quite conservative, but it is often very hard to pin a simplistic political label on their worldview.
Also, I was hoping that we would hear from some New Yorkers — New York Yankees, even — who disagree with some of Rivera’s beliefs, but still respect or even love Rivera the man and appreciate the role that his faith played in his career.
Ah, but that would complicate things, wouldn’t it? That would not be good.
Read the whole Beast article for yourself and then answer this question: What was the goal here?
FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony.