Zen Pastor Mariano Rivera and his vague, comforting karma

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Lat’s state the obvious: It’s getting harder and harder for news consumers to figure out when they are reading straight news coverage and when they are reading columns, editorials and analysis pieces.

Thus, it is common for veteran GetReligion readers to send me links to articles and, after clicking the URLs, I discover that many of the “news stories” that so angered them are not actually news stories at all. Instead, they are columns or a clearly labeled “analysis” piece in which it is perfectly understandable that the writer expressed his or her opinion or elected to slant the story in one way or another.

Take, for example, that recent piece in The New York Times — “Mariano Rivera: A Zen Master With a Mean Cutter” — about the retirement of superstar closer Mariano Rivera.

When I first looked at the text, just as an email, I was rather upset about its rather prominent religion ghost. Or, more accurately, I was upset that the piece contained tons of religious content, but not religious content that had anything to do with the real Rivera.

Let me give readers a taste of that, starting, logically enough, right up top:

In a game in which perfection is elusive, he was reliably sublime.

In the high-stress vocation of ninth-inning pitching dominated by theatrical personalities, he was the embodiment of Zen calm — a cool Jedi master among the hotheads, and an almost extraplanetary source of composure and grace in the gritty, often chaotic world of Major League Baseball. …

Mariano Rivera understood what Steve Jobs, Lao Tzu and Bruce Lee understood: that simplicity is an art and a strength, a source of joy and beauty and power.

The whole point of the article is to try to describe the source of Rivera’s remarkable maturity, his calmness, his class, his wisdom and the grace with which he related to others. Clearly, this has something to do with religion.

The article makes this clear — kind of. In terms of pure sports, the art of of his legendary cut fastball is at the heart of it story. But so is, well, this man’s soul.

As Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has pointed out, baseball is what the deeply religious Rivera does, it’s not who he is. But who Rivera is — a consummate professional, stoic, focused, dedicated and at peace with himself — has indelibly imprinted the way he has gone about the job: his unparalleled consistency and longevity, his grace under pressure, and his ability to come back from adversity, be it a blown save or his potentially devastating ligament tear in 2012.

So he radiates “Zen calm” and is “deeply religious.” There’s more:

… (Math) alone cannot communicate Mariano’s achievement, his almost otherworldly control of the ball, or his aura as a great warrior, gentleman and mensch. Colleagues, fans and journalists have struggled to find words to convey his accomplishments, and his heart and soul and will — his steely determination on the mound and his humor and charm off the field.

ABC’s Robin Roberts observed that it was rarer to score an earned run off Rivera in the postseason than to walk on the moon. The former Mets manager Bobby Valentine once said: “No one else throws a 94-mile-an-hour cutter. It’s like bird watching in a foreign land. You can’t understand it.” Rivera’s teammate David Robertson, who may inherit his job, called him “the most consistent human being to ever play the game of baseball.”

One baseball analyst attributed Rivera’s success to the “three C’s” — “control, control, control.” Another attributed it to the “four C’s” — “confidence, concentration, control and competitiveness.” To which a Yankees fan might add even more alliteration: constancy, calm, class, composure, continuity and complete command of craft.

Well now, that’s a whole bunch of important word’s beginning with the letter “C.” But is there another important “C” word missing?

Let’s hunt on, maybe there is a factual detail in his personal life and history.

The son of a fisherman, he grows up playing baseball on a beach in Panama with a milk carton for a glove, a stick for a bat and whatever was available for a ball; after being signed by a Yankees scout for $3,500, he does his apprenticeship in the minors, joins the Yankees and struggles at first, and then suddenly hits his stride. He wins a championship in 1996 as the setup man for John Wetteland and, soon, leaps into hyperspace as the closer, becoming such a feared adversary that opponents will talk about needing to win games against the Yankees in seven or eight innings before he takes the mound.

Apparently not, judging by the rest of Michiko Kakutani’s article. Apparently, the fact that Rivera is a devout, Bible-clutching evangelical Christian (the missing “C” word) who has frequently discussed the fact that he plans after retirement to become a missionary pastor has nothing to do with his remarkable composure, discipline and grace.

So here is the question: Was this, in fact, a news article in the first place?

Click the URL and, right above the headline, there is a label that states “AN APPRAISAL.”

In terms of the logic and craft of journalism, what precisely is an “appraisal”? I have to admit that I do not know. I assume, from the context, that this is an opinion column that is allowed to raise all kinds of philosophical questions about a person without having to deal with the actual answers found in the factual details of that person’s life.

Meanwhile, what does Rivera himself say about all of this? Is that relevant?

Consider this passage in a piece by religion commentator Lisa Miller — the headline is simply “Saved” — for New York Magazine:

… (In) his view, his greatness has no earthly source.

“Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through him I have accomplished everything,” he tells me as we sit shoulder to shoulder in the Yankees dugout on a temperate, breezy spring day last month. “Not because of my strength. Only by his love, his mercy, and his strength.” It is the first of several conversations about God I have with Rivera, over several weeks, and in each meeting I find myself struck by how eager he is to put baseball aside and speak openly, and at length, about his faith. Even as Rivera denies that his talent belongs to him, I steal a look at his magic right arm. “You don’t own your gifts like a pair of jeans,” he says.

By that reasoning, I venture, you might say that even the cutter doesn’t belong to you.

“It doesn’t,” he answers, nodding emphatically. “It doesn’t. He could give it to anyone he wants, but you know what? He put it in me. He put it in me, for me to use it. To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”

It doesn’t sound like Rivera is hiding what he thinks and believes. But is that relevant? Miller continues with this interesting journalistic comment:

Sportswriters often discount athletes’ religiosity as a sideshow, and the secular viewers of cable TV may prefer the bloodless scrutiny of slo-mo video than to give credit to divine causes, but the full story of Rivera’s career is unmistakably a story about faith. On the mound, Rivera is implacable, a warrior with the Buddha’s face. But talking about faith with Rivera is like opening a bottle; years of feeling come out. He speaks less like a theologian than like an enthusiastic believer, channeling all his considerable charisma, curiosity and preternatural seriousness into the conveyance of passion. His is not a questioning faith but a conviction, invulnerable to attacks from skeptics and doubters, and so his answers to existentially vexing questions can sound to some uncomfortably neat. But Rivera isn’t worried about rationalist complaints because it is in certitude that he finds his strength.

Well now. There’s another important “C” word, one that might make the palms of many mainstream journalists sweat and look elsewhere for more comfortable answers to obvious questions.

Just saying.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Kevin Spencer

    One comment: Hunt down Ms. Lisa Miller from NYT Magazine and give her a JOB at GR. Her insight was spot-on.


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