2:20 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, everybody. “The Sandman.” My wife asked me, “Why ‘The Sandman’? Just tell me.” (Laughter.) Our First Lady. I said, “Because he put the batter to sleep, right?” (Laughter.) “The Sandman.” A lot of people don’t know that, but the Yankee fans know that. We’ve watched it for a long time.
Thank you all for coming. The First Lady and I are delighted to welcome you to the White House. Today, we present our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to American baseball legend — maybe the greatest pitcher of all time. It’s a big argument: Is he the greatest pitcher or the greatest reliever? Well, the reliever we won. But there’s a real question he may be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball: Mariano Rivera. When you hear the stats, you’ll understand exactly why I say that.
Mariano, I want to congratulate you on this really extraordinary achievement. Thank you. And it’s — on behalf of this whole country, thank you very much for the great job you’ve done. (Applause.)
We’re delighted to be joined by our Vice President, Mike Pence, and his wonderful wife, Karen. Thank you very much, Karen. Thank you, Mike. (Applause.) Along with many of the members of our very distinguished and hardworking and very, very successful Cabinet. Thank you all for being here. Thank you. Thank you, Cabinet. (Applause.)
We’re also grateful to be joined by Mariano’s wife, Clara. Thank you, Clara. Thank you, Clara. (Applause.) His three sons Jafet, Jaziel, and Mariano; his daughter-in-law, Alyssa. Thank you all very much. Thank you all for being here. It’s so great. And his longtime manager — one of the great players and a great, great manager, Joe Torre. Where’s Joe? (Applause.) A great player too. And Chief Operating Officer of the New York Yankees, Lonn Trost. Thank you. Thank you, Lonn. (Applause.) Good luck. Go get it. We could use him in the bullpen, maybe. Huh? That would be good. (Laughter.) That would guarantee it. Good luck. Great season you’ve had. Tremendous season.
Mariano was born the son of a fishing boat captain on the coast of Panama. He learned to play baseball on the mudflats of the Pacific with a cardboard glove, a bat fashioned from a tree branch, and a ball made out of rock, string, and tape. There wasn’t a lot of money for playing baseball. He excelled at the sport. At the age of 18, he started playing in the country’s top adult league.
In a critical game with his team losing badly, the coach called him over and asked Mariano to do something that he had never really done before. “Could you pitch, Mariano?” Mo insisted that he could not. But when he took the mound, an amazing thing happened: The crowd witnessed an incredible performance. His opponents did not get a single run for the rest of the game, and a legend was starting. His team won an epic comeback victory. Big deal at that time.
And after that, his teammates contacted a scout and told him that he had a tryout in Panama City with the world’s most famous baseball dynasty: the New York Yankees.
With barely enough money for the bus ride home, Mariano set out on a journey that would define his life and inspire countless millions around the globe. At his first tryout, in worn-out shoes and a borrowed glove, Mariano threw nine fastballs. It was the only pitch he knew how to throw. After a few more tryouts, the Yankees offered him a contract to play their farm team, the Gulf Coast Yankees. Do you remember that, Mariano, the Gulf Coast? Were they a good team?
MR. RIVERA: Oh, yes.
THE PRESIDENT: Not bad, right? (Laughter.)
MR. RIVERA: Not bad at all.
THE PRESIDENT: He got in an airplane and came back to America. A few months later, in August 1990, Mariano threw his first no-hitter. That year, he had an average ERA of 0.17. So that doesn’t mean one; that means like one seventeenth of one. (Laughter.) That’s not a lot. Did you lose — how do you lose a game? Well, I guess you score no runs, right? (Laughter.) Boy, oh boy.
In 52 innings, he had 0.17, which is unheard of, over 22 games. Soon thereafter, Mariano married Clara, which was an even more important thing for him to do. (Laughter.) And truly — and he’s said it many times — you are the love of his life. You know that. You feel that, right? I hope he tells that. (Laughter.) They will soon celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. Congratulations, Clara. (Applause.)
After five years playing in the minors, in 1955 , Mariano made it to the big leagues. In his second season with the Yankees, Mariano delivered 130 strikeouts in less than 108 innings. While facing 425 batters, he allowed only one homerun. With an ERA of 2.09, the Yankees made him a closer for the 1997 season. That’s when it really started happening.
That year, he accidentally threw a pitch he had never thrown before. Then he tried it several more times — again and again. It kept working. And at the last second, his fastball — it was really an incredible thing — became the cutter. He had suddenly developed that lethal pitch, which — are people throwing that pitch today, because I’ve never noticed they seem to — they don’t have your success, I can tell you, right?
MR. RIVERA: They don’t. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: They don’t. They may be throwing it, but it doesn’t work quite the same way. And many players would come to consider it the greatest pitch ever in baseball. It would break many records and many bats.
In a 1999 game against the Atlanta Braves, his cutter snapped a big strong guy, Ryan Klesko — I know him well, as a player. He’s a big powerful guy. And he broke his bat three times in one plate appearance. That has to be like a record.
In 2001, Mariano’s heavy, fearsome pitch destroyed 44 bats in less than 81 innings. And I used to say — I’d tell people, “I’ve never seen a guy break so many bats. It’s called a heavy, heavy pitch.” And I asked Mariano, “Why?” And he really didn’t know. Just was the way it was, right? (Laughter.) It’s just the way it happened. It’s from God. It’s from God.
MR. RIVERA: That’s right.
THE PRESIDENT: When he retired, the Minnesota Twins presented him with what would become one of the most prized possessions: a chair made out of their shattered bats. (Laughter and applause.)
In 1998, 1999, and 2000 World Series Championships, Mariano closed out three consecutive World Series victories and delivered 14 strikeouts and 7 saves. He gave up only 2 runs to 59 batters. And you got to remember, you’re playing against the best team. So, this isn’t like playing the low level; this is the best team. And he had a very unusual trait: He did better against the best teams. And he did incredibly in the playoffs.
Game after game, when his entrance music, “Enter Sandman,” filled the arena, fans went wild knowing that the game was all but over. His dominance on the mound mesmerized fans, teammates, and, unfortunately for them, it mesmerized the competitors.
In Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship, Mariano entered at the top of the ninth with the score tied 5-5. He held off the Boston Red Sox for three straight innings without giving up a single run, helping secure the series for the Yankees. He was named the series MVP. Not surprising. (Applause.)
One of the most memorable moments of Mariano’s career was the final game of the old Yankee Stadium — this was the last game in Yankee Stadium — when he took his place in history as the final man to pitch in that shrine to American baseball. And I spent many a day in that stadium — and night. And it was special.
With Mo on the mound for the ninth inning, not a single hitter from the Baltimore Orioles made it to first base. He secured yet one more Yankee victory. And that day, the old stadium became the house that Ruth built and that Rivera closed out. (Applause.) It’s true. That’s true.
Over the course of 19 seasons — you have to hear this to believe it; I didn’t even know it — I knew he was the best, but this is crazy — Mariano broke the Major League Baseball record for the most games finished and saves made. He has the best ERA — earned run average — in the past 100 years: 2.21 in the regular season and an even more astonishing 0.70 — that’s less than one run — in the postseason, when, again, you play the best teams. These are the hot teams. These are the teams that are just beating up everybody, and you had less than one run — 0.70. It’s amazing.
He made more than two times as many saves as the next best pitcher in postseason. And a true clutch pitcher, he was always the best against the most talented hitters. Amazingly, the 527 batters he faced in postseason games hit only 2 homeruns and scored only 13 runs against him. I think you guys want him, quickly. (Laughter.) We have to get him. Get him in uniform. You know? You’re getting ready. Just sign him up, Lonn.
Mariano helped lead the Yankees to five World Series victories, was named the World Series MVP in 1999, and this year he became the first person unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unanimously — not one vote. (Applause.)
So, just out of curiosity, Babe Ruth was not unanimously elected? Babe — the Babe didn’t make it? What was his problem? He did pretty good, too. (Laughter.) You mean Babe was not unanimous? Well, he had some other difficulties, right? (Laughter.) Yeah.
That’s pretty good, Mariano. That’s — I’ve heard, first unanimously. The Babe — oh, we love the Babe. What a swing the Babe had. That old corkscrew swing, right? Nobody could figure him out either. (Laughter.)
Throughout Mariano’s incredible career, he remained a humble man guided by a deep Christian faith that inspires everyone around him. As he says, he has always remembered that “The Lord doesn’t care about wealth or fame or the number of saves somebody has. We are all children of God, and the Lord cares about the goodness and love in our hearts. That’s all.” Wow. Well, that is different than the Babe, I would say. (Laughter.) I don’t know if the Babe ever said that. That’s — pretty sure he didn’t. (Laughter.) Maybe in his last year, he said it. (Laughter.)
Nearly two decades ago, Mariano founded the Mariano Rivera Foundation, which has provided hundreds of scholarships for underprivileged children, along with school supplies for countless students, and is currently building a learning and community center in New Rochelle, New York — where, I can tell you, from being in New York, what you’ve done in New Rochelle has been incredible. Incredible.
After retiring from baseball, Mariano and his wife built an evangelical church, and today Clara is its pastor. I’m going to have to come listen to you sometime. I could use it. (Laughter.) That’s good.
Mariano was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2015. And of course, he serves as co-chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.
Mariano Rivera has made extraordinary contributions to American sports, culture, and society. He is the most dominant relief pitcher in the history of baseball. And more than that, he has lived the American Dream and shines as an example of American greatness for all to see.
And I’d now like to ask the military aide to come forward and present Mariano Rivera with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And before we do the actual presentation, I’d like to have Mariano just say a few words. And I know most of those words are going to be addressed to his family, because I know how he feels about his family. Nobody loves their family more than Mariano. Please, Mariano. (Applause.)
MR. RIVERA: Wow. Amazing. Mr. President, thank you. First of all, I would like to say thank God for a wonderful day and all of us being here in person.
And, Mr. President, thank you for all of those words and remarks. The First Lady, thank you. Mr. Pence, Karen, thank you for being — all of you — for being here present. But my wife, my kids, and my family — the rest of the family — friends, without you guys the support and the prayers that we got from Mr. T. — Mr. Joe Torre — (laughter) — benefit from a lot of those prayers. (Applause.)
And for me, it’s an honor and a privilege to receive this award, this Medal of Freedom, which — I mean, all I did is try to be the best and do the best for America.
You know, one thing that I have to remark — this one remark. When I came here in 1990, I came to Tampa. Didn’t spoke no English. I mean, I didn’t spoke — I didn’t speak now; forget about in 1990. (Laughter.) You know. And the reason why I did that because, in the team, there were a lot of players that spoke Spanish, so I got a little comfortable and didn’t try a little bit to learn the language.
My second year in baseball, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, where most of the people didn’t speak any Spanish. Especially my teammates, they — even I was a little younger, so the guys that spoke Spanish on the team would hang out with the older guys, and I was left out. And I was hanging out with the guys — a friend of mine, Tim Cooper, and another guy, Bob Dillard.
Those two, I asked — because I was frustrated. Times that I’d go to bed crying not because of the game, but because I was frustrated because I couldn’t speak the language. I couldn’t speak English. So therefore, I told those two teammates of mine, I said, “I don’t care how much you laugh. And I don’t care how much you make fun of me, but, please, I give you the permission to laugh and do that, but teach me. Teach me the right way.” By my surprise, they never laugh at me and they teach me.
By the end of the year, I was able to communicate with my manager, with my teammates, and I was the happiest man in baseball. (Laughter.) And from that, I would say that my career took off and I was able to realize that I can do something for others because I knew the language. Now I can relay with someone that’s going through the same process that I have been, but at the same time teach them that, yes, learning English is the first thing that we should do. And I did.
And for that, being American, I’m so proud and honored that, coming from a small town — beautiful town, beautiful country called Panama — and live with my family here, and understand the language and everything that we go through, I’m proud to be an American. (Applause.) So for that, thank God.
Thank you very much.
MILITARY AIDE: During his 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, Mariano Rivera established himself as the greatest relief pitcher of all time. Signed by the New York Yankees in 1990, Mr. Rivera went on to become a 13-time All-Star and 5-time World Series champion. He is the first player in the history of the sport to be elected unanimously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Off the field, through the Mariano Rivera Foundation, he has helped provide children in need with an education, empowering them to achieve a better future. The United States proudly honors Mariano Rivera for being a legend of the game of baseball and for his commitment to strengthening America’s communities.
(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)