BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Inside Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s Far-Right Politics
The Yankees legend—who will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday—has managed to keep his political leanings hidden for decades.
Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, will be formally enshrined in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. A throng of New York Yankee diehards will surely make the trek to Cooperstown, NY, to take in the proceedings and relive treasured memories. 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. None of this will be inscribed on his Hall of Fame plaque. It should, even if much of the sports world would very much like to pretend none of it exists.
At least one longtime Yankee fan would like to make sure it remains front and center:
Mariano Rivera grew up in Panama City, Panama. Like his father, he briefly worked as a fisherman before a Yankees scout spied the rail-thin hurler in the winter of 1989, bringing him to America. Six years later, Rivera had become a mainstay in the 1996 World Champion Yankees bullpen. For the following 19 years, Rivera would enter the game to the thrumming chorus of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” finishing as the all-time leader in both regular season and postseason saves. Amazingly, he grew even more dominant in October, when his ERA shrank to 0.70. The few times he faltered were elevated to unforgettable playoff moments of their own. He ranks as the first player ever to be unanimously voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor that was entirely merited.
While his playing career, and the overwhelming sense of dignity he brought to his chosen profession, has been endlessly dissected and universally praised, little was known about what Rivera was like when not on the clock. There were no gossipy mentions of his name in the tabloids, nor public salary-related feuds with the Steinbrenner clan. That is, until after he retired, when a woman sued him for non-payment of child support. But Rivera did open up about one aspect of his private life: his Christian faith, which he was more than happy to expound on at length.
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.
It is unclear if Potasnik was paraphrasing Rivera’s thoughts or quoting him verbatim, but according to the NYBR executive vice president, at one point they were in the Golan Heights. Gesturing toward Lebanon and Syria, which were visible from where they stood,“They could have a much better life and yet they choose not to take that path,” the rabbi claimed Rivera told him. “There’s an ideology that infects their thinking, and they just don’t want to live in peace.”
(Via email Rivera’s agent said: “Mariano is not available the next few days as he is in Cooperstown getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.”)
In 2018, Rivera returned to Israel, touring a military base in a venture organized by the NYBR and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), a multi-million dollar U.S.-based nonprofit organization that does charitable work on behalf of the IDF. (Randy Levine, the current Yankees president whose name was floated as a candidate to replace Reince Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff, has also participated in FIDF fundraisers and promotional events.)
While there, Rivera said the IDF trains soldiers to be “a better person, a better citizen, and a better human being,” according to a statement put out by the FIDF. Two-and-a-half months earlier, Israeli soldiers killed at least 60 Palestinian protesters in Gaza and injured thousands more. The excursion went so well, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel who once described J Street, a Jewish lobbying group that has endorsed a two-state solution, as “worse than Kapos,” proudly tweeted a photo shaking hands with Rivera.
Recently, Rivera has aligned with an even more openly extremist and Islamophobic Israel backer: Pastor John Hagee, who pushed the Trump administration to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and has long made it clear that his support for Israel is tied to his end-of the-world Christian theology. That theology has led Hagee to offer some disturbing, and deeply bigoted statements. During a sermon in the late ‘90s, Hagee said the Holocaust was a result of divine intervention, adding that Hitler was a “hunter” who was needed to shepherd the Jewish people to Palestine.
The sermon was unearthed after then-presidential candidate John McCain sought out Hagee’s endorsement. Shortly thereafter, McCain disavowed his support. Additionally, Hagee, a vocal critic of Catholicism, has tried to blame the Catholic Church for Hitler’s anti-Semitism. (Hagee has denied having done so.) According to Hagee, Hurricane Katrina was also an expression of God’s will. “New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” he said, citing a gay pride parade which took place one week earlier.
At a conference in Washington earlier this month organized by Christians United For Israel (CUFI), a 4-million-member strong Christian-Zionist nonprofit founded by Hagee in 2006, Rivera said Hagee had convinced him to up his level of support for Israel.
“[Hagee] inspired me even more to be alongside and support Israel, and be there for Israel. Why not? Now I understand the even bigger picture of what Israel means,” Rivera told the Washington Examiner, which also reported Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton had attended the same event.
Any criticism of his pro-Israel stance won’t change Rivera’s mind, either. “[T]o me, criticism is more motivation to keep going forward—to push forward—for what I believe, for what I stand for,” he said. “And again, that will make me even stronger.”
It’s not clear when or how Rivera and Hagee were introduced. (The Examiner only says they met “after” a trip to Israel and doesn’t specify which.) For Rivera, he’s come to the conclusion that “the chosen people of God is Israel—Jewish Israel,” he said. “This country was built by him for his people.” In May 2019, the IDF killed a 17-year-old Palestinian medic. In 2018 alone, 290 Palestinians—55 of which were minors—died at the hands of Israeli security forces, according to a report by an Israeli human rights organization.
The Daily Beast reached out to Hagee for comment. In response, Ari Morgenstern, CUFI’s director of policy and communications, called back. Asked if Hagee cared to discuss his relationship with Rivera, Morgenstern said “no” and ended the conversation.
Beyond Rivera’s pro-Israel activism, even though he’s never publicly given his endorsement, the Hall of Famer’s actions make it clear his sympathies lie with the Trump administration, which has backed all manner of far-right policies when it comes to Israel. In 2018, Rivera was nominated for the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. A month later, Rivera appeared at the White House for a friendly photo op, and in March, he was part of the delegation sent to the opening of the Special Olympics.
Rivera also took part in a 2017 briefing on the opioid crisis (during which he never uttered more than a sentence or two, save for a few chuckles when the president fondly recalled his cut fastball). He has been praised by the president whenever the opportunity arose, and Ivanka got in a shout-out as well. Finally, Rivera co-hosted a pricey fundraiser with Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle for the America First PAC last August, at a cost of $50,000 per couple.
As to why Rivera’s right-wing politics remained a secret for so long, it’s partially a function of the era in which he played, and partly due to his conscious efforts to keep this information about his private life under wraps. Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN and the author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. He also extensively covered Rivera as a reporter with the Bergen Record as well as as a columnist at the Boston Herald and ESPN. Reached by phone, Bryant said pro athletes’ political beliefs were kept private in the ‘90s and 2000s, and the vast majority of reporters couldn’t have cared less. If Rivera wanted to compartmentalize that part of his life, he didn’t need to put in much effort.
While his faith was anything but a secret, “he was very cagey, and very, very savvy about what connections those religious beliefs linked to,” said Bryant. “Now we’re seeing who Mariano Rivera really is, or who he’s currently influenced by.”
At the time, it was nearly impossible to find an athlete willing to speak out against the political consensus. (Steve Nash’s 2003 anti-war statements were largely condemned.) Still, it doesn’t mean athletes didn’t engage in political activity, even if that meant remaining silent. To wit: Beyond the performative displays of patriotism embedded in every sporting event, no one—certainly no player nor front office official—has ever contested the narrative tying the Yankees’ postseason run to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. For Bryant, it’s wholly understandable why no one bucked the company line in 2001. “It would be career suicide for any player to take an anti-war stance in the middle of New York post-9/11,” he said.
Even now, during a time when athlete activism is considered the norm, Bryant said questioning Israel’s policies or advocating on behalf of Palestinians remains political “dynamite.” When 500 civilians were killed by an extensive bombing campaign in 2014, former NBA players Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire offered tame support for Palestinian human rights. (Howard tweeted #FreePalestine, and Stoudemire posted an image on Instagram of an Israeli and Palestinian child with their arms wrapped around one another with the text “Pray for palestine” [sic] above their heads.) Both athletes were roundly criticized and deleted the posts. Howard then apologized at length.
Rivera is far from the only athlete to stump for Israel without drawing much attention. In June, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson joined New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and 15 other Patriots in Jerusalem. The tour was partially organized by America’s Voices in Israel, a U.S. nonprofit which enlists celebrities and athletes in promotional tours designed to bolster the country’s image, or “sportswashing,” as it were. Similarly, in June 2017, Kraft enlisted a slew of former NFL stars to take part in a grip and grin with Prime Minister Netanyahu and offer unabashed praise for the Israeli military. The trip was decried by pro-Palestinian activists, who stated: “These trips bringing celebrities to Israel are part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ campaign to help the Israeli government normalize and whitewash its ongoing denial of Palestinian rights."
Another sports-centric pro-Israel PR blitz in February of that same year was upended after multiple NFL participants backed out.
Before the Toronto Raptors nabbed the NBA title, Larry Tanenbaum, one of the team’s owners, promised that he’d drag the team team to Israel should they win it all. Lest anyone think the trip could somehow be divorced from the current government, the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa tweeted that they’d help make it happen..
The only noted instance where a player was criticized for supporting Israel came in 2018, when the FIDF also arranged a meet-and-greet between the Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green and Israeli soldiers. There, Green posed for a few tone-deaf photos and fired off a few rounds of military-grade weapons while wrapping his arms around the local cops:
Had Green avoided this unfortunate bit of cosplay, his trip might have gone unnoticed altogether. Unyielding support for Israel is so commonly accepted across the majority of the U.S. political spectrum, it’s falsely seen as being divorced from politics when athletes get involved. Or as Bryant put it: “It’s only political when you run afoul of the power.”
Perhaps, then, that’s partly the reason why very few reporters have questioned Rivera about his pro-Israel advocacy. Little in-depth coverage of Rivera and Israel exists outside of the Israeli media and a few right-wing blogs. It certainly won’t be mentioned in the run-up to his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Why would it? His status as a universally-beloved Yankee means a reporter would have to risk running afoul of not just an editor or two, but gobs of angry readers.
According to Bryant, “No one wants to touch it because they know the price.”