It’s like Mickey Mantle’s grandson announcing he’ll be hitting home runs for the Dartmouth College baseball team. Or Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of New York Yankee icon Babe Ruth, agreeing to pay for a new baseball park in Derry.
The son of Mariano Rivera, the retired Yankees star who’s considered the best relief pitcher in the game’s history, will be playing for the Laconia Muskrats this summer. Mariano Rivera Jr. is expected to be with the team when it begins play in early June.
Some people have never heard of the Muskrats. The team is part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), which annually features some of top college baseball players in America – some of whom will undoubtedly play in the Major Leagues some day. In just two decades, the NECBL has been recognized as one of the best collegiate summer programs in the country, on a par with the famous Cape Cod League; its alumni include 2010 World Series star pitcher Brian Wilson, top reliever Joe Nathan of the Detroit Tigers and the Washington Nationals’ ace Stephen Strasburg. The Red Sox’ Craig Breslow once played for the Middletown (Ct.) Giants of the NECBL.
The 20-year-old Mariano Rivera Jr. will join about 30 other top prospects in the Lakes Region this summer. They will be here to hone their baseball skills and study how to do the kind of community involvement that professional athletes are expected to do these days. They’ll play about 40 games against teams like the Vermont Mountaineers, the Newport (RI) Gulls, the Mystic (CT) Schooners, and the Keene Swamp Bats.
Noah Crane, the Muskrats’ General Manger, said Rivera Jr. is coming to New Hampshire due to the Muskrats close relationship with Pat Carey, Rivera’s coach at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “Iona has been sending players up here since we started. Every year we have one or two of their players. They trust me, they trust our organization."
“He (Carey) knows we’re going to take care of his guys,” Crane said. “With Mariano Jr., he’s got a big-time celebrity dad and this is a good spot for him. They knew we’d treat him as a regular kid. We wouldn’t try to sell tickets using him.”
That’s fine with the college sophomore, who apparently doesn’t like getting attention he hasn't earned himself.
“I’m just a normal guy, just part of the team,” he told the New York Daily News after joining the Iona Gaels last year. “I don’t want to be treated any different. I never thought I was better than anyone else because I’m not.”
Like his famous father, Rivera Jr. is a right-handed pitcher. Like his dad, he’s tall, nearly six-feet. Like his dad, he was born in Panama and his teammates call him by the nickname “Mo.”
But the young Mariano is not now, at least, the power pitcher his father was. He cannot throw the cruel “cutter” – a fastball that curves – his dad did, the one that kept batters swinging through the air for 15 years.
“I would love to learn his cutter but I’ll never be able to throw it like him,” the younger man told the New York newspaper “I don’t think anybody would because that’s God-given. That’s his pitch.”
“That’s my stuff,” the older Mariano agreed. “That won’t be his stuff. God will bless him with something else. He doesn’t give everybody the same thing.”
Rivera Jr. is not bothered by comparisons to his famous father now although they were once troublesome.
“I like to be my own guy,” he said. “People would always look at me like, ‘That’s Rivera’s son, he must be amazing.’ It was hard because people have such high expectations, and if I didn’t perform to those standards, I felt like I let everyone down. But now I work to my abilities. If I get called to pitch, I’m going to do the best that I can.”
Mariano Jr. hasn’t had an altogether astounding pitching career at Iona. In the last year he’s won only one game and lost three, with an Earned Run Average of almost five per game.
But collegiate records can be deceiving and he’s apparently good enough to attract the attention of about a half-dozen Major League Baseball team scouts, including Ray Fagnant of the Red Sox.
At a breakfast in Chicopee, Mass., earlier this year, MassLive.com reported that Fagnant said that it’s too early to tell if Rivera Jr. will make the big leagues but the player has improved every year.
And watching the elder Mariano see his son throw was an altogether surprising experience for the veteran scout.
“Here was the greatest relief pitcher in history, a guy with ice water in his veins but watching his son pitch, Mariano was nervous as could be,” he said, according to the website. “He’s a dad. He would give up all five of his World Series rings and his future Hall of Fame spot if it could get his son to the big leagues.”
Playing for the Laconia Muskrats could improve the college sophomore’s chances. More than 70 percent of NECBL players go on to play some professional baseball.
When Rivera comes to New Hampshire this summer, he’ll play his home games at an idyllic little facility called the Robbie Mills Sports Complex, on top of a hill between Laconia and Meredith Center. The meticulously maintained baseball diamond has short grass and sharp professional lines.
The play is very good, just a step below professional baseball, but the atmosphere is casual and fun. The players mingle with the crowd, selling 50/50 raffle tickets and offering free hitting tips. There’s an open soccer field nearby where youngsters can run around while family members sit in the wooden bleachers alongside the base lines, or in their lawn chairs on the edges of the field – sometimes directly behind home plate. And at only five dollars per adult (with children under 15 years of age admitted free), it’s a wondrous place for a family to enjoy a summer’s evening.
According to an Iona official, Mariano Rivera Jr. hasn’t yet begun studying the list of his future Laconia Muskrats teammates, but he’s looking forward to playing here.
“I just like to play baseball,” he told the team recently. “It doesn’t matter where I play.”
Still, when the sun starts to dip under the horizon at Robbie Mills, coloring the sky. And when the crickets begin singing to the background of children’s laughter. That’s when young Mariano could find himself enchanted the deliciousness of a New England summer’s eve.
And that could lead him to him someday signing a long-term contract with the Red Sox, just to stay in New England.
Ray Carbone is a Lakes Region writer and editor who keeps a local blog called the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.