The Yankees will travel this weekend to Panama for exhibition games versus the Marlins, with plently of pomp and circumstance for famous Panamanian, Mariano Rivera.

However, Mariano’s relationship with the Central American country and its residents is not as strong as the bonds that other Central and South American professional athletes share with their respective countries. NoMaas reader, Avi Miller, recently spent time in Panama and researched how the local population views the legacy of the greatest reliever in baseball history.


Luis Aparicio represents Venezuela just as Edgar Renteria is the pride of Colombia. Aparicio, the 1956 Rookie of the Year, is celebrated by way of streets and avenues bearing his name throughout Venezuela as well as a major baseball stadium in Maracaibo. Embarking on a recent study tour in Panama, my mind began to grow curious: how is Mariano Rivera honored in his home country?

Rivera, known for his Major League record 652 career saves, was born in the quaint town of Puerto Caimito more than a half hour outside of the bustling Panama City. The son of a mere fisherman, Rivera had youthful aspirations to play soccer professionally. Recreationally among friends, Rivera engaged in pick up baseball, where the kids used milk cartons for gloves, tree branches as bats, and wadded up fishing nets in place of a ball.

His first position was shortstop in an amateur baseball league at the age of 19. Given an opportunity on the mound less than a year later, Rivera never looked back. He was promptly scouted by the New York Yankees Latin American Operations team, given a signing bonus of $3,000 on February 17, 1990, and the rest is history.

Though he ventured back to Panama following his first few professional years with the Yankees, Rivera eventually took up full-time residence in the United States. Rivera, talking with the NY Daily News back in 1998, stated, “I won’t trade Panama for New York.” Yet, by seldom traveling back south in the years since, Rivera has left a slew of Panamanians with a sour taste in their mouths. While his wife and kids fly regularly between the two countries, Rivera has settled permanently in the States.

Rivera has never played for the Panamanian national team in tournaments like the World Baseball Classic or the Summer Olympics. Yet Carlos Lee has, and there are fans that are quick to mention that. While the Yankees may have pressured Rivera to sit out these international events due to injury risks, the Astros did the same with Lee. Lee showed up regardless, and this fact is not forgotten. One fan remarked, “Imagine if Messi refused to play for Argentina in the World Cup.”

It is thought that most of Rivera’s monetary contributions and charity work are strongly focused in the U.S., though some of his efforts are certainly directed to his childhood community. To this day, the Mariano Rivera Foundation backs an abundance of causes that include supporting underprivileged families back in Panama. He funds the Evangelical Church as well as the main school in Puerto Caimito, a “very poor fishing village,” according to one Panamanian. He went on to say that Rivera’s family still holds a strong presence in the area, “But just at the entrance there is this huge mansion. You will recognize it immediately, for it is the opulent chateau in front of humble concrete shacks.” Just south of the impoverished province of Chorrera, I was unable to venture out to see this prospect for myself. The 60 dollar round trip taxi ride was the least of my worries; it was the high volume of security concerns outside of the established parts of Panama City that I was told to avoid.

When asking locals about the most famous national athlete, the most common name given to me was Roberto Durán, not Rivera.

A top ten boxer of all-time and considered by many to be the number one lightweight fighter in boxing history, Durán held the world title in four different weight classes throughout his career which stretched over five decades. His top feat came on June 20, 1980, as he took down Sugar Ray Leonard in a 15-round rumble and claimed victory in a unanimous decision, forever known as “The Brawl in Montreal.”

Durán is the majority owner of a small restaurant in the heart of El Cangrejo, a popular downtown neighborhood in Panama City. Named “La Tasca de Durán” and what was just a short walk from my hotel, the establishment is coated with his memorabilia along the walls as well as paintings and murals depicting his large number of robust accomplishments. Television sets are positioned in every corner displaying repeat airings of his fights, while Durán himself makes nightly appearances to socialize with the late night crowd and sign a few autographs.

Durán is the name that comes to mind for such a myriad of Panamanians. Not Rivera.

As far and wide as I searched, I couldn’t find “Calle Rivera” or “Tiendas de Mariano.” No statues in the old city of Casco Viejo, no plaques along the Panama City boardwalk titled Cinta Costera. I spotted a group of children playing baseball on a bus ride back from the beach one day, but did not detect a sign above the field’s fence backstop that read “Donado por Mariano Rivera.” Exploring the many corridors in the local Albrook Mall on a casual Sunday afternoon, the highly populated apparel shops showed no signs of Sandman jerseys.

There are a selection of Major League players who hail from Panama. Most notably in the big leagues now are Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Tejada of the New York Mets, and Bruce Chen of the Kansas City Royals. Rod Carew, the 18-time All Star with the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, is recognized to a degree. The 1967 American League Rookie of the Year, 1977 AL MVP, and first ballot Hall of Famer (receiving 90.5 percent of the vote) has a baseball park named after him. Estadio Nacional de Panama, or the National Stadium of Panama, was renamed Rod Carew Stadium in 2004, just five years after it opened. It has played host to a vast number of international competitions, most recently featuring a group of qualifiers for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

On a Friday evening trip out to Rod Carew Stadium on the outskirts of Panama City, I got a firsthand feel for the enthusiasm and electric sporting environment we so often hear about in Latin America. I found myself sitting in the scouts section behind home plate for the Panamanian youth league season opener, the same league which hosted Rivera back in 1988. A boisterous group could be spotted down the third base line as about 1,000 fans packed into a modest section in order to be a part of the band. Yes, the band. These folks had drums and whistles, trumpets and tubas, symbols and streamers. And it was nine nonstop innings of noise and elation.

Admission was just a few bucks while 12 ounce beers cost only a dollar a piece. The roving concession workers actually donned t-shirts branded with whatever product it is that they were selling, perhaps a marketing technique that could be implemented among U.S. ballparks. With over one million people, about 37 percent of the country’s population, living under the poverty line, this was the one night for thousands to loosen up. With no amusement parks in Panama, sporting events are a primary entertainment option for those without interest in the clubbing scene. Soccer is prominent alongside baseball, while American football is catching on, at least in viewership if not in physical participation.

Panamá Metro pulled ahead with a 10-0 victory over Chiriquí, a team hailing from an extensive rural province bordering Costa Rica. Almost like a west coast team that travels out east in the States, very few Chiriquí fans were present and in turn, celebration among the masses began for Metro. The band gathered in the concourse, singing and shouting reigned supreme, and the scene didn’t calm down for another 45 minutes once the merriment had shifted toward the parking lot.

And that is what the Yankees will be greeted when they play two exhibition games against the Miami Marlins during the “Legend Series” at Rod Carew Stadium. With a capacity of 27,000, the series aims to honor Rivera and his legacy. “As long as I can remember, it has been my dream to bring my team, the Yankees, to play baseball in Panama,” said Rivera. “It is my hope that this legacy series will inspire other young players to pursue their dreams.”

As one person bluntly affirmed: “In essence, we are proud of spawning him, but sometimes we feel forgotten by him.” Perhaps this homecoming will be just the catalyst needed for Panama to embrace their own Mariano Rivera.

Avi Miller is a graduating senior at Stevenson University aspiring to one day cover the MLB beat. A member of CoSIDA, Avi currently works in sports information at the NCAA Division III level and has previously held positions with the Baltimore Jewish Times and Fox Sports Radio.