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Hagerstown Son: Mariano Rivera III isn't his dad, which is fine by him

Mariano Rivera III never played Little League or varsity ball. He never wished to be like his famous father. And yet, he is a hard-throwing closer for the Hagerstown Suns in the Nationals' farm system. Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images via AP Images

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Mariano Rivera III never played Little League. He never made the varsity baseball team in high school. But someday, he might make the major leagues.

Rivera's path to the bigs is the unlikeliest and likeliest story you could imagine. In an American youth sports culture designed around programs that train toddlers like pro athletes, Rivera barely played baseball as a kid, and when he did, he wasn't particularly good. But through his veins runs the bloodline of the greatest relief pitcher the game has ever known.

Rivera, though, doesn't want to be his dad.

When he was a kid, he avoided playing baseball, opting instead for soccer and swimming. At 14, he finally went out for Babe Ruth but wasn't anything special. In high school, at Iona Prep in New Rochelle, New York, he played junior varsity and mostly pinch ran. He threw a total of six innings. Because Rivera didn't think he would play much, he declined to go out for baseball his senior year.

On a whim, Rivera walked on at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut before he transferred to Iona. He had the name, and by then enough of a game, to compete as a pitcher. But he was nothing special for the Gaels, either. After redshirting, he posted a 5.40 ERA in 13 games as a sophomore in 2014.

The Yankees drafted Rivera in the 29th round of the 2014 draft. But Mo III didn't sign, in part because he wants to be his own man.

As a junior, he dominated, whittling his ERA to 2.65. In 85 innings, he struck out 113 and walked 27. The Washington Nationals were not doing anyone any favors when they picked him in the fourth round in 2015. They thought he could be a major leaguer on his own merit.

Now 22, Rivera is -- what else? -- the closer for the Class-A Hagerstown Suns. According to his pitching coach, Sam Narron, his 95 mph fastball is already good enough for the bigs. He has a slider and a changeup. He does not throw a cutter.

In his second year in the minors, he has a 4.20 ERA, which is mostly due to a couple of bad outings. He has struck out 43 and walked 22 in 60 innings. In June, he was a South Atlantic League All-Star.

He deals with more attention than your average minor leaguer. Whenever he takes the mound, Rivera has two shadows following him, his and his father's. For his first professional game at State College last year, the St. Louis Cardinals' affiliate played his dad's signature song, Metallica's "Enter Sandman." A Red Sox minor league affiliate in Lowell did the same thing this season.

"To me, my dad was a regular dad. [Other kids] would say, 'Your dad is famous.' I thought they were talking bad about my dad. I came home crying from the bus. I said to my grandmother, 'You know what they are saying? They said my dad is famous!' I had no idea what that was. It was all new."

Mariano Rivera III

The son has heard fans yell, "You'll never be your father!'" This is almost comical because he doesn't want to be, which is how his father, his mother, Clara, and his grandma, Anna Diaz, raised him.

"They taught me that from day one," Rivera said. "They wanted me to make my own path, to be a man. From a very young age, they wanted me to know what I wanted and fight for it every day. That's why I'm here."

For the first nine years of his life, Rivera mostly lived away from his father and mother. He was born in Panama in October 1993, after his dad, 23 at the time, had finished Rookie League ball. His parents decided it would be wiser for Rivera to grow up in Panama under the guidance of his adoring grandma, rather than living the nomadic existence of the minor and major leagues. Each offseason, his parents returned to Panama.

The elder Rivera and his wife lived in a small apartment in New Rochelle, New York, until 2002. Then they bought their first house in Rye. Rivera had made more than $25 million by then. Soon after, his 9-year-old son came to live full-time with his parents.

When he arrived in the States, the younger Rivera did not speak English. He had a tutor attend classes with him and was the youngest kid in his grade. Along with the language barrier, Rivera didn't really understand his father's prominence, which turned compliments into fear at summer day camp whenever the others kids mentioned the Yankees' No. 42.

"They started talking about my dad," Rivera recalled. "To me, my dad was a regular dad. They would say, 'Your dad is famous.' I thought they were talking bad about my dad. I came home crying from the bus. I said to my grandmother, 'You know what they are saying? They said my dad is famous!' I had no idea what that was. It was all new."

Soon after, Rivera started popping up in the Yankees clubhouse, like many ballplayers' children do. But there were no signs that he wanted a career in the big leagues. He continued to prefer soccer and swimming.

In high school, Rivera said his fastball was only in the low 80s, which might explain why he pitched only six innings of junior varsity ball.

He went to college, improved his mechanics and, though he is still slight -- at 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, he is 3 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than his dad -- his fastball started to gain steam, and scouts noticed. The Yankees first drafted him in the 29th round, as an homage to his lineage more than anything else. When the Nationals took him in the fourth round, the seriousness of Rivera's passion took hold.

With each step, his dad is a presence, but he tries not to crowd his son. The older Rivera has more baseball acumen than most, but he advises in a quiet fashion. "Mariano knows a lot but says very little," said Fern Cuza, Rivera's long-time agent.

At the beginning of July, the greatest closer of all time showed up in Hagerstown. Rivera usually catches the Suns when they play closer to his Westchester home in Lakewood, New Jersey.

"His dad was in town in good 'ol Hagerstown," Suns manager Patrick Anderson said. "Normally, he goes up to Lakewood when we play in New Jersey. But in Hagerstown, he came down, and he came into the office, and I said I wanted to get more information about his son, so he started telling me about how he grew up. It was a good conversation. He told me how they didn't give him everything. He earned everything.

"At the end of the conversation, he said to me, 'Do you mind if I go out there and work out with the boys?' I was like, 'Yeah,' and I turn around, and he is wearing [his son's] shorts and Nationals shorts and T-shirts. He came out and did a throwing program with his son and spoke to the boys.

"If I had a career like my dad, I would be beyond happy. But at the same time, I don't want to be my dad."

Mariano Rivera III

"He talked to them about being good teammates and how amazing it was to have [Derek] Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte [alongside him]. Those guys were all about the team. The message to the boys was it is about the team. It is not about yourself. You want to get yourself better, but it is about the team concept, and how he presented it was amazing."

The younger Rivera's minor league teammates seem to like him because he plays down his name. His roommate, Rhett Wiseman, grew up near Boston. Wiseman joked that his roommate's dad "caused me a lot of tears." He has noticed that Rivera doesn't flaunt his father's legend.

"I think it is great that he is with the Nationals," Wiseman said. "It gives him the opportunity to create his own path. He is a very independent guy. He doesn't say, 'I'm Mariano. Give me this.' He is not entitled. He works for everything he gets."

So far, this has meant not throwing the cutter, his father's signature pitch. He has worked on it and tried out some grips but so far is sticking with his 91 mph slider.

"He wanted to create his own legacy," Wiseman said. "I think it took him a couple of years [to decide] that it is a pitch I want to add, I'm ready to add."

Rivera said he has not added a cutter, but you can imagine that might be the next step in his maturation as a closer.

He is also not your average prospect -- and not just because of his name. Because he didn't go through the manufactured, for-profit grinder of youth baseball, his arm might be in better shape.

"He's got a fresh arm, that's for sure," said Narron, who pitched a single game in the majors in 2004 with the Texas Rangers. "You have a lot of guys here, you have some mileage on their arm. Everything is new to him. You get some guys who are jaded because they are like, 'I've played forever. I've played since I was 5.' Everything is new to him, so he wants to get as much information as he can. He is a sponge out there."

Narron notices how Rivera reacts to crowds. There are more fans who want his autograph and picture because of his father.

"You see how he handles that. It is unbelievable," Narron said. "He does a tremendous job with that little bit of weight on his shoulders. From what I have seen, he has handled it as well any human being could be expected to handle it."

The funny thing is that the old tale about his father is how he found 3 miles per hour on his fastball in the minors. Rivera credited it to God. It is part of his legend. There is something funny about the young Rivera's story too. When you talk to him, he has the same grace as his father. He is very polite. As hard as he tries not to be, he is very much like his old man.

His story -- if he makes the majors -- could be just as remarkable as his dad's, a man who was just honored with a plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park.

"If I had a career like my dad, I would be beyond happy," Rivera said. "But at the same time, I don't want to be my dad."