WASHINGTON — Retired New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday at a White House ceremony where President Donald Trump commended his record-setting career and philanthropic work.
“His dominance on the mound mesmerized fans,” Trump said of the Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, who played for the Yankees for 19 seasons.
Rivera, 49, is the latest professional athlete selected by Trump to receive the nation's highest civilian award.
In a nod to the All-Star player’s nickname “the Sandman,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” song was played in the White House East Room, much as it was played when he took to the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium.
“He may be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball,” Trump said in a speech that touched on some of Rivera’s on-field highlights.
The president noted his own attendance at many Yankees games and touted Rivera’s work establishing an evangelical church.
Rivera was joined by his wife, three children and former Yankees manager Joe Torre.
“For me it’s an honor and a privilege to receive this award … all I did was try to be the best and do the best for America,” said Rivera, a native of Panama who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2015.
Rivera, spoke of his frustration not knowing English when he first joined the minor leagues, and his journey to learn the language.
“I’m proud to be an American,” Rivera said, before Trump placed the medal on his neck.
Rivera, who serves as a co-chair of the President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, told Fox News in July that he regarded Trump as a "friend of mine before he became president."
Asked about his support for Trump, Rivera told Fox News at the time: “Because he's president I will turn my back on him? No. I respect him, I respect what he does … I believe that he's doing the best for the United States of America.”
Rivera played for the Yankees from 1995 through 2013, when he retired as a five-time World Series champion with 13 All-Star Game appearances to his name. He served as the team's closer for 17 seasons and is Major League Baseball's career leader in games saved and games finished.
Earlier this year, Rivera was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and became the first player to ever be elected unanimously for the honor by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
At the time of Rivera's induction, Trump said on Twitter that Rivera is "not only a great player but a great person."
In a statement, the White House said Rivera was being honored in part for his philanthropic work via his namesake charity, the Mariano Rivera Foundation.
“He has provided education and inspiration to children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, empowering them to achieve better futures,” the White House said. “The United States proudly honors Mariano Rivera for being a legend of the game of baseball and for his commitment to improving America’s communities.”
Since taking office, Trump has bestowed the Medal of Freedom to 12 Americans, including seven athletes. In the past year, Trump has awarded the medal to golfer Tiger Woods and former NBA players Jerry West and Bob Cousy.