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Monday, October 11, 2004
Rivera says he will be back for Game 1

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said he plans to return from a family funeral in Panama on Tuesday in time for Game 1 of the AL championship series against Boston.

Rivera flew home to comfort relatives after two members of his wife's family were electrocuted in his pool. The ALCS begins Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

"I am going back to New York tomorrow, after the funeral, and rejoin the team," Rivera said Monday outside his home in Puerto Caimito, the fishing village where the accident occurred.

"At this moment, my family is my priority," he said. "I stopped thinking about baseball the moment I got on the plane."

Early Tuesday, Rivera will attend the funeral of Victor Dario Avila, a cousin of Rivera's wife, Clara, and Avila's 14-year-old son. The father was electrocuted when he tried to save his son, also named Victor, while cleaning the pool at the pitcher's home, officials said.

Victor Dario Avila
Avila (son)

Victor Dario Avila
Avila (father)

The Yankees have arranged for a private plane to bring Rivera back to New York.

"I don't want to say he's going to be back tomorrow," Yankees manager Joe Torre said earlier Monday. "If he's here tomorrow, wonderful. If he's not, then we understand that."

Rivera's agent, Fernando Cuza, told The Associated Press in an e-mail that the pitcher "should be back in time" for Game 1.

The local police log on the accident said that a suspended electrical cable fell into the pool while the younger Ayala was in the water and the father jumped in to try to rescue him.

The chief of the local fire department, Luis Felipe Caceres, said the only witness was Denis Ballestero, brother-in-law of Rivera's wife. Ballestero suffered shocks and was released from a hospital.

On Monday, a tarp had been raised in front of the Avila family's small zinc-roofed, concrete-walled house next door to Rivera's mansion.

Eight children, some barefoot, played baseball on a basketball court nearby, using the basket stands as bases. A heavy downpour soon drove them away. Many of the men from the town of 3,500 were at sea, fishing for shrimp.

Rivera's father was a fishermen, as was Avila, who also cleaned and maintained Rivera's home.

"There's great pain in Puerto Caimito because Victor was a very well-liked person in town," said a neighbor, Arnulfo Vega, 52, also a fisherman.

If Rivera doesn't return, it will be the first time since 1997 that Torre won't be able to call on the player who is widely regarded as the best closer in postseason history.

Rivera saved a postseason-record 23 straight games beginning with the first of three straight championships in 1998 and ending in Game 7 of the 2001 series. Rivera has failed to close out a game only three times in 33 postseason opportunities, including Game 2 of the division series against Minnesota last Wednesday.

Rivera learned of the deaths while celebrating with his teammates in the clubhouse after the Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins 6-5 on Saturday to reach the ALCS, with Rivera getting the win.

The Yankees have dealt with adversity in the past during the postseason. In 1996, Torre's brother, Frank, underwent heart transplant surgery, Darryl Strawberry was diagnosed with colon cancer just before the 1998 playoffs started, and Paul O'Neill's father died during the 1999 World Series.

"We've gone down the road with this as other people have on different teams ... But we've been pretty tough, I guess, in situations like this," Torre said.

"I think with Mariano, if he's here, physically tomorrow, he'll say, 'Give me the ball.' And whether it's 100 percent or 50 percent, it's still going to be damned good."