Make us your home page
Instagram

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

After handling life's curveballs, baseball's a breeze for Florida C Mike Rivera

GAINESVILLE — Mike Rivera sat on his parents' bed, knowing something was wrong.

For months, his mother, Maria, had told him she had just a mild liver problem. But as the months passed, he'd seen her skin fade and become bruised. He'd cut class while he was a senior at Venice High School in 2013-14 to drive her to doctor appointments. He'd noticed his mother losing hair, weight and confidence in her own diagnosis.

After enrolling at the University of Florida on a baseball scholarship, he returned home early in his freshman year and sat down with his mom, dad and sister, Elsie. His grandma was also at the family's house but not present.

"I knew this was gonna be something that isn't good news if I can't even tell my grandma," Elsie said.

But for Elsie and Mike, it was time to learn the truth.

"Cancer," his dad said.

Mike doesn't remember exactly how it was said, but as soon as he heard that word, he left the room. He returned several minutes later to find Elsie, then 16, crying. He hugged her and began asking questions.

"What stage is the liver cancer?"

"What's gonna happen now?"

"What can we do to make sure you're okay?"

Maria needed a transplant, and according to the American Liver Foundation, 1,500 people die every year waiting.

Florida's 2017 baseball season started at 7 p.m. Friday against William and Mary, and Mike, UF's starting catcher, wondered if his mom would be there for that game — or any game.

She certainly tried to continue going to his games at first. Elsie usually would take her under the bleachers to cool her off in the shade. After the games, when the family went out for dinner, similar problems surfaced. Often, this meant taking food to go and eating at their hotel.

But Elsie and Mike said they never saw her get too upset. She tried to stay positive.

"I have a family to raise," Elsie remembers her saying. "My kids are still young. I have to stay here."

She also brought up that she might die.

Mike coped with his mom's diagnosis in three ways.

First, he cried. Often it came from nowhere when lying in his dorm room bed.

Second, he prayed. He said he was always taught to pray in times of distress, but his prayer wasn't one of thanks.

"Why her? With all the bad people in this world, why her?"

Third, he told no one, except for his girlfriend.

At school, Mike felt guilty about not being there for his mom.

"I always had to tell him every detail," Elsie said. "Even if it was something my parents didn't want him to know."

Through those calls, prayers and tears, Mike also was busy becoming a mainstay in the Gators' lineup. He helped the Gators advance to Omaha for the College World Series in his first two seasons. He was set to leave for the second trip in June 2016 when his dad called.

Minutes earlier, back at the family's home in Venice, Maria had gone into her bedroom to take a call from Gainesville. She came out crying.

"What's wrong?" Elsie asked. "Mom, what's wrong?"

"They have a liver ready," she answered.

The trio hopped in the car and headed toward UF Health Shands in Gainesville. On the way, they stopped to get gas.

In Gainesville, Mike's phone rang. He wondered why his dad would be calling at 11 p.m., especially since they'd talked earlier. He picked up and heard laughter.

"What are you laughing about?" Mike asked.

"Your mom," his dad answered before telling him they were on their way.

Once again, Mike cried.

"That was instant," he said.

Maria's surgery was scheduled for around 7 a.m. but kept getting pushed back. Eventually, it was time for Mike to leave for Omaha.

His family forced him to go, saying there was nothing he could do at the hospital. So he went.

That night, he looked up at the fireworks from the opening ceremony knowing that at the same moment, his mom was in surgery.

If anything goes wrong, he thought, it could all be over.

But right before Florida took the field the next day against Coastal Carolina, he got a call from his dad, who put his mom — still hooked up to various tubes and machines — on the phone.

"I love you," she rasped. "Everything went well."

Eight months later, Maria, now 46, is still doing well. She takes 17 pills a day to ensure her body doesn't reject her new organ. Friday night, after her two-year struggle, she planned to be back in the stands to watch Mike play.

Mike is happy to talk about his mom now that she's okay. And when he looked up into the stands to see her, he hoped the tears wouldn't resurface.

After handling life's curveballs, baseball's a breeze for Florida C Mike Rivera 02/17/17 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2017 9:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. USF to face Indiana in men's basketball next season

    College

    The USF men's basketball team will get an early test from a Big Ten powerhouse next season.

  2. Rays employee helps save suicidal woman near Pittsburgh stadium

    Blogs

    A Rays front-office employee joined umpire John Tumpane in saving a woman threatening to jump from a bridge near PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

    Multimedia production manager Mike Weinman, 32 (left), was walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge with boss Larry McCabe when he saw three men …

  3. Blake Snell struggles in return as Rays fall to Pirates

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH

    Blake Snell talked a good game ahead of his return to the Rays rotation Wednesday night, but he didn't pitch one.

    The Pirates’ David Freese scores on a Blake Snell wild pitch during the first inning against the Rays.
  4. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Wednesday's Rays-Pirates game

    The Heater

    Corey Dickerson is doing everything he can to garner All-Star votes heading into tonight's voting cutoff, going into play Wednesday leading the AL with 101 hits and rapping two more his first two times up, and scoring two more runs.

  5. College World Series title puts Florida Gators in elite company

    College

    The Florida Gators put themselves in rare company with Tuesday night's College World Series national championship victory.

    Florida ace and Tampa native Alex Faedo (21) lets loose with his teammates after they win the Gators’ first baseball national title.