Sunday, May 27, 2018
Sports

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.

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