Mr. Trump has been denounced as a bigot by numerous current and former star athletes, though Mr. Rivera is not the only marquee former Yankee to have openly supported Mr. Trump. During the 2016 presidential primary race, the former outfielder Paul O’Neill appeared at a Trump campaign event in what was widely interpreted as a de facto endorsement.
Mr. Trump is a longtime Yankees fan who watched many games with George Steinbrenner, the team’s larger-than-life former owner, and reveled in the presence of one of the franchise’s greatest players. After explaining Mr. Rivera’s nickname to the assembled audience, which in addition to Mr. Pence included Attorney General William P. Barr, he made sure to underscore his own fandom.
“A lot of people don’t know that, but the Yankee fans know that,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ve watched it for a long time.”
He also recalled with fondness another Yankee immortal, Mr. Ruth, to whom he awarded his first Presidential Medal of Freedom in November. “The Babe — oh, we love the Babe,” Mr. Trump said. “What a swing the Babe had. That old corkscrew swing, right? Nobody could figure him out either.”
The Yankees signed Mr. Rivera in 1990 for about $2,000, but he wound up earning about $170 million over 19 major league seasons, before retiring in 2013. With a signature cut fastball and unflappable demeanor under pressure, Mr. Rivera, 49, earned a record 652 saves, with another 42 in the postseason, and this year became the first unanimous inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mr. Trump held no Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies during his first year as president, and just one last year, in which he bestowed them upon seven recipients en masse. Group ceremonies are the modern presidential norm — President Barack Obama once granted 21 in a single day — but Mr. Trump has said he prefers individual celebrations of achievement.
Over the summer, he awarded the medal to two retired basketball heroes, to Bob Cousy on Sept. 6 and to Jerry West on Aug. 22. Mr. Cousy is an open supporter of the president, and the pro golfer Tiger Woods, to whom Mr. Trump granted the medal in May, is a friend and business associate.