I’ve been meaning to write a post on the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera ever since I started this blog. Much to the chagrin of my Minnesotan friends, I grew up a diehard Yankees fan, and my earliest baseball memories are of their late 1990s dynasty. Derek Jeter was, naturally, my childhood idol, and I still have a deep respect the Yankee captain; I’m sure I’ll write some glowing words when he retires, too. But as I grew older and more jaded, my pantheon of athletes whom I was willing to call a hero slowly shrank to include just one man. That man is Mariano Rivera.
Writing this post wasn’t easy, in large part because I’m not sure what I have to say that hasn’t already been said. Dave D’Alessandro wrote a masterful column about Rivera in 2011, and the god of all sportswriters, the 93-year-old Roger Angell, used Sunday’s game to remind the rest of us mere mortals of our places. I could trail on about his dominance, both across 19 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, or wax about that single pitch he used to it all, that untouchable cutter. There are the five World Series championships, the All-Star games, and the admirable sendoffs heaped upon him by his opponents over the course of this season’s long good-bye. (The Twins’ “chair of broken dreams,” made entirely of bats broken by Rivera’s cutter, was the best gift he got.) There are also those few moments when some emotion snuck out from behind his serene façade, like when he flopped over in exhausted ecstasy on the Yankee Stadium mound after three shutout innings in the 2003 ALCS against Boston, or his composure when the Red Sox finally got to him the next year. There is also his winning smile, his profound faith, his care for his Panamanian hometown, and his farewell tour in which he spent time with the unrecognized workers and fans at every park. D’Alessandro nails it: Rivera’s statistics are phenomenal, but he became the most universally adored ballplayer in an otherwise troubled era because of his character, his class, and his dignity.
Better writers who know Rivera far better than I do have told those stories superbly, so I’ll settle for simply sharing a memory. I’ve been to a ton of baseball games over the years, including a number of very memorable ones; many stars in their prime have had great days, and I’ve seen some extra-inning marathons and some brutal weather. I saw one of Roger Clemens’ tries at a 300th win in person, and any Yankees fan’s first trip to Yankee Stadium (the old one in particular, though the first visit to the new one was pretty cool, too) has to rank right up there among one’s favorite baseball moments.
But my most cherished memory is one that, on the surface, appears utterly mundane. It happened during my first ever Yankees game, a 2000 win against the Twins. The game itself was smooth sailing for the Yankees, and the paltry Metrodome crowd included more backers of the Bronx Bombers than loyalists to the hometown team. My seat, however, was not terribly far from the Yankee bullpen, and in the top of the ninth, the last ballplayer to ever wear number forty-two rose to his feet and began to warm up.
It was as if the entire game behind him had stopped. My ten-year-old self was absolutely mesmerized. While Rivera was great at the time, he was still a few years away from being as universally lauded as he is today. But even then, there was something different about him. His windup was swift and graceful, yet he unleashed the ball with so much power that it popped in the catcher’s glove in a way no other pitcher’s did. He was the platonic ideal of a ballplayer, and only a handful of other modern athletes can match that blend of dominance and aesthetic beauty embodied by the lanky Panamanian with a soothingly smooth name. Perhaps Lionel Messi, though he still has years to go before he is on Rivera’s level of consistency; perhaps Roger Federer in his prime, but he rose and then began to decline all while Rivera kept plugging away. He leaves the game at age 43, just as dominant as he was when he first settled into his setup role in 1996. It is never fun to watch a former great tail off and struggle some at the end of his career with some other team, as with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre; Rivera didn’t do that. He simply remained Mariano Rivera.
No one does ceremonies quite like the Yankees, and Rivera had his Lou Gehrig moment in front of the fans last Sunday in the Bronx. They trotted out all of the greats of the 1990s dynasty, deluged him in gifts, unveiled his Monument Park plaque, brought in Metallica to give a live rendition of “Enter Sandman,” and even Jackie Robinson’s family took the field to honor the man worthy of being the last to ever wear wearing Jackie’s number. It went for fifty minutes, yet Rivera’s surprise and gratitude never wavered. On the same day, Yankee great Andy Pettitte made his final home start in the Bronx, and he was almost an afterthought. Yet Pettitte wanted it that way, and in fact only announced his retirement because Rivera told him to; so great was his respect for Rivera that he didn’t want to steal a second of his time.
Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” to be showered with such praise, but with Mariano, one got the sense that there was never all that much luck involved. He is a reminder of everything that is good about sports; the sort of human being who deserves every ounce of recognition and fame he’s received, a poor Panamanian kid who used a silly game to make something of himself, and to inspire millions.
His mantra was a simple one.
I know where I come from. And when you always have in mind where you come from, the rest will be easy.
We’re going to miss you, Mariano.
Photos from yankees.com.