What is so exquisitely impossible about the epic career of the Panamanian fisherman’s son, Mariano Rivera, isn’t his 652 saves, though the record is untouchable forevermore. Or that he did it all with basically one pitch, a cut fastball, thrown at speeds that didn’t shatter the radar gun or even overheat it. Or that he just happened to inherit No. 42 before Major League Baseball immortalized it, making him the last player who’ll wear Jackie Robinson’s number.
No, what should not happen and could not happen, happened. Somehow, a performer reached the zenith of his craft in New York, remained there for 19 years, and not once — in a cutthroat sports-and-media culture that exists to sabotage legacies and drag its heroes into scandals, sometimes for no good reason — has a single bad thing ever been uttered about him. Really. if you can find one, let me know, but I’ve looked and asked and Google-searched.
In fact, the only aspect of his magnificent run that doesn’t quite jibe, that counters the prevailing gospel of RIvera meaning “perfect career” in Spanish, is the damned song. I can dig a slammin’ dose of heavy metal as much as anyone, but for Rivera to enter games in the Bronx all these seasons accompanied by that ominous guitar strain … and then the thrashing riffs … and then the drums … and then that fourth-bottle-of-Jack-at-4-a.m. voice …
“Enter Sandman,” Mariano Rivera’s theme song.
This is a man who has been married since 1991 to the woman he met in elementary school. This is a man who was born again at 21, scribbles Bible verses on his glove, invests his money in church startups and rehabs and wants to spend the rest of his life helping children. And yet his signature ninth-inning music, from Metallica, begins with “Say your prayers little one” … slides into “Heavy thoughts tonight .. And they aren’t of Snow White … Dreams of war … Dreams of lies … Dreams of dragons fire … And of things that will bite, yeah.”
Incongruous as all of that has been — his preference is Christian music — Rivera took us off to never never land more than any other relief pitcher in baseball history and, when you think about, more than anyone else in the annals of sport who has been responsible for closing out the competition. The Yankees came up with “Enter Sandman” in 1999 because the year before, in winning their second of five World Series titles with Rivera, they’d heard Trevor Hoffman serenaded with AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” in San Diego. So they wanted their own closer anthem, and it became the accompaniment for the player who has dominated his position as expertly as any all-time athletic great. Rivera grew to like how he was identified with the song, not that he ever let it pump him up into some Incredible Hulk frenzy, as some athletes do when stadium tunes are cranked.
“When you start thinking, a lot of things will happen,” he once said, explaining his mound comportment. “If you don’t control your emotions, your emotions will control your acts, and that’s not good.”
He is revered universally, receiving standing ovations throughout North America during his season-long farewell tour, because he’s as genuine as he is reliable. The perception of a sports god often only scratches the surface of a bigger phony underneath. Rivera? He has achieved his supremacy with dignity, grace and humility, almost unheard of in a little boys’ sport where purpose pitches lead to fights and long memories. The Yankees used to be the most hated of American sports teams. Rivera, along with Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Joe Torre, made them prouder and even likable during a championship reign that ended officially, and abruptly, with their elimination from the playoff race this week.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, “but the way he has gone about his business is something you wish everyone could do. I would tell my son or my kids this is an example of how you’re supposed to go about your work.”
“It’s a credit to not just his talent but to who he is,” said San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, per the Associated Press. “He’s one of the greatest people in the game as far as how he handles himself, how humble he is, how well respected and revered he is by all the other clubs.”
Only Rivera would insist that his final go-around, to 18 ballparks in 17 cities, include goodbye meetings with common folks he knew. Not movie stars or team owners or politicians, but equipment men, hot-dog vendors and fans in the $8 seats, many of whom he got to know during his long big-league journey. He also ached to meet with people he wanted to help — sick kids, the bombing victims in Boston, families in need. “The legacy I want to leave,” he told USA Today last week, “is that I was there for others.”
He doesn’t just mean the 24 teammates in pinstripes, whom he wrapped in a security blanket when it mattered most with 42 postseason saves. Rivera is driven to use his baseball success and fame to inspire others. Baseball has known no better ambassador, and while he’ll try to hang around the game in retirement, he has larger plans. Part of it involves immersing himself in his family — his wife, Clara, and three sons (ages 19 to 10). But his mission is to point all kids in the right direction, through his church work.
“I want kids to be able to do whatever they want in sports, follow their dream,” Rivera told USA Today. “Teach them baseball. Give back to the community. That’s what has value. If you don’t want to hear it, too bad, I’m going to tell them. That’s what matters. This (baseball) will pass.”
He is 43 and performing like he could pitch until he’s 50. With 44 saves and a 2.15 ERA, RIvera has been so good this season that Girardi suggested he might ask him to return next season. RIvera shut down that ninth-inning threat before it could get started: No. “In our lifetime, I don’t know if we’ll be able to say another pitcher did what he’s done,” Girardi said. “We have watched something that is truly special.”
A man moves on, but the memories of Rivera will be vast and permanent. The shame is that the aging, broken-down Yankees crashed and didn’t let him have one final October taste. Seems they even botched Mariano Rivera Bobblehead Night, with a late truck delivery turning the distribution process into a nightmare. “If I was (in charge), it would have been done,” said RIvera, who was concerned enough about a chaotic stadium scene that he asked team management about it, according to ESPN.com. “There were just so many things — it’s unfortunate so many things happened. Car broke, truck broke, never got here in time.”
He was stunned so many fans wanted his bobblehead. He shouldn’t have been. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? I saw, they showed a view from the outside,” Rivera told the media. “And my god, there were like 1,000 people there. Amazing. Amazing.”
But the team did get his last Yankee Stadium hurrah right. For the 50-minute ceremony, the Yankees brought in Metallica, set up the band on an outfield stage and let Rivera hear “Enter Sandman” live. “For you, Mariano,” singer James Hetfield said in tribute.
“The whole thing was special. I wasn’t expecting something like that,” said Rivera, who was saluted by former Yankees teammates and a packed house of fans. “A lot of emotions. It was more than what I was thinking.”
It might have been fun to see Rivera respond with an air-guitar solo. But that would have been a departure from the perfect career. And that’s why he had the perfect career to begin with, because he never wavered as a beacon of trust, faith and dependability. Savior is an overused description in my profession.
Mariano RIvera, in baseball and life, is a savior.