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.
That should have been goosebumpingly evident on the night he and the Bronx parted ways. In a farewell scene that ranks among the most chilling and dramatic of all time — in any sport or life endeavor, really — Rivera was saluted with a warm, wild and deafening four-minute salute Thursday night. Few of us were around for Lou Gehrig’s speech or Babe Ruth’s goodbye, but it’s hard to believe the old Yankee Stadium rocked with more love and noise and tears than the new place did for Rivera. The avalanche started with two out in the ninth inning of an otherwise meaningless game, with playoff-bound Tampa Bay winning 4-0, meaning no save situation for the master. It was time to remove him so he could receive his last standing ovation from Yankees fans who have come to adore him like few others in the pantheon of New York sports greats.
But it wasn’t manager Joe Girardi who bounded from the dugout. Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, who grew up with Rivera in pinstripes and won five World Series with him, came out to remove him. It was then that the unshakable pillar did something we weren’t sure was possible: He bawled his eyes out, hugging Pettitte for dear life for 30 seconds before moving on to a bear hug with Jeter. People like to hate all things New York. Please. This was an act of Broadway that no other town could pull off, anywhere. Girardi hatched the idea on the fly in the eighth inning, and he wasn’t certain Major League Baseball rules would allow it.
He asked plate umpire Laz Diaz, who conferred with crew chief Mike WInters. They said OK. “Then I said, `Well, can I send two?’ and they said, `Well, go ahead,’ ” said Girardi, per the Associated Press. “And I really appreciate (that), because I think it made the moment even more special for Mo.” Even if it wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up, come on, what kind of killjoy stops such a dazzling, unforgettable final twist? Rivera didn’t stop crying for several minutes, until he sat alone in the dugout with a towel, and even then, the sellout crowd wouldn’t stop roaring or even think about sitting down until he emerged for one last curtain call.
“I was bombarded with emotion and feelings that I couldn’t describe,” Rivera said afterward. “Everything hit at that time. I knew that was the last time. Period. I never felt like that before.”
Said Pettitte, who also is retiring as the Yankees face a crossroads offseason unlike any they’ve ever faced: “I didn’t say anything at first, and I didn’t expect for him to be quite so emotional. He broke down and just gave me a bear hug, and I just bear-hugged him back. He was really crying. He was weeping, and I could feel him crying on me.”
Rivera wasn’t finished. When the ceremony ended and the fans filed out for the winter, he walked to his workplace, kneeled and pawed at the pitching mound. He needed a souvenir. “I wanted to get some dirt, just stay there for the last time, knowing that I ain’t going to be there no more, especially pitching,” he said. “Maybe throw a first pitch one year, one day. But competing — won’t be there no more. So that little that I was there was special for me.”
So perfect, to the last moment.
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 World Series title 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 Jeter and 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,” 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 AP. “He’s one of the greatest people in the game as far as how he handles himself, how humble he is, how 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 final week at the Stadium right. For a 50-minute ceremony Sunday, 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.